So, it’s Assassin’s Creed week for me and though I’ve not received my games from Amazon as I write this, I’m pretty stoked. Well, stoked enough to use the word “stoked” in polite company.
But talk about the game in various circles the last week inevitably led to a discussion of DLC — the downloadable content add-ons game publishers use to entice gamers or squeeze more money out of their customers. Specifically, the discussion began with the dismay in certain circles that the brand has a tie-in with Edge Shave Gel. Buy a can, get a piece of gear also available in the DLC season pass. But besides Ubisoft’s usual blindspot regarding its female fans, this is a fairly benign promotion. The gear is available elsewhere (with a whole lot more) and if it had not been brought to my attention, I’d never know Edge had an game tie-in promotion.
Others see it as the End of Everything.
And, to be fair, DLC is often problematic. The racing and sports genres have been destroyed with publishers nickle-and-diming fans for add-on tires or players that are hard-coded on the disc, but locked behind an additional pay-wall. Keep in mind these games are $60 to start. I’m not much of a fan of either genre, so the impact is much less on me, but let’s look at a game I actually like and how its DLC changes the game.
Every single piece of single-player content EA made available for Mass Effect 3 felt like core content held back from the game so the publisher could charge an extra $5.99 per release. Now, I’ve seen the production flow chart and I know that DLC material is often based on early ideas the developer had to abandon for scheduling reasons … but why, in this particular game, does everything — including the DLC pack that’s just Shepard and his/her crew partying — feel so essential?
When it was first released, fans griped about the fact Javik the Prothean, a playable character, was hidden behind a $10 day-one DLC payment (or the $70 Collector’s Edition release). While it’s possible to play the game without him, the depth he adds to the game is pretty astounding. I’m tempted to even say it’s core as Javik’s story is thematically essential to Mass Effect 3. And thinking about it now, most of the Mass Effect 2 DLC was essential as it set-up where certain characters would be at the start of the third game.
Outside of sports and racing titles, the Mass Effect series is the most egregious abuser of DLC, but there are a few cases where major publishers, even EA, deploy it effectively.
Dragon Age: Origins: Other issues aside, the first Dragon Age title featured a day-one DLC that was A.) free and B.) rewarded customer loyalty. Offered in an insert boxed with the game was a code for an armor set that would unlock in both DA:O and Mass Effect 2. The company also offered “The Stone Prisoner” as free add-on content that unlocked the playable character Shale and added a couple of hours to the gameplay. This, to me, is an excellent use of DLC. The publishers combat stores like Gamestop, who encourage customers to buy used games, by offering a little extra freebie for buying new. That content is available to those who buy used (at an additional cost), but it at least offers a sometimes compelling enticement. EA also got this right with Mass Effect 2‘s Cerebus Network and included extras. Other titles like Arkham City and its follow-up, Arkham Origins, also used this tactic effectively.
Though a couple of the add-on packs — including a second day one release — were designed as part of the core-game, the majority of Dragon Age DLC content packs (as opposed to armor sets or promotional tie-in items) add to the post-game state. Campaigns like “The Golems of Amgarrak” and “Witch Hunt” explicitly take place after the main game has ended. Additional story content DLC include an alternate history campaign and one set in another character’s youth. To me, these are reasonable paid DLC because they extend the game. They offer stories that could not happen in the core gameplay and present a separate experience.
Assassin’s Creed: For the most part, DLC for this series also offers separate experiences. The major Black Flag add-on is a compelling, if occasionally tone-deaf, adventure staring the equally compelling Assassin Adéwalé as he goes on a quest to free slaves and route slavers from the Caribbean. A Revelations DLC pack sees you reliving Subject 16’s time at Abstergo. Assassin’s Creed 3‘s only substantial DLC quest pack features an episodic alternate history that pits an untrained Ratonhnhaké:ton against King George Washington. Like the Dragon Age DLC, none of these missions are essential to the core game, but offer interesting additions to the series.
Now, the series also offers gear packs, multiplayer whatsits, platform-specific exclusives and even shortcut packs. So, there’s plenty of bad in their DLC options, but the marquee stuff, the material worth paying $7-14 for, is generally worthwhile.
Grand Theft Auto: In its High-Def series, the GTA franchise has also offered content that sits outside the core game. In IV, it manifested as two separate stories (with new player characters) set in Liberty City. In V, it was an MMO using the core game’s Los Santos setting and mechanics. Neither are essential — granted, very little in GTA IV is essential — but extend the life of the title in interesting ways. Admittedly, I’ve only spent an hour or two in GTA Online because multiplayer, but none of these things matter to the item I actually bought. GTA IV and V exist completely separate from their DLC.
And I suppose that’s the key for me: DLC should be extra. It should never feel essential to the core game, but deepen the experience or offer a new experience in that environment. It can offer new game items, but that shouldn’t be the point. DLC I’m happy to purchase should always be about “plusing,” to steal a term from the Disney Way. To do it any other way (coughEAcough) may help the short-term bottom line, but will eventually break even the hardest of hardcore costumer loyalties.