DLC. Sometimes it’s done right, other times it’s just… Yeah. It’s kinda become the genetically engineered cash cow-scapegoat hybrid of the industry, never hitting that balance between price and content. Forever scorned for its existence (source: the internet). DLC has steadily become a communally mocked entity floating around the industry, with Day One DLC and blatant rip offs cropping up every now and again. The thing is, DLC has the potential to be god damn amazing, it’s just that it’s not being utilised correctly.

Yes, yes, as it stands, DLC is usually a pathetic waste of time or a lame excuse to get us to pay more, which sucks harder than a vacuum cleaner in heat, BUT, it’s not all bad. A map pack, new guns, new characters, little things that don’t constitute an expansion pack but would still be cool to have can all (in theory) be delivered through DLC. They’re quick and cheap additions to a game that can extend it’s lifespan beyond the original offer. At some point though, DLC seems to have become more of an excuse for not releasing a full game, withholding content, or a tool for deception than a legitimate product of sale. So, can DLC be salvaged? I ‘unno, I’m just writing the article.

DLC: The Chump’s Expansion Pack

DLC is exactly what it sounds like: It’s DownLoadable Content. To 98% of you, I just sounded like I was being a condescending git (to the other 2%, that’s what it stands for), but I want to emphasise that DLC is not the product, it’s the means of delivery. It’s this all-encompassing term that’s flung around to describe all kinds of product enhancements, but it’s the postman, not the mail. The way it’s been treated as a delivery service is what I’m going to focus on because that’s what has troubled it so much, but this relies on the products which is has been forced to provide. Thankfully, most DLC sucks because it’s the same packaged garbage.

Noble. Stylish. $4.99.

Most of the time, DLC comes in two flavours: Changers and Lookers. Changers will add something mechanically different to the game (new maps, game modes, AI, etc), while Lookers add shiny stuff that doesn’t really affect the game (skin packs, avatar items, horse armour). Either way, they’re a hard sell. Lookers are only really compelling as a change of scenery, which can definitely be pleasant but hardly warrants a $10 price tag. Changers are a different story, perhaps extending a narrative that you were once invested in, or offering a mechanic that flips the entire game on it’s head. Unfortunately, a lot of DLC offers very little in terms of new content and requires time that you may be more interested in investing elsewhere.

… But people still buy it. Why? Because it’s content we haven’t consumed yet, perhaps you want to help support the makers of the game, maybe you want an excuse to go back to that beloved game you simply stopped playing, it might even – Praise The Emperor – be genuinely good content. Whatever the motivation, DLC is being sold, and that’s having an impact on the attitudes of developers… And in a completely different way on the players (see comments). The thing is, DLC could be bigger: it could be an expansion pack worthy of it’s asking price. Instead, DLC usually trickles into the marketplace, steadily adding content to the game but never offering much beyond a light romp, and it’s all to do with used game sales.

Skin Packs: Eat Fresh!

Buying a game on release, still covered in the excessive JB plastic covering, is really freakin’ expensive. For $60 – which I’ve spent on games in the past – you could buy 12 pizzas, wireless headphones, the complete Harry Potter DVD box set, 4 NERF guns, or, like, nothing from Games Workshop. Of course, when you buy a brand spanking new game, a fair (as agreed by the distributor and the publisher) chunk of that money goes back to dev team, marketing crew, and everyone else involved (contractually speaking) with the game’s release, but used games don’t work that way. When someone buys a used game from EB or some other retailer, the store gets all the profit because they technically bought it off the person who traded that game in for some store credit. While it’s hardly a war crime and probably doesn’t hurt game sales irrevocably (or perhaps even significantly), it’s certainly riled some dudes up.

Look at all this added value! I can barely contain myself!

The reaction to this was to make the game worth something later down the line instead of being a one-time experience that was readily discarded. In theory, this accomplishes two things: the retention of a game’s value, and insurance that a game has relevance (tres importante!) in the future. Think LoL: They release new content every fortnight in the form of a new champion or skin packs, and they are (preferences aside) pretty much THE most relevant (read: profitable) game/eSport out there. Applying that logic to any other game by releasing DLC would surely make a loyal fanbase more satisfied with their purchase, make them less likely to trade it into EB, and help with future game sales, right? Well, yeah, in theory, it’s a great idea, but it’s execution has been so brain numbingly flawed that it’s stigmatised DLC to the point where seeing those three letters is like having my eyes played with a violin bow.

