Way back in the mists of pre-history, when you got a game, you got your box, with a floppy or disk and maybe a manual or a feelie. Whatever was in that box was what you got, at least until the sequel (or your buddy with some hex-editing skills) came along. With the advent of better-connected technology and the growing complexity of the games themselves, though, what you ultimately get isn't limited by what's in the box (assuming you get a box at all). Connectivity allows changing the game after it's shipped, which has became so common in the general gaming landscape as to be assumed. And like most complicated decisions humanity has undertaken, it has been a mixed blessing.
Complaints are long and loud, and often the rallying cry is something along the lines of "It didn't used to be that way!" But I don't remember any sort of halcyon days when games weren't buggy as heck (or even completely broken) at ship - and I go back to the Vic20, when it was my own typos that caused those bugs. The fact that you CAN fix those self-created bugs, rather than just having to wait for a next version like I had to with Merchant Prince back in the 90's, is a good thing, overall. (Believe me, gang, World Of Warcraft did not invent the concept of a bugged spawn.) I remember those and try to take it in stride, even when I'm stuck spending some of my few gaming minutes looking at the update screen rather than the game load screen I was expecting.
Most of us have come to terms with the patching concept in practice (as long as it works correctly), but the industry has moved on to the next logical step: If you can fix it after the fact, you can add things to it after the fact. And that brings us to downloadable content, or "DLC." As Evolve marks yet another headline in the story of DLC, I like to step back to review the ways I judge the content that doesn't come with the box.
Marketers and salesfolk are creative, so the landscape on this concept is huge, and the concepts here are complex and interwoven. I'm sure you probably know of exceptions to every piece of every point I'm about to make. But thing is, none of this works in a vacuum. So I've got a few standard whipping boys I'm going to use for examples, and I'm going to stick with them for the most part to tie things together.
Many of the issues people have come from an erroneous perception of how the development process actually works. DLC, particularly what's referred to as "Day 1 DLC," sticks in a lot of people's craws, because they see it as a cash-grab, forcing them to pay more for the full experience of the game. I'm not saying no publisher's ever pulled that stunt, but the situation is often a little more complicated.
Planning for added content after shipping is a standard part of the development process these days. I know it may make some of you feel old, but we've had consoles with consistently implemented and supported online updating capabilities since around 2000. Elder Scrolls: Oblivion's "The Shivering Isles" expansion started out as nothing but an API hook they left for the possibility of something they wanted to add after ship. The content, beyond some concept art, wasn't planned until after the game was well out. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim's expansion "Hearthstone" is another one. The base game was built with hooks for adding content and in-game objects to at-the-time unspecified locations and with ties to game-missions, but what would actually be done with those hooks wasn't laid out until well after ship.
Planning ahead for the possibility of adding something does not equal something that would have been done. Them going back in and using them later is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, if developers hadn't started taking advantage of that fact in the last 15 years I'd be far more worried.
Even in cases where DLC had been "planned," it may not have gotten past the lip-service stage. I'm thinking stuff like Mass Effect 3's "Leviathan" expansion, for example, which was written up as backstory but was never intended for the main release. Some voice-work was done, but the content was originally slated for an extended edition to come out more than a year after the game shipped. In the mess of the public reception of the ending, though, they decided to get the explanation out there more quickly and on its own.
Exactly when and where the content in question comes in during the development cycle is another factor. It's not common knowledge, but in order to get certification testing done (referred to as "passing CERT") on the big platforms, you have to submit what will be the "gold" disk four months in advance, and then add in the time for it to fill the sales/shipping channels. If after that point the devs or publishers decide they want to put something back into the game, it has to come out under a separate code body, namely DLC.
And I think even pointing at the DLC as "stuff that should have been in the game" – stuff which should magically somehow have gotten back into the already-crowded and and crushed dev schedule just because there was no DLC option – is magical thinking at its best. Things get cut all the time in development; it's an often heartbreaking part of the real-life project lifecycle. They die on the cutting room floor and we only ever find out they ever existed through industry apocrypha like interviews or the good offices of hackers/modders who find orphaned or truncated code in the released game. For example, two whole dungeons were cut from the original Gamecube edition of Legend of Zelda: Windwaker. They just didn't make the cut.
Those two orphaned Windwaker dungeons did get a new lease on life. Many wondered if they would be included in the new HD release of Windwaker that came out last year. According to Eiji Aonuma, the current Legend of Zelda series producer, those dungeons actually were included in other titles that have come out since Windwaker's release. Sometimes, we do get lucky. Other things have been completely lost. That's the way these things go, DLC or no.
