Is Downloadable Content Good for Gaming?

Yesterday, Insomniac Games announced details of the first piece of downloadable content for their PS4 exclusive title Spider-Man, almost two weeks before the full game releases. This led to a small degree of uproar in the gaming community, with many people slamming Insomniac for promoting DLC before the game even hits the shelves. In light of these events, we ask, is downloadable content good for gaming?

The topic of downloadable content is a polarizing one; ask the majority of gamers about it and i’m sure you’ll have to endure a barrage of expletives and complaints, other corners of the gaming world, however, will defend downloadable content and point to its necessity to keep the game developers in work. The truth is, both sides have a point.

To consider this topic properly, I have to think back to my first experiences with downloadable content. The term “downloadable content” meant absolutely nothing to me until I got access to Xbox Live on the original Xbox back in 2003. Before then, I would play a game from beginning to end and then I was done, I had finished it. Sure, if I loved it, I’d play it again, and again, and again (I’ve lost count of how many times I finished Goldeneye and Zelda: Ocarina of Time) but I was just replaying old content. With the introduction of downloadable content on the original Xbox, I finished a game, and then some months later I would be offered more content for it. It was new, and it was exciting. The best thing about it? It was mostly free, and more importantly, I never felt like I had been short-changed on the amount of content in the original game.

You always felt like you had paid for a full game on release

I have fond memories of downloading and playing extra Splinter Cell missions, as well as getting additional maps for Rainbow Six 3 and Return To Castle Wolfenstein – all for nothing. Halo 2’s roaring online success saw it get four map packs—one free and three paid-for—with the paid-for packs costing between £4-£10 depending on how many maps were on offer. These packs were only paid-for if you wanted to get an immediate start with them, they were all made permanently free within 2-3 months of their initial release. These forms of downloadable content genuinely made you feel like you were getting more for your money. You always felt like you had paid for a full game on release, and that the downloadable content was legitimate extra content that had been created by the developer to support the game and prolong it’s lifespan. This is an important thing to remember.

Slowly as technology advanced, paid-for DLC began to creep into several titles and cause controversy along the way. In 2006, Bethesda released their first piece of DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – the exciting, mouth-watering, can’t-wait-to-get-your-hands-on-it Horse Armor Pack. For around £1.50, players could buy a shiny piece of armor for their trusty steed that served absolutely no purpose whatsoever in-game and caused uproar in the gaming community. This was only the beginning.

Bethesda released their first piece of DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

In 2008, Dead Space got its “Speed Kills” pack which, for just £1.50, gave you slightly faster versions of SOME of the guns that you already own. Think about that for a second, and honestly, if you bought that pack, please let somebody else handle your finances for you. You think that’s bad? It’s about to get worse.

In 2009, Dragon Age: Origins released with day one DLC (side note: the pure notion of “day one DLC” is a complete disgrace) called Warden’s Keep which, for just £5, added an extra area and new quests, and more importantly, a storage chest that many would argue was almost absolutely necessary to have due to the amount of items you collect in-game. That means that you’re having to pay £5 for something that you pretty much need, ON THE DAY OF RELEASE. Not only that, but this content was clearly all finished before the game was released, so why was it not included in the base game? To make matters worse, they actually had an NPC try to sell you the bloody thing in-game. Goodbye immersion.

One thing to remember here, is that—while these DLC practises are pretty shitty—all of the aforementioned games are massive, polished, complete games in their own right.

This brings me to Destiny. In 2014, Destiny released amid massive hype and expectation, and didn’t live up to it one bit. Marketed as featuring expansive, vast planets to explore and an engaging, structured story, it—quite frankly—featured neither. The planets were tiny and uninteresting; it was dull, repetitive and severely lacking in content to the point where it simply wasn’t worth the cost of the game. To make matters worse, a bug led to gamers finding that the downloadable content was actually already on the disc at launch, but was locked until it was later released as paid DLC. This is where we start having serious issues, because it smacks of a developer purposefully withholding content from the base game so that they can sell it to you later at an extra cost.

Season Passes are often on offer before the contents of the DLC are divulged

Fast forward a few years and my-oh-my things have gotten worse. Paid for DLC is now the absolute norm (there are still some cases of developers offering new content for free and we thank them for that) and we also have the dreaded Season Pass. The aforementioned Season Pass is an offering from developers for the consumer to buy all upcoming downloadable content for their title for a one off fee—usually around £40-£50—which works out cheaper than buying each DLC pack individually. Sounds great, right? The problem, is that these Season Passes are often on offer before the contents of the DLC are divulged or, obviously, are played and reviewed. That means that people are literally spending money blindly and then waiting to see if they’ve been ripped off later.

