Drawing the Line with Video Game DLC

Is DLC worth it? When isn't it? Why do we need to buy more game? All these questions - let's find out.

Downloadable content, or DLC, as it has abbreviated for snappy marketing purposes, is a bit of a contentious issue in the gaming community. In principle, it’s a good thing. The developers produce additional content for a game to buy later, to keep said game relevant and give people who brought the game a reason to come back, and not have the thing sitting on their shelves for months, or traded in after completion. I get that. The first time I properly indulged in DLC was with Fallout: New Vegas (2010). I owned all story expansions and weapon packs. It enhanced the experience and my time spent playing it, though I realised that the game would still be worth its salt without those extras. Had I just stuck to the vanilla version, I don’t feel I’d have been that worse off for it.

But that’s key, isn’t it? That’s where the line has blurred with DLC. It’s a concept that balances on a paradoxical tightrope whereby content should both be something that adds significantly to the game to justify the purchase, but not make those without it feel as though they are playing a lesser version of the same game.

Story expansions are not an issue here. In most cases, they are worth the £10-15.00 you spend, as they can provide an extra five or ten hours of playtime, adding new characters, lore, gameplay mechanics and locations to explore. I’m also not suggesting that the developers, artists, writers and other staff involved in producing this content should not be paid for this additional work. What makes DLC contentious is a cynical approach that certain, big-time developers have taken to hide certain features behind paywalls. Asking the player to pay a fee, for example, to unlock a difficulty mode, when you’ve just put £50.00 down to play the damn thing in the first place. It’s just not on. Or perhaps certain guns can’t be used in FPS games unless you buy them or, less bad but still despicable, being available as pre-order bonuses.

Inherently, what makes the choice to lock these features behind a paywall is not that a fee has been requested. What frustrates me as a player is when the only way I can access these features is if I pay up. I remember in the good old days, when if you wanted the best weapon, or to unlock the hardest difficulty, you had to earn it. You had to play the game and find out how to unlock it. Remember when you first unlocked the BFG in the original Doom (1993). The plasma green explosion and the splattering of demon corpses. Yeah mate, I earned that, you would think. Now, in some games, the only way you can get hold of the best features is to open your wallet, with no other option to earn them, like the trooper you are.

Why do the makers of video games do this? We live in a world where CD Projekt Red were lauded for releasing several free DLC for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015), such as additional missions and attires, when other companies would have charged. Well, simply, it works.

Locking out features until you pay for them is a tactic that makes players feel the feature is a must have. Metro: Last Light (2013), had its hardest difficulty, ‘Ranger Mode’, sold for £5.00, and it was touted as ‘the way it was meant to be played,’ indicating that the fact you had paid for the game in the first place did not entitle you to the preeminent experience. It’s the whole FOMO (fear of missing out) thing the kids are saying. The mindset of paying a bit more to get the enhanced experience is often exploited. I remember playing Assassins Creed: Unity (2014) and buying a weapon from the e-shop. I genuinely believed that it would be superior to the base weapons in the game. It wasn’t and I’m an idiot for being naïve enough to believe that.  If ‘Ranger Mode’ was the best way to play the game, should it not be a standard feature in that case?

In the case of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that game didn’t need to sell those little extras as DLC. They could have, to recuperate some of the money put into making the thing. But it was a statement. It was CD Projekt Red telling us, ‘look guys, this game right here, it’s a premier experience. You can have these little bits and pieces, but you don’t need them, because the game will still be awesome.’ Sure, they went on to release two major story expansions, but it was as though the game didn’t need arbitrary bolt-ons to be desirable. It had the confidence to give away such relatively minuscule features because the wider experience would be great.

Ultimately, due to marketing of these paid features, they will keep selling. From mobile games, such as Candy Crush to big time franchises like Call of Duty. For some developers, they are dependent on the success of micro-transactions. Games are becoming increasingly expensive to make with budgets of multi-million pounds go into making current generation titles. It’s a way to secure further revenue after the initial sale. Game development is a business, and people have got to get paid, but as mentioned earlier, there must be a line drawn somewhere as to what is acceptable.

As a rule, I feel that the additional purchase must add something meaningful to the experience, not to just trick me into thinking it is something I cannot play the game without. As mentioned earlier, additional story content is the right side of that line. It is something I know will add extra joy from the game but, without it, I wouldn’t feel as though I was missing out. Bethesda have the right idea with their content for The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. But let’s not give them a free pass; that Oblivion horse armour pack was atrocious.

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