And sometimes, it's not a technical or artistic issue. For a good example, we'll use Mass Effect 3 again. It ended up getting lost in the rest of the kerfubble around the release, but they did something truly remarkable: They managed to integrate many, very different platforms into the game at the same time. I'm not talking about releasing cross-platform; I'm talking having different parts of the game in the console, the PC, and the mobile platforms like iPad all working in harmony and playing together, and to some degree simultaneously. (Well, mostly. If Origin wasn't snarfing Underoos at that given moment.)
I don't know enough about the particulars to tell you what parts were tied to which, but I can say that the concept is not free. Each of the players in that development/publishing pile that had to have their own slivers of the pie. What EA's legal and financial teams sacrificed to which pagan altar to get all those conflicting licensing standards and financial tracking/reporting systems to talk to one another is at least as amazing an accomplishment as the technical aspects of convincing that netcode to work. To pay out the proper fees to the proper licensees, you have to keep track of who gave money to whom and for what, and a big part of managing that would have been to have some of the different pieces paid for separately, shaving and allocating slices from each transaction.
With all that in mind, I do have some metrics I use to decide what DLC I'm going to invest in:
- The Base Game: I know that sounds weird, but we have to start out by thinking about the main game itself and how it interacts with the DLC. Do I love the game enough to want or need to invest in the DLC content? Is it something that everyone else has, so I need to catch up? (My local chapter of CivAnon is brutal that way.) Conversely, would having the DLC mess up my ability to play with friends like the Civilization V packs that don't release simultaneously on PC and Mac? Would the DLC help with some gameplay issue?
- Timing: Day One DLC is a very different critter than stuff like the Season Pass for Borderlands. The first part of the Pass was released two months after the main game shipped, but taken with the rest it helps make a 6+-year-old game an experience that can hold its head up with just about anything but its sequel. Borderlands 2 is four years old now, and its DLC has carried on with some of the best overall gaming experiences of the last several years in my opinion. "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep" is pure gold in and of itself, with "Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage" following right behind.
- Impact: How does this affect the game experience? Is this just cosmetic, like a map or character, or is it something that truly affects 2gameplay, like maps or a new weapon? Cosmetic doesn't necessarily mean I won't buy it. I've bought stuff for several games to help differentiate myself better in multiplayer environments with overlapping characters on the team, or other colors to make myself show up better in various environments (or just because it was truly wicked cool). If they go one better and have it be something actually useful, that is often a big selling point for me.
- Scale: Something small like that eponymous Oblivion horse armor is one thing, and is contrasted with the Borderlands DLC like "The Secret Armory of General Knox" and "The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned," which are almost another game in and of themselves. Another good one was "The Shivering Isles" for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: It was a cool addition with several new areas, and the way the additions worked within the main game's story was interesting.
- Cost: Show me the money, folks. "Hearthstone" came out at $9.99, which is right at the edge of my comfort zone for DLC – the actual value of the purchase or the quality of the experience would have to practically put their thumb on the scale to push the balance down so the needle swings towards the side of purchasing additional content at that price. If it costs more than that, it better be heavy on new functionality/content, or even be a game in and of itself, like Mass Effect: Infiltrator.
- Value: Caveat emptor! You have to do the math and weigh the variables on it just as you do in the grocery store to determine if a sale price is actually cheaper. To me that Oblivion horse armor for $1.99 was a bad deal, because cosmetics like that tend to rate very low on my value totem pole – I'm not all that invested in that sort of thing. So it wasn't much money, but that didn't mean much to me. One the other hand, I was happy to pay $2.40 for an entire new character, complete with custom voicing and seamlessly integrated into the game with his own storylines, when I bought Krieg for Borderlands 2 this last Steam sale.
And do the math carefully. Did you hear about that $130 pricetag for all the Evolve DLC everyone was freaking out about? Turns out it was inflated bigtime by the person adding it up, because they didn't take into account that if a person bought one of the packages they weren't going to also go buy each piece individually. If you take out the duplicates, and then buy it all piecemeal so it costs the most, the whole pile turns out a much more palatable worst-case scenario of $70. Being a savvy shopper by buying packs and taking the list in budget-friendly pieces (and waiting for Steam sales) can make even that more livable.