Even worse, some games now lock content and make it only available to players who purchase the ludicrously priced “Special Edition” or “Ultimate Edition” or “Complete and Total Ripoff Edition” – one recent example of this is the highly-anticipated upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2, which has two extra story missions that are locked exclusively to the Special Edition or the Ultimate Edition, which cost £74.99 and £89.99 respectively.

The real problem with all of this is that the base games seem to suffer for it. It is almost inarguable at this point that content is held back so that it can be sold to you at an extra cost later. There are numerous examples of games that are massively hyped up in the lead up to release, lacking in content at launch but becoming the game they should have been after a year or so of paid DLC (Fingers pointed firmly at you, Destiny and The Division). Star Wars: Battlefront released in 2015 with a £35 season pass that promised to add extra maps – when the game released, it’s two main modes (and the only modes that anybody really cared about)—Walker Assault and Supremacy—had FOUR MAPS. Just think about that. FOUR F**KING MAPS. Sure, there were other token game modes with smaller maps but nobody gave two shits about them. That’s not what anybody bought the game for.

There are so many cases of these kind of exploits, but it would probably take about three years to list them all. Of course, in all of these cases, the developers had an excuse. Do we buy those excuses? Nah, not really.

Because of all of the controversy in recent years, some developers are changing their approach to downloadable content. When The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launched in 2015, it’s case contained a note from the developer that thanked the gamer for purchasing the game, and also read “we believe that when you buy our games, you’re entitled to continuous, free support – updates, patches, and bits of new and amazing content. We owe you that for believing in us and purchasing our game. To thank you, we have prepared something really special – 16 DLCs for you to download, totally free of charge, regardless of the platform or edition of the game you own”. I can’t tell you how much of a smile that gave me when I first read it, it was like a breath of fresh air.Other games have begun to release post-launch content for free too. In recent years, Halo 5 and Overwatch have noticeably released all extra maps and modes for free, but it is important to note that these titles do both feature microtransactions (we’ll come back to these later) to fund their continued lifespan. Equally, both titles were criticised for not having enough content at launch – this is still a problem, but at least we’re not being sold the content that should be there in the first place, right? More games are opting to undertake this business model now, with Ubisoft announcing that The Division 2’s DLC will be completely free, Electronic Arts confirming the same thing for Battlefield 5 and Bethesda announcing similar for Fallout 76.

Not everyone is going down this path though. Lately, Activision have caused serious uproar by announcing that buying the season pass for the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the ONLY way to get hold of the post-launch DLC and that this content will not be available separately – that means that if you want to keep playing the game long-term and have access to all of the content you will effectively have to buy the game twice. Remember, too, that this is a game in which they have completely got rid of the single player campaign and are only offering you multiplayer.

I’ve effectively moaned about downloadable content for 1626 words now (honestly, count them, I dare you) so it’s important that I offer some arguments for the other side.

These days, downloadable content is a highly important source of revenue for the people who create the games that we love. As technology has advanced, the cost of creating a game has gone up – think about the list of names that roll in the credits on any major AAA title these days and you’ll know that it’s an enormous list; all of these people need to be paid for their contribution; remember that these are human beings with jobs – they love games just as much as we do and they love making them, but they still deserve to be paid for their work. Another important thing to note here is that the actual cost of games hasn’t really increased in line with inflation – a typical AAA title now will cost around £40-£50 upon release, I remember N64 titles costing £50-£60 back in 1997 – sure, the cost of manufacturing a game on cartridge was significantly higher than manufacturing a game on disc as is standard today, but this is offset by today’s high cost of production and number of people involved. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that a higher cost of production while the price of games stands still means that developers and publishers have to find another source of income to make the game financially viable. It has been highly common for large numbers of programmers, artists, designers and producers to lose their jobs once the game they are working on goes gold, after all, their services are no longer needed. Downloadable content dramatically reduces these occurrences, as these people are kept in a job and tasked with developing downloadable content to support their game post-launch. Equally, with the massive increase in online gaming as well as the possibility of patches to fix bugs post-launch, games need a longer support cycle post-launch that also needs funding as opposed to single player games that were released pre-millenium.

Recently, developers and publishers seem to have found a middle ground, and that middle ground is the aforementioned microtransactions. Microtransactions are small purchases made by the consumer for real money that consist of various (usually cosmetic) in-game items, such as costumes, weapons skins and emotes. It is a business model that was first used as a revenue source for free-to-play games and has since been used in full price releases to reduce the amount of paid DLC in AAA titles. As a result of this, more and more games are adopting a microtransaction model to support themselves financially and therefore releasing all additional game content for free. This is a positive thing for a number of reasons; firstly, it doesn’t split the player base, as everyone has access to all additional maps or missions. Secondly, most things that are available via microtransactions are available through simply investing time in the game (for the most part) and therefore spending extra money is not a necessity. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, your favourite game is earning enough financially to receive continual, ongoing support without anybody losing their job.

