Downloadable content, as a concept, was conceptualized innocently enough. Thanks to the surge in digital distribution that the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 brought with them, video game developers now have the opportunity to release mini, subsequent installments for their titles without resorting to disc two. This presented an easy method of improving a game’s value by extending possible playtime, as well as a way to tide gamers over until a potential sequel, as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead illustrates. Unfortunately, and rather unsurprisingly, we’ve seen that initial intent warped into a medley of nickel-and-dime practices that continue to plague the games industry.
The most prevalent of these issues, by a wide margin, is intentionally withholding content from a game in order to rehash and redistribute it as DLC. One of the more infamous examples of this was EA’s Dead Space 3, but the stigma of “Day-Zero” DLC can be found in all corners of gaming, though first-person shooters do come up quite frequently. However, there is also a duality inherent in the issue. On the spectrum opposing day-one gouging, we have content that wouldn’t see daylight were it not for the option of DLC in the first place.
Clearly, Tomb Raider, PlanetSide 2 and Dead Space 3 could have thrown their host of skins, levels, and weapon options into the full game without incurring any egregious delay. However, looking at games like Borderlands 2, Magicka, Portal 2, and Dark Souls, we see DLC used to genuinely further and enhance a game’s content in both the single- and multiplayer scene. The above games (and countless others) employ downloadable content as a way to build on the foundation and canon that the core campaign establishes. Better still, they seize that opportunity and steer the game in a new direction, if only for the duration of the DLC.
Dark Souls’ Prepare to Die DLC places the player in an alternate version of a key area to the core game; Borderlands 2’s initial four expansions — which Gearbox has confirmed not to be the end of the game’s DLC — expand upon the game’s wonderfully colorful side characters, all while adding a raised level cap and new loot to the mix; BioShock Infinite’s upcoming DLC — the first of several, says Irrational Games — invites the player back to the origins of BioShock for a nostalgic romp through the series’ rich canon. The list goes on.
Though impressive, current-generation examples like these beg the question of where we can expect DLC to trend in the era of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Surely the growing emphasis on social and digital aspects of gaming will affect how DLC is handled. After all, Sony and Microsoft have already begun pushing these sides of their gaming networks, despite the consoles themselves sitting months away.
This connotes the obvious possibility that DLC, like many red tape aspects of gaming, will be simplified for developers in the next gaming generation, allowing greater content consistency from triple-A projects and improved DLC support for indie projects like Terraria or Minecraft. Contrastingly, a simple rise in frequency could also result, invariably spawning more and more consumer gouging and content exploitation.
But that’s just approaching things at face value. Luckily, next-gen development has already laid the framework for a welcomed realignment of DLC implementation through the burgeoning adoption of a very MMO style of gameplay.
We’ve seen this sort of model demonstrated by countless MMOs in the past, but particularly clearly in Guild Wars 2’s prophetic “living world.” Impending releases like Destiny, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Elder Scrolls Online show that PS4 and Xbox One developers are also beginning to follow a similar structure — one that purports evolution via expansions. The same could easily be applied to DLC, which, if kept in check and outside the realm of the aforementioned nickel-and-diming, could play out as a renaissance of downloadable content. Rather than abruptly tack a new expansion onto a game, effective as it may be, we can hope to see developers integrate any potential DLC into the initial release, weaving a coherent experience that later builds on updates.