Generally, being patient and waiting will net you great benefits in this area. The entire Season Pass I bought for Borderlands cost me something like 8 bucks, and got me all four expansions (though I will grant you that was 2 years after they were released). The Season One Season Pass for Borderlands 2 came as part of the deal for me because I was a late adopter and got the whole package on a Steam sale – I paid less than $10 for the main game and all that DLC.
Amount of content is another thing. The fact that Gearbox added so much content to Borderlands that they had to break it up into "seasons" says something, too.
Each time the concept comes up, you have to sit down and run it through the decision tree. The whole debacle around the DLC for the recent launch of Evolve is a good exercise here.
One thing I want to state plainly here is I am not reviewing Evolve itself here. It looks solid and the buzz is good so far, but I haven't played it (it's on my wishlist). I am planning to buy the game once the budgetary and work-scheduling math work their magic, probably somewhere around the Summer Sale. I'm also not talking about the performance patch that's already out – we'll get to that in a minute. Let's use the DLC as announced as an example and run it down.
Here's how the worksheet comes out for me:
- Base Game: This one's a big cipher at this point. Gotta play it to know if I need or want anything else.
- Timing: Day one, because it's available for launch, and then doubly so because in my case since I won't be buying the game for several months, so it's more than possible that later-scheduled DLC will have shipped by then. Once I hit play I'm going to be up to my eyebrows in the base content. Even if it wasn't cosmetic, it wouldn't be happening for me right out of the gate. I'll finish the base game, then look around for more.
- Impact: According to the clarifications sent out by the developer, anything you would be paying for is cosmetic.
- Scale: Small. Clothes and weapon skins with no extra story-bits.
- Cost: The whole schlemiel, bought the most expensive way you can, is around an extra $70 on top of the game price. The individual pieces seem pretty reasonable in the $1.99-for-a-skin sort of range. See here for details on the Xbox prices.
- Value: Well ... this one's got a couple important question marks in it. Some of these are skins for ... what I thought were the enemies!? The ones for your team are just as dark and grim as the base sets, so I won't be using them to help in visual discrimination. I'll have to see how this all works once I get into the game. We'll see how the costs for the individual pieces and the Season Pass work out on the Steam Sale front, too.
Right now, that's looking like a giant wait-and-see, leaning towards no for me on the DLC. The math may will probably work out different for you. Timing, in particular, is sensitive to how invested you are to being in on that first part of the curve. I play on the long-tail, so for me that initial hype-storm is actually a down-check on my list.
That highlights a big elephant in the room: the marketing department's wish that putting out the DLC will make me purchase the game. Well, it never has tipped the scale so far. It has informed when I buy the game in a few cases, but not whether I buy it. In the case of Evolve, my Daily Planet job's launch schedule trumped all of these sorts of considerations. I'm having enough trouble keeping up with my current slate of games, much less trying to pile another time-eating multiplayer on top.
One thing to point out here is that Evolve is live, and I'm not hearing any noises about server problems. Unless talking about it jinxes it in some way, this is the most stable multiplayer launch I can remember. Even the denizens of the Steam Community forums, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, can't find much to complain about in the gameplay or performance. I expected that. Steam and XboxLive have their own lists of problems, but solid netcode and the capacity to serve it up aren't on them.
But I believe a big part of that was a 3-gig Day 1 patch that addressed a bunch of load issues that came up while the product was in CERT. These days, if you want to deliver this level of complexity and connectivity, this is what we get. To quote Chuck Yeagar's comment about the sinking of Liberty Bell 7 in the film The Right Stuff, "... sometimes, you get a pooch that can't be screwed." Reality bites, but what they tried seems to have worked. From what I can see, it was handled about the best it can be.
When you get down to the bottom of all this, it looks to me like I will be getting what I pay for in the base game in just about every respect I care about. That's what I want out of a company. Deliver a solid game. Then when you decide to gild the lily with cosmetic DLC, I say bring on the catwalk and show me the fancy duds, folks. I may or may not buy as my budget goes, but I'll clap and enjoy the show for sure.
I watch the flack-storm that comes up with these launches with a jaundiced eye. Publishers will take a mile if you give them an inch, that's true, but that's not always what's going on under the hood. DLC is technically complicated, and the financials may work in ways that aren't obvious if you don't have a deeper knowledge of how this whole thing goes. I'm not cheering and throwing flowers about some of the stuff I see out there, but I'm not automatically going to write them off without doing some checking. You have to educate yourself about the game and your game-style and make your own calls on these.