Thursday, 20 May 2010

On The Downloading Of Content

Alone on the couch at three in the morning, the controller gripped so tightly in your hands that it‘s become part of your flimsy, malnourished frame, it finally happens: You‘ve beaten it; the game that has managed to compel or challenge you, or indeed both, for the last 2 weeks. The sense of accomplishment as you leap that final hurdle and sit back to bask in the warm glow of the credits was one of the main reasons you became a gamer - to have witnessed the whole story, conquered every challenge thrown your way and devoured each delicious treat without even checking the descriptions with matching pictures on the box. Thus the wait began, for the next big title on the radar or even a sequel, which was just a whisper on some distant developers’ teasing lips. Probably in Japanese.

Things have changed, and not just because production values have rocketed and the number of incredibly high quality titles being produced means that there is more choice than ever before when it comes to picking up a compelling piece of interactive entertainment. Being the gift that just keeps on giving, the Internet has seen fit to change the way we buy and play games, and one of the biggest ways it’s managed to do this is through additional downloadable content. Thanks, Internet, and again I’m sorry for what we did together the other night.

Whilst the expansion of games through material released after the initial release is nothing new itself (I still tuck Throne of Bhaal into bed on most nights), the way in which this content can now be delivered certainly has made its mark. The package on the shelf now rarely represents the full extent of what’s on offer, and the ’end’ of the game is no longer the end, but a signal to get out your credit card. The aforementioned gruelling wait for more from the developer responsible has been cut down considerably, sometimes to a within just a month of a game hitting the shelves. The base, primal reaction is delightful in its innocence; more of a fantastic game available almost as soon as I finish it? Just hook it to my veins.

This way of thinking is certainly not without merit, as not many could argue that the continuation of an enjoyable game in such a short space of time is a particularly bad concept. We’ve all experienced a game that just hit all the right spots like a ruthlessly efficient robot masseuse, and like anything else that good, we didn’t want it to end - you found yourself Googling for rumours of a sequel (Or at the very least, sexy pictures of the characters) before the disc had stopped spinning. With more and more developers committing to the idea, you can rest assured that if you enjoy a particular game today, some form of additional material is probably already piling up outside your door.

This has created something of a brand new entity within the computer gaming world, largely down to the comparatively shorter size and lifespan of the content available. A traditional expansion would appear anywhere from a year or two later on down the line, and would essentially act as a brand new chapter or an epilogue of sorts. The advent of digitally releasing DLC means that developers can add whatever they please to a title without the pressure of years of development and anticipation building up. This can range from new pieces of equipment or additional characters, to fully fleshed out narratives and experiences. The latter in particular is of interest, as these nuggets become a new form of one-off ‘episodic’ game in themselves - content made available doesn’t have to directly follow the plot or events in the original game, and can easily add a self-contained narrative of its own, ideally delivering a short but tightly scripted experience with its own conclusion.

So whilst an ideal scenario of sorts has been established, in which we are given new, exciting content to build upon an already exciting and worthy title, without the unpleasantness of the seemingly eternal wait for fully blown sequels, there is much to be concerned about. I mentioned earlier how the nature of the content available could literally be anything; we’ve all heard the horror stories of developers releasing trivial in-game items and bonuses for a fee that can only be described as laughable. I’d have to be reaching dangerous, potentially illegal levels of enjoyment with any one game to warrant paying for extra armour, beards or novelty cameo costumes to use with it. We can probably put this down to the fact that this is mostly new territory, and developers will have to individually gauge what people are willing to buy on a game-by-game basis. Well, consider us gauged, and cancel the DLC in which players can try on and discuss an expansive catalogue of downloadable shoes with Dragon Age’s Leliana.

I touched on the issue of price there, and it‘s one of the most significant elements of the whole issue. A new game has a well established and expected retail price, and there are few shocks in this regard. DLC plays by a different set of rules, in that there are none. For gamers such as myself, who operate on a tight budget, it’s almost disheartening to know that we could potentially miss out on the full experience. You could be swelling with pride as you relate the story of how you were knee-deep in blood and sweat as you conquered every gritty level of the unbelievably tall and elaborately decorated tower of immense, smouldering evil, where, at the dizzying summit, blinded by forks of crackling, arcane energy, you defeated the ancient wizard in bear-form riding two dragons at once - only for some bastard to saunter in and inform everyone that they’ve also completed the two additional towers, released last week as an add-on.

The key is, what are people willing to pay? Should the cost be based on the time you’ll spend with the expansion, or is it more reflective of the quality? With all of these factors widely open to interpretation depending on individual opinion, it’s hard to know exactly what your money will buy you - £10 could net you a handful of hours of additional action in previously unseen locations in one instance, and a few maps or a quick rehash of content already present in the main title. Add Microsoft’s own smokescreen of a currency to the equation, and things don’t get any simpler at all. Since it’s not possible to strictly regulate the nature of what is made available to download, the consumer can only sit it out whilst publishers try and hit that sweet spot between value and amount of content.

Having ridden down the concept of DLC on my deliberately un-armoured horse, let me throw it entirely into disrepute altogether by questioning the value of its existence to the consumer in the first place. Whilst I obviously wouldn’t seek to condemn all DLC to date, it’s hard not to be somewhat suspicious of the releases that are essentially another level taken directly from the game. There is a point where you wonder about this fantastic new content that bears an uncanny resemblance to all other sections of the game they released 3 weeks ago, and is now suddenly made available for an additional fee. Those of us with faith in the industry can only cling onto the hope and trust that the people responsible for our favourite entertainment wouldn’t let this happen to us - hope is present in the form of a number of developers committing to continuous DLC support for titles, with releases planned for months or even years after release. This kind of commitment certainly eases some fears of cutting floor content being packaged up for a quick sale, at least.

I’ve stated many times that I will endeavour to support any means of seeking the extra revenue that a developer needs to do in order to continue producing games in the modern day market, but I know that I’m not the only one who will draw a line, however good the product might be. Big players like EA/BioWare and Ubisoft will likely determine the path DLC takes in the future, and it is in them we must place our trust. But mainly BioWare.

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