DLC no evil?

With Mass Effect 3 released in the UK this weekend, it seems like a good moment to look at the big launch-day talking point surrounding the game: The onslaught of the human-harvesting, game-designing Reapers, including DLC on their release-day products, hell-bent on terminating all monetary life in the wallet-galaxy “Earth”.

Or so gamers’ hysteria might have you believe. And it wasn’t just Bioware with the latest Mass Effect title, but Capcom with Street Fighter X Tekken. Some gamers are getting really quite upset at the movement towards DLC-specific files being included by developers on release-day material, but not being “usable” until DLC is purchased. Games journalists have been careful to question Bioware about the exact development timelines of Mass Effect 3 and “From Ashes” (the launch-day DLC), eager to show that Bioware had planned for DLC to be available on the day of release, and that the whole thing was a cold, calculated bid to empty the wallets of gamers everywhere.
Street Fighter X Tekken’s inclusion of DLC at release, for the sake of compatibility
Bioware’s inclusion of DLC on the Mass Effect 3 release disks

A little confused by the reaction, I thought it might be good to address two myths:

Myth 1: DLC should be an afterthought in games development.

Games players are all aware that developers like Bioware (I am not talking about indie development here, but established development companies, with a pipeline of titles) are companies, with shareholders and associated corporate strategies. Without these strategies, they would not be able to secure investment and produce products. Gamers are also aware that the product pipeline for a successful title will include DLC. However, the gaming community (it appears, based on the reaction to the Mass Effect development timeline) expects DLC to start development once the a game has been released.

This makes sense, from a gamer’s perspective. It’s preferable to know that the content bought on release-day is the full creative effort of a team of designers. But it’s simply not an economic use of a blockbuster-producing development team. Even short periods of downtime within a development cycle are better spent developing DLC than standing idle. It isn’t economical for a company to retain idle programmers. A healthy DLC pipeline for a popular product drives employment in games development, while reducing employment volatility.

Furthermore, creative output is likely to be of a higher quality when teams are kept active, and are engaged with a product. Minimising downtime is both economical, and improves the quality of output. Bored creatives aren’t productive creatives, after all.

Gamers committed to the long term health of big-budget development houses should prefer products designed with a DLC pipeline in mind.

So what is the problem with having the nuts and bolts for future DLC appear on the disk at release day?

Myth 2: A “game” bought is a collection of files, which the gamer owns.

A serious problem for gamers objecting to the Bioware/Capcom DLC situation seems to be the inclusion of files intended for DLCwithin release-day material. The thrust of the objection seems to be that gamers, having bought release-day materials, are entitled to all of that material, without having to pay more for DLC “unlocks”.

Again – an intuitively sensible thought from gamers. You buy something – you own it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying milk from the shops if I opened the carton to find half a carton of milk, and an option to buy the remainder for another 50p.

However, recognising that the DLC will form part of the full gaming experience (and recognising that the Prothean in Mass Effect, or the extra characters in Street Fighter X Tekken were always intended to be DLC), why would a gamer not prefer to have that material included at-release? If, when the DLC package is priced and released, gamers feel the package to be poor value, the files do not interrupt the existing experience. And if they believe the package is worth purchasing, the files don’t need to be downloaded – extra convenient!

Sure, it has been a PR mistake for game designers to have parts of the DLC material so clearly present on release-day disks. Gamers don’t want to feel that designers are holding back – stretching out a release schedule to nickel and dime them. But gamers shouldn’t feel disenfranchised when they see signs of DLC-specific material before the DLC is released. If anything – quite the opposite. These materials are just an indication that developers are planning whole projects holistically – and that’s a good thing for gamers.

If a release is poor value – I vote with my wallet. I don’t buy DLC if it seems overpriced. I may not buy “From Ashes”. Game developers will get the message soon enough. Until then – I accept the planning of DLC as a convenience, and a sign of good games development.


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