Home > Gaming > Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Love DLC

Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Love DLC

Several weeks ago, a good friend got me a gift: Company of Heroes, a great World War II real-time strategy game. The copy was to be downloaded through Steam, and so for the first time since it was released nine years ago, I downloaded and installed the digital distribution software. This was not the first time I’ve used such a software, but it certainly was a close candidate, given my only other experience with downloading major games online in a such a way was for Mass Effect 3 via Electronic Art’s Origin software. Almost a decade too late, I was finally entrenched into the community of online gamers.

I admit I’m a bit of a old-school person when it comes to traditional gaming: I enjoy singleplayer campaigns more than multiplayer matches, and prefer to play someone in the same room (or at least someone I know) as opposed to mass matches on the internet. For years, I have bought retail versions of games instead of digital versions; Company of Heroes and Mass Effect 3 have been the only exception (although Company of Heroes – and later a few other indie games – were gifted to me as opposed to my actual purchases). I was aware of downloadable content – or DLC – but had largely stuck with the concept of retail expansion packs for a long time.

It didn’t hinder my acceptance of DLC or downloadable games by any means. In fact, I’m rather impressed at this convenient business model that facilitates ease of access, ease of licensing, and ease of implementing sales. Digital distribution of games is a stroke of marketing and distribution genius that I can personally support and get behind. On the other hand, my reception of DLC has been much more lukewarm, for quite a few reasons.

There are plenty of reasons why DLCs are good. For starters, it makes the facilitation of expanded materials much easier. It costs virtually nothing to distribute additional supplementary materials to a game, meaning developers can add new content to a game without having to worry about retail packaging. Not all additions to the game are as small as a patch or as large as an expansion pack, and a DLC can add content that squeezes something in between these two roles very conveniently.

However, there are two major reasons why I find myself unenthusiastic about DLCs, which is probably something people have complained about for a long time already (I’m just late to the party, so to speak). First is the fact that DLCs are ruthless advertisements and business models. There was a time when games were designed as standalone content, games did not require internet connectivity, and additional materials such as expansion packs would only be added if the game in question was a commercial success. Nowadays, however, we see a different trend, where DLCs are almost an unspoken but expect cost, and where advertisement shows up in the game itself. BioWare games have launchers that blatantly advertise new DLCs. In fact, a particularly egregious example was with Mass Effect 3, where the From Ashes DLC was literally being sold on day one, invoking the ire of many a gamer; this was content that could’ve easily been added into the game itself (and, in fact, as it turned out, the file of the From Ashes DLC already came pre-installed with a normal copy of Mass Effect 3, which means when you download the From Ashes DLC, you’re actually only downloading the code to unlock this already-provided content), but BioWare instead chose to make gamer spend extra money for content made available on the day of launch. Another particularly jarring example was Company of Heroes, where the menu itself greets me with a list of locked content – campaigns, missions, multiplayer options, etc. – that I have no access to because I haven’t bought their DLCs. This goes beyond advertisement; this is blatantly taunting me for not having purchased new content within the game’s interface itself. Again, this would not have been possible in older gaming models.

DLCs are ruthless business models because they circumvent distribution costs, and therefore allow producers to overcharge. In the old business model of retail expansion packs, providing new content to add to games was an expensive venture because of distribution costs, so they made sure gamers would pay for what amounted to a new game by providing more bang for buck. The DLC models of today – for example, a new weapon in a FPS game or a new unit for a real-time strategy game for one United States dollar – would never have worked in the expansion packs of old, simply because packaging and distribution costs would outstrip the profit of a dollar for a single weapon, and players would be unlikely to pay a higher price to cover for those distribution costs for just one extra weapon. By eliminating retail production and distribution costs and going directly for digital distribution, developers can sell new content at any price they like, but this in turn leads to major price discrepancies. Consider, for example: Yuri’s Revenge, the expansion pack for Red Alert 2, was sold at roughly $25 USD, but contained two new campaigns (fourteen new missions in total), one new faction, plenty of new units, and several new multiplayer maps. By contrast, at this time of writing, a DLC to provide a new gun in Just Cause 2 costs $0.99, which – for mathematical purposes – we’ll just round up to one dollar. Does this mean Yuri’s Revenge is worth only twenty-five new guns in Just Cause 2? Not for me. But DLCs allow for tiny bits of content to be sold individually at inflated prices; on its own, $0.99 is small change, but compare it to actual major content, and you’ll realize there’s a lot of price manipulation going on.

The second reason why I find the existence of DLCs questionable brings us back to Mass Effect 3 and the From Ashes DLC. Let’s leave aside what I was actually irritated by out of the fiasco (namely, that the developers outright lied and insisted the “day one DLC” was developed apart and separately from the actual game, when content for the DLC could be found locked and hidden away in both the digital and retail versions of the original game), and focus instead on the fact that there was a “day one DLC”. This is pure speculation on my part and I have nothing to prove it with, but it is possible that the existence of DLCs provide an incentive for developers to not deliver a “complete” product. After all, it will always be possible to swiftly add new content to “complete” the game – never mind “supplement” – at an extra charge and at not much expense. From Ashes – depending on how you wish to interpret it – was such an example, content that was included in the game itself, but ultimately set aside as an extra “$10 USD to unlock” content on top of the original $50 USD cost.

There are a lot of good things to be said about DLC, which I remarked about earlier. And, indeed, digital distribution is not likely to go away, not when it’s an effective and convenient way to get games to customers. But with DLC as it is, and with the way it abuses its power, it’s difficult for me to love it. Even with the $0.99 price tag.

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