Downloading the Future

DLC is the burning issue of 2010.

GamesIndustry.biz, the trade arm of the Eurogamer Network, recently completed the next step in its evolution toward greater support for the videogames business with the implementation of a full registration system.

Downloadable content is, beyond a doubt, the burning issue of the year so far. On every major gaming news site, a story about DLC is bound to attract hundreds of comments, many of them brimming with outrage from consumers with strongly held views. Within the industry, conversations are (usually) more civil, but the question of what it's appropriate to release as DLC and how to integrate it into a business model is hotly debated.

This week, another log has been thrown on the fire, with EA boss John Riccitiello telling BusinessWeek that the company's inclusion of premium DLC codes in new copies of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins were no coincidences. This is the vanguard of something EA calls "Project Ten Dollar", it seems - an attempt both to limit the appeal of the second hand market, and to claw back some revenue from those consumers who continue to buy used games.

Publisher and developer attitudes to DLC have come on a long way since the infamous "horse armour" for Oblivion back in 2006. Minor fripperies, cosmetic items for characters and the likes persist, of course - especially in the form of Xbox Live Avatar items and PlayStation Home items - but they have been joined by some genuinely impressive DLC, perhaps most notably the two extensive episodes which were released for Grand Theft Auto IV.

Two major approaches to the development of DLC appear to have been established. There are those who view DLC essentially as the spiritual successor to the retail expansion pack - a budget-priced single-player episode or selection of multiplayer maps which extend the lifespan of the original game and give players more of what they enjoy without having to wait years for a sequel. Here, the business model is to embark on full development of DLC once the original game proves its success (although much of the pre-production work on the content will be done in the months before the game is released).

There are also those who view DLC as a way to "complete" a game whose original design was a bit too ambitious for the schedule or budget which was allocated. As anyone who has worked in development knows, it's fairly rare for a game to ship with every level or feature described in the design document present and correct. Commercial reality pokes its head up at some point - levels, characters, game systems and even chunks of narrative are dropped from the game to ensure that it actually reaches shelves at some point before the end of time.

For the most part, consumers never notice this. Developers are adept at papering over the cracks this procedure creates, building a seamless experience which hides the "missing" content - and of course this is no different from every other media industry. Movies, TV shows, albums and even books regularly have content dropped from them before launch - sometimes for creative reasons, but as often as not because of time and budget constraints. On occasion, of course, the process goes too far - Knights of the Old Republic II being a "celebrated" example of a game whose content was pruned far, far too harshly before launch.

DLC, at last, provides some kind of remedy to this situation. In the past, this content would never have been finished - it would simply have been dumped, with the team moving on to a new project after the game went gold. There was no financial incentive or reason to return to developing it after the launch of the game, since there was no channel to monetise it - and there was never a sense, as some consumers seem to believe, that buyers of the game were "entitled" to this as-yet-uncreated content. Consumers buy a finished game, not the promise of a design document they've never seen, after all.

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