This is epitomised by the clusterf#$k that is Day One DLC, a malignant atrocity that pretty much no one is on board with. The apparent logic behind it is that the extra-content is available from the moment the game is released, so if you want more of the game, you can get it whenever you want! Now that’s what I call convenient… But if it was already being implemented into the game so as to be compatible on release, why not put it into the game to begin with, thus increasing the value of the game and making it more appealing to prospective buyers? Alternatively, why not keep it hush hush, polish it up, work on even more content, and then release it later down the line to get players interested in the game again? You’re withholding content either way but at least the latter doesn’t come across as an insulting cash grab, nor does it imply that my ‘full game’ is incomplete at launch. Unfortunately, publishers don’t tend to act in favour of the consumer at every opportunity.

Dollah Dollah Bill, Y’aaaall

Video games are big business. The industry rakes in more dollars than the music and movie industries, which is a lot. The companies that spur on the ever-growing machine are multinational titans with literally thousands of employees, and those people can’t just work for free. Like any responsible company that’s out to make money, whatever methods are available to sell something will be utilised. Conventional sales, merchandise, and (shock horror) DLC are, to the guys in the suits, sources of revenue to pay the people they work with. Whether they are continually implemented or not is simply a matter of previous successes.

It’s the guys up top who stop this becoming a dev’s resume.

The fact that DLC is selling is a pretty good motivation to keep pumping it out. It’s not as risky or as costly as making a game and it makes money, but what dictates the sale? A publisher is not in the business of quality control, they’re in the business of publishing, so what they sell is almost irrelevant. Anyone who says ‘the product sells itself’ is missing the point; They’re not going to look at DLC and say, “Ah, yes, this is an excellent product that everyone will buy,” they’ll ask, “What methods of sale have worked for this type of content, what price do we need to set to break even, and can we produce a sustainable revenue from it?” There are deadlines to meet, profit margins to fill, salaries to pay, and it’s not like they can just go, “Whoops, we dun goofed, y’all!” and start over again. Yes, people will be interested in DLC because it’s for a familiar game, but that doesn’t make selling $10 airship bundles any less bullshit.

From a business standpoint, DLC is really, really sensible since it doesn’t rely on huge-risk revenue bursts that full game releases offer, but selling DLC from a purely business standpoint is a dangerous play. Just to recap, DLC is selling, and it’s a great tool to deliver new stuff, but when you start taking advantage of how willing people are to spend money on a game they could hold quite dear, that’s just straight up exploitation. Likewise, if you start justifying taking shortcuts or unnecessarily withholding content with the promise of ‘more coming soon’, you’re walking a fine line between trust and deception that I don’t like being made a part of because I want to buy your product. From a business point of view, it makes sense, but from the perspective of someone who just bought a game, I don’t like being treated as a breathing wallet ready to vomit out money over whatever overpriced worms you offer me.

Just reminding you, this is a real thing that exists.

Call it entitlement, but I feel like we, as a consumer base, deserve better. DLC has become that method of exploitation large companies just don’t understand. It’s not about giving us bits of new content, it’s there to maintain interest in a game with substantial, novel, and interesting content that adds a twist to the game. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we keep buying it, but what the hell did you expect we would do? Some people don’t just want this stuff, they crave it, sometimes as the only bastion of escape from their mundane lives they really embrace. I think it’s getting better (source: blind optimism), but nonsensical DLC still lingers around the corner, and I highly doubt it’s going away any time soon. But hey, at least DLC exists for the little guys to rock it, and that’s enough reason for me to support it… Micro transactions are a different story though. They’re just pure evil.

Editor’s Note: The What, Why, and WTF is a fortnightly article series that explores the culturally pervasive elements of gaming, those parts of video games that seem to have left some mark on gaming as a whole or Nick just finds really interesting. It is in no way an academic source, despite liking to pretend it is.

Nick Ballantyne

Nick Ballantyne

Managing Editor at GameCloud
Nick lives in that part of Perth where there's nothing to do. You know, that barren hilly area with no identifying features and no internet? Yeah, that part. To compensate, he plays games, writes chiptunes, makes videos, and pokes fun at hentai because he can't take anything seriously.
Nick Ballantyne