Once, DLC felt fresh and ex­cit­ing. Now it’s a con­stant headache

Not so long ago, DLC felt fresh and ex­cit­ing. To­day, it’s more like a con­stant headache


Early on in the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, DLC was a fair propo­si­tion: ex­tra con­tent for your favourite games, made in the down­time be­tween projects, and sold on an en­tirely op­tional ba­sis.

“I think adding to game worlds af­ter re­lease is glo­ri­ous,” says Dan Mar­shall, cre­ator of The Swin­dle at Size Five Games. “Any­thing that stops that empty, gut-wrench­ing feel­ing of ‘it’s over’ as the cred­its roll on some­thing you loved is a great thing.”

And so we got fresh maps for Call Of Duty, mas­sive new cam­paigns for Fall­out and Mass Ef­fect, a screw­ball zom­bie spinoff to Red Dead Re­demp­tion, and a side story to Bio Shock 2 that was per­haps bet­ter than the game it­self.

There were speed bumps along the way. Right from the get-go, Obliv­ion’s bizarre horse ar­mour was the most mi­cro of mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. There were com­plaints that con­tent was al­ready baked on the disc and that your pur­chase was lit­tle more than a few-kilo­bytes-big key to un­lock it. And DLC ap­peared so quickly af­ter the game’s launch that it seemed sus­pi­ciously likely it had been held back to be sold separately.

But early ex­per­i­ments in sell­ing ex­tra con­tent was largely in­nocu­ous, and mostly seen as ben­e­fi­cial to play­ers. In re­cent years, how­ever, DLC has be­gun to mu­tate into some­thing new. To­day, this ex­tra con­tent has be­come con­fus­ing, ex­clu­sion­ary, and in­creas­ingly per­ni­cious.

Per­haps the most in­sid­i­ous trend is the move from con­tent to con­sum­ables. Th­ese pur­chases don’t buy you bonus cam­paigns, char­ac­ters and mul­ti­player maps, but one-use items, in-game cur­rency, and in­stant un­locks of hard-to-ob­tain con­tent.

Square Enix sells a $1 ‘head­shot retic­ule’ that helps Lara aim her gun in Tomb Raider, while Ubisoft sells a ‘Pre­mium Health Boost’ to give Arno ex­tra dura­bil­ity for five min­utes. Mor­tal Kom­bat X has easy Fa­tal­i­ties on sale, Dead Space 3 of­fers craft­ing in­gre­di­ents at a pre­mium, and Grand Theft Auto V lets you top up a fake credit card with real money.

When quizzed, pub­lish­ers will of­fer the same de­fence of th­ese ad­dons, like they’re read­ing from a well-worn script. “It’s not about mak­ing more money, it was ac­tu­ally about sav­ing peo­ple’s time when do­ing the grind,” Dan Greenawalt, cre­ative direc­tor at Turn 10, said when quizzed about Forza 5’ s sus­pi­cious mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. Over on Play Sta­tion, Sony’s pres­i­dent of World­wide Stu­dios, Shuhei Yoshida, tweeted that Gran Turismo 6’ s mi­cro­trans­ac­tions were “just of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive path to busy peo­ple”.

And when Plants Vs Zom­bies: Gar­den War­fare retroac­tively added the op­tion to buy your way to un­lock­ing later con­tent, pro­ducer Brian Lind­ley sold it by say­ing, “Now you have the choice to play your way”.

Which seems rea­son­able. “I can see peo­ple want­ing to get through games eas­ier,” Mar­shall says. “They’re a big time in­vest­ment.” But he be­lieves that charg­ing for that is in­ex­cus­able when such routes used to be avail­able for free through op­tions, dif­fi­culty modes and cheat codes, the lat­ter of which are now prac­ti­cally ex­tinct.

Plus, th­ese mi­cro­trans­ac­tions al­ways come with a psy­cho­log­i­cal nag that maybe this stuff isn’t as op­tional as you might think, even if ev­ery pub­lisher will

He be­lieves that charg­ing play­ers is in­ex­cus­able when such op­tions used to be avail­able for free

ar­gue that you can al­ways un­lock it in the course of play. Free-to-play on mo­bile has taught us that de­vel­op­ers won’t get any­where in sell­ing coins and con­sum­ables if the game it­self is too gen­er­ous. Th­ese games must be abra­sive to the touch, with enough grind, or pointy enough dif­fi­culty spikes, to in­spire such a pur­chase.