Loot boxes offer players—for a small fee—a box of randomized items such as skins

Of course, microtransactions have their criticisms, one of which being loot boxes. Loot boxes offer players—for a small fee—a box of randomized items such as skins, emotes etc. This means that you may not actually get what you want for your money, and it has met severe criticism with many people comparing the system to gambling. Loot boxes have, in fact, become regulated under gambling law in China, Japan, Australia, The Netherlands, the Isle of Man and Belgium. Blizzard recently removed paid-for loot boxes from Overwatch in Belgium after they were literally made illegal. Following an investigation into loot boxes, the Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens warned that publishers who did not rid their games of loot boxes “risk a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to 800,000 euros”. He also added that these punishments could be doubled if minors were involved. Wow. Minors seemed to be the main cause of concern, as Geen explained “It is often children who come into contact with such systems and we cannot allow that”. Anyone would have to admit, it’s hard to argue with.

Many people argue that loot boxes are harmless because their purely cosmetic contents don’t affect gameplay or give anyone an unfair advantage, but there are, of course, developers that take the absolute piss on this front too. NBA 2K18 was absolutely riddled with microtransactions, with anything you wanted to buy for your character (such as haircuts, tattoos or skill points) costing virtual currency that took either an absolute age to earn through playing the game itself, or could be earned in an instant by forking out some more real cash, even though you’ve already paid full price for the game. It was an aggressive system that constantly encouraged you to spend more and more money. Star Wars: Battlefront II also took the piss; during the games pre-release trial period for subscribers to EA Access, players noticed that many fan-favourite characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were only available if they were purchased with in-game credits that could be earned either through—yep, you guessed it—playing for a ridiculous amount of time or buying loot boxes that contain credits. This effectively made the game “pay-to-win” which is a massive no-no. By one estimate on the fan website SWTOR Strategies, it would take 4,528 hours of gameplay or spending $2,100 to unlock all of the game’s content. Again, this was all taking place in a game that was a full price release. The controversy this caused led to all microtransactions being removed from the game just 24 hours before launch, seemingly under pressure from Disney, and also started the Belgian investigation into loot boxes that we mentioned earlier. Our lovely, free DLC offering friends over at CD PROJEKT RED even had a sly dig on Twitter, posting “Worry not. When thinking CP2077, think nothing less than TW3 — huge single player, open world, story-driven RPG. No hidden catch, you get what you pay for — no bullshit, just honest gaming like with Wild Hunt. We leave greed to others.”

So the question is, is there a middle ground? And the answer is yes, of course there is, it’s just up to the developers to find that middle ground and willingly implement it into their game. I’m not naive enough to think that games don’t need financial support post-release if they are to be continually supported, but I firmly believe that all downloadable content should be available free to everyone so that the player base doesn’t get split, and that revenue should be earned through honest, clear, reasonably priced microtransactions that are specifically selected by the consumer and not left to chance. I have no objection to being asked to pay a quid or two if I want a really cool skin, emote or weapon skin and I can’t be bothered to invest the time needed to get it—after all it’s up to me, I don’t need it—but my chances of getting that item shouldn’t be locked behind a randomized loot box which effectively means I am gambling my money to maybe get the one item that I’m after. Equally, said item should not affect gameplay or give me an unfair advantage. Importantly, the inclusion of these systems also should not affect the quality of the product that I pay full price for in the first place.

So, I guess you want my answer to the original question that I asked (if you haven’t fallen asleep by now) and if you want to hear it, you’ll have to pay £14.99 for the “My Answer” Expansion Pack.

I’m just joking, my answer is yes, I do think that downloadable content is good for gaming. It keeps the people who create our favourite games in a job, it extends a games lifespan and gives us fresh content to play, the problem lies with how the system has been implemented and exploited in recent years to rinse maximum money out of honest gamers. It is down to the people who place these systems in their games to find the correct, moral way to do so without letting greed take over. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re all happy to financially support a game that has given us hours and hours of enjoyment, but the consumer should never be exploited.

Chris is our resident FPS-obsessed football fanatic who—when not playing an FPS or FIFA—can probably be found spending the odd 100 hours or so building his perfect farm on Stardew Valley. Chris has grown up on gaming and loves nothing more than to discuss them with his fellow gamers and hear their opinions, before stubbornly arguing with them until they agree with his. Chris comes to you with a hint of cynicism and plenty of sarcasm.

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