The DLC “Problem”
If you mention DLC (downloadable content) to the modern gamer, you’re sure to get an impassioned response. Season Pass DLC is even more polarizing, with recent games like Arkham Knight, Star Wars Battlefront, and Fallout 4 all receiving heavy criticism for their pricey and confusing passes.
But is DLC always bad? Is there a way developers can use it that doesn’t frustrate their customers?
Why DLC is here to stay
Aside from the proliferation of online connections, DLC is so ubiquitous due to simple economics. Gamers often lament the lack of innovation in modern gaming, but it’s the high cost of developing AAA titles that makes companies so risk-adverse. DLC is a way for companies to make a little more money on their standard game.
A new AAA game retails for about $60, which is the industry standard and has been for years. Over the past three decades, new game prices have only fluctuated from about $50 to $70. If we take inflation into account, a $50 game in 1990 would cost the same as a $93 game today. That means, relatively speaking, new games are cheaper than ever.
Also, consider that these old titles usually only lasted a few hours. A modern game is expected to contain at least 10 hours of gameplay to justify a full $60 price tag, and that’s on the shorter side. Creating a contemporary $60 game takes a lot of production, actors, animators, and coders. It’s no stretch to say AAA games are bigger and more expensive to produce than ever.
This is where paid DLC comes into play. Publishers and developers are simply using the modern online landscape to recoup some of the natural deficit that comes with game creation. When disgruntled gamers complain that companies are being greedy by offering paid DLC, they’re kind of missing the point.
The only way that companies will stop trying to get a little extra from customers is if the price of a base game went up dramatically. Would you prefer the average new release to cost $90 if it would guarantee no DLC? Do you think that is more consumer-friendly than having a cheaper price at first and then giving gamers the option to pay for more content? When you consider the relatively great deal gaming has become, and how DLC plays a role in allowing that, it can seem downright consumer-friendly.
When DLC goes wrong
Despite the financial justifications, DLC still has a dark side. On-disc DLC is hated because, theoretically, if the content is on the disc, there’s no reason why it can’t be included in the main game. It is especially problematic when the on-disc content seems like it makes the game complete. In this case, DLC isn’t really downloadable, it’s just unlockable behind a pay-wall. DLC should always feel like bonus content. The “extra” factor is part of what makes DLC appealing. If the content is perceived as something that should be standard, the DLC should probably be free or included in the main game.
Pay-to-win DLC in competitive games is even worse. Notice that I specified competitive games. DLC options to fast-track unlocks in a single player game or to add purely superficial bonuses are completely acceptable. People have been paying extra to cheat in their own games since the days of the Gameshark. It becomes problematic, however, when a competitive edge (like faster online leveling) is given to people who pay extra for DLC. Pay-to-win ties money to victory, which is the type of cold capitalistic world that we often try to escape by playing games.
DLC also needs to be priced fairly. When DLC first became common, nobody really knew what its value was because there were no standards. Does a new multiplayer map or two really justify paying an additional $15? Are superficial additions ever worth paying for? Horse armor, anyone?
What’s “worth it” is different for different people, but if companies are charging more than a few dollars for additional content, it better add enough to the game to justify that price tag.
One of the biggest issues with modern paid DLC is that the customer does not always know what he or she is buying. A new level may be much shorter than expected. It could also be much worse than the main game. (Harley Quinn’s Revenge in Arkham City, for example.) This is even worse when it comes to season passes, which often don’t detail all the content they contain. It’s likely a customer will want some of the included content, but not all of it. How can consumers confidently buy it all without knowing what they’re getting?
The idea behind season passes is that they are discounted compared to buying the content individually, but that still is not a good reason to keep us guessing about what that content actually is. I understand the element of surprise is nice, but when it comes to spending money, transparency is more important.
Think of it like grocery shopping. There’s no mystery involved when buying the value-sized bag of chips at a supermarket. You’re getting a discount per chip by buying more at once, but you still know that you’re buying more chips, not a bag of chips that may have some peanuts secretly mixed in. It shouldn’t be any different with season passes.
If you don’t know what the season pass contains, you’re buying simply based on your trust in the developers to give you meaningful content for your money. It’s almost like investing in a Kickstarter.
Time is another factor that separates the good DLC from the bad. DLC that is actually new content developed after the release of the game can take some time to produce and release. Unfortunately, if it takes too long to come out, the initial game owners may have moved on before the content is available.
This is one of the major issues with Star Wars: Battlefront’s DLC plan. In a primarily online multiplayer game, will there be enough players still playing it a year from now when the final DLC is released? Are you willing to buy a season pass now and gamble that you’ll still care about getting more content in a year? Paid DLC in multiplayer games also has the troubling side effect of splitting the game’s player base, which is potentially crippling to the entire game.
The other issue with late-arriving DLC is that it often penalizes the early adopters who bought the game at full price. Not only is it less likely they’ll still be playing the game when the late DLC comes out, but they also will have to suffer the indignity of seeing a “game of the year” edition come out shortly thereafter.
GoTY versions of games usually include all of the DLC along with the original game in a hugely discounted package. This is a slap in the face to the game’s most fervent fans who bought the game at release for full price. Normal price drops usually punish early adopters for their impatience, but these packages are especially insulting because at the time of the GoTY release, the same add-on content is usually still full-price online for those who already own the game.
I propose that every time a GoTY edition is released, all the included DLC should be free or steeply discounted for the players who bought the game in the original release window. This may not be the best or only solution, but something should be done to keep GoTY editions from punishing a game’s biggest fans who were willing to buy the game new.
A new season pass controversy
If DLC pricing wasn’t already controversial enough, Bethesda has just opened a can of worms by altering the pricing of their Fallout 4 season pass after it was already available to purchase. Their reasoning is that they will add more content than originally planned to the season pass and its price will be adjusted accordingly. This caused many fans to cry foul, but maybe that’s a knee-jerk reaction.
Bethesda has promised that old purchases of their pricey pass will include the new content. Even better, they were willing to honor the old price tag all the way through February despite publicly announcing the rising price early in the month. Of course, this could have been a ploy to sell a bunch of passes in February, but it still sounds like a good deal. Unfortunately, details about what the additional content will include are vague. I guess the real question is how much do you trust Bethesda?
A lot of DLC purchases depend on how you feel about the companies involved. You can get burned bad by deals, but you also can have faith in your favorite company and get rewarded with meaningful content for a fair price.
For example, I trusted Rocksteady and knew going in that I’d want all the possible content for Arkham Knight. When its first round of DLC was released, many people were upset at its brevity. But by the time the fantastic Season of Infamy finale came out, the total pass content more than delivered on its advertised value.
Companies are still trying to get DLC right, but it does nobody any good to make blanket statements that all of it is bad or that it is killing the industry. In some ways, it allows the industry to survive. There is even a place for the much-maligned season passes as long as they are presented in a transparent way and offer a real discount. DLC isn’t going away any time soon, so instead of complaining about it all the time, let’s try to praise good DLC practices as much as we trash missteps.
Do you agree that not all DLC is bad, or would you rather have games cost $90 and never have to worry about DLC? Let me know in the comments.