And when it’s in the game’s best in­ter­ests to in­crease the scarcity of cer­tain re­sources, boost the dif­fi­culty of cer­tain sec­tions, lengthen the grind to get the next car, or re­duce the pay­out of cur­rency in an ef­fort to en­cour­age sales, not ev­ery­one will trust that the de­vel­oper’s in­ten­tions are pure.

“I find it un­ac­cept­able when a game cre­ates a prob­lem and then sells the so­lu­tion,” says Adrian Ch­mielarz, co-owner of The Van­ish­ing Of Ethan Carter stu­dio The As­tro­nauts. “Can­not fin­ish this mission? Buy some tem­po­rary in­vin­ci­bil­ity! Can­not fin­ish a level in 20 moves? Buy ten more moves!”

Those spe­cial ex­tra-pow­ered guns, and all other types of DLC, are as likely to be sold on a con­sole’s web store as they are to be part of ex­clu­sive pre­order deals, or ex­clu­sive to one con­sole or an­other, or sold in glossy spe­cial edi­tions that come with 12-inch fig­urines.

In­creas­ingly, we’re see­ing pub­lish­ers hide the best bits – like a pair of Alien: Iso­la­tion lev­els that let you re­live clas­sic scenes from Ri­d­ley Scott’s orig­i­nal movie, or the op­tion to ‘be’ Goro in Mor­tal Kom­bat X – as well as bal­ance-break­ing ex­tras – like 25 ex­tra lives in Sonic Lost World – in th­ese ex­clu­sion­ary deals.

It’s cer­tainly not to Mar­shall’s taste. “I don’t like the idea of screw­ing over cus­tomers be­cause they favoured Con­sole A over Con­sole B: I want as many peo­ple to en­joy my games as pos­si­ble,” he says. “Pre­order bonuses tie into that. What, so I’m miss­ing out on con­tent in a prod­uct I pur­chased be­cause I couldn’t af­ford the game un­til a month af­ter re­lease? Sod that – that’s just aw­ful.”

Then there are sea­son passes which bring the tu­mul­tuous world of pre­orders to DLC. And they come with the same ups, in­clud­ing Border­lands 2’ s gen­er­ous slate of con­tent and Mario Kart 8’ s clearly ad­ver­tised sched­ule, but the same downs, such as Des­tiny’s dis­ap­point­ingly slim The Dark Be­low pack, and Ubisoft bin­ning As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity’s pass mid-’sea­son’. And if any­one ac­tu­ally bought The Evil Within’s sea­son pass, it’s doubt­ful they were happy to see it go on sale be­fore a sin­gle ex­pan­sion was even re­leased.

If you’re re­ally lucky, a game will try to use ev­ery one of th­ese busi­ness prac­tices: both Evolve and Watch Dogs of­fered such a con­vo­luted mess of bonuses split be­tween plat­forms, sea­son passes and spe­cial edi­tions that con­sumers needed to con­sult charts and FAQs just to fig­ure out how to get hold of ev­ery goodie on of­fer. Nowa­days, re­search­ing a game be­fore pur­chase in­volves far more than sim­ply read­ing re­views.

The rea­sons for the changes we’re see­ing hap­pen in the world of down­load­able con­tent are ob­vi­ous. Sea­son passes stop you sell­ing your game to CEX, pre­order bonuses get you on the hook be­fore the em­bar­goed re­views hit, and spe­cial edi­tions bring in more rev­enue. Or, as Mar­shall puts it, “Games take a lot of money to make”.

“It’s a race to the bot­tom in terms of pric­ing – peo­ple’s Steam li­braries are full to burst­ing with games they haven’t even played yet, and games are go­ing into bun­dles quicker than ever,” he says. “They’re priced low, and have an out­ra­geous mark­down dur­ing sale times, and ‘I’ll wait for a bun­dle or the Steam sale’ is a pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude. You need to sus­tain the com­pany, which means mak­ing money in th­ese other ways.”

And the in­flu­ence of mo­bile, where in-app pur­chases have moved be­yond the point of bound­ary-testing cu­rio to be­come ev­ery­day con­cerns, can’t be un­der­stated. Es­pe­cially when the ‘buy to­kens’ screen in Forza 5 looks prac­ti­cally iden­ti­cal to the same page in EA’s free-to-play iPhone

“You need to sus­tain the com­pany, which means mak­ing money in th­ese other ways”

racer Real Rac­ing 3 and As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity’s mi­cro­trans­ac­tions smell un­mis­tak­ably like the sort of things of­fered in Ubisoft’s cash-hoover­ing iOS of­fer­ings.

Will play­ers put up with the same free-to-play tricks when the game has a £40 en­try fee? Ch­mielarz doesn’t think so. “A lot of peo­ple spend a lot of money on free-to-play or mi­cro­trans­ac­tions and then re­alise it’s all empty mem­o­ries,” he notes. “So they will be much more care­ful in the fu­ture.” How­ever, he warns that “as long as peo­ple keep pay­ing for ex­tra lives or su­per-shields, mi­cro­trans­ac­tions are not go­ing any­where”.

He puts the rea­son­ing be­hind th­ese busi­ness mod­els down to “one group of hu­mans suc­cess­fully ex­ploit­ing cer­tain weak­nesses of an­other group for money. In the case of games, you could write a book or ten on all the psy­cho­log­i­cal tricks used to get peo­ple to spend money on mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. Sadly, be­cause games are a deeply en­gag­ing medium, the ex­ploits are fairly easy to pull off”.

As Ch­mielarz says, so long as peo­ple buy sea­son passes and spe­cial edi­tions and pre­mium health boosts, pub­lish­ers will keep sell­ing them. And we’ll see even more mu­ta­tions in the way DLC is made, ad­ver­tised, and sold.

With Nin­tendo’s Ami­i­bos, for ex­am­ple, we’re see­ing the emer­gence of the ‘plas­tic toy as DLC’ con­cept – once the ex­clu­sive purview of stand­alone games such as Skylanders and Dis­ney In­fin­ity – creep into other gen­res. A Toad Ami­ibo un­locks a spe­cial mode in Cap­tain Toad, a Fire Em­blem Ami­ibo un­locks new he­roes in Code Name:

STEAM, and Spla­toon fig­ures un­lock spe­cial chal­lenges in the gooey Wii U shooter. What will this mean for fu­ture Mario and Zelda games? Bud­gets con­tinue to bal­loon, and games can fail to hit their pub­lish­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions even with mil­lions of sales. Mar­shall is only too aware of the knock-on ef­fects. “I’m not sur­prised to see de­vel­op­ers pok­ing at the walls of what’s ac­cept­able to see what hap­pens,” he says. “They’re think­ing, ‘Can we get away with charg­ing for this? It might help fund the next game’.”

So ex­pect more game pub­lish­ers strik­ing deals with Mi­crosoft and Sony to ar­range plat­form-ex­clu­sive con­tent. More stand­out con­tent held back from regular con­sumers in or­der to ap­pease sea­son­pass hold­ers. More bonus guns and bal­ance-bust­ing ve­hi­cles ex­clu­sively avail­able via some pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive spe­cial edi­tion. And more mi­cro­trans­ac­tions that look to the world of mo­bile for guid­ance on which game fea­tures you can get away with charg­ing for. (Spoiler alert: it’s ev­ery­thing.)

Evolve’s DLC plan led to Tur­tle Rock talk­ing about The Be­he­moth, a post-re­lease DLC ex­clu­sive, weeks be­fore the main game had even launched

Size Five Games’ Dan Mar­shall is cur­rently work­ing on The Swin­dle. Tomb Raider’s ar­ray of DLC of­fers boosts to climb­ing and rate of fire

Mor­talKom­batX’s Goro was only avail­able if you bought the right spe­cial edi­tion from the cor­rect re­tailer. At least Des­tiny’s DLC is avail­able to all

FROM TOP Plants Vs Zom­bies:Gar­den War­fare pro­ducer Brian Lind­ley; Adrian Ch­mielarz of The As­tro­nauts

At launch, there were nine dif­fer­ent edi­tions of Watch­Dogs on shelves and in down­load stores. There were PS4 ex­clu­sives, too, and a sea­son pass

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