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Extending A Game’s Life- Do DLCs and Free Updates Work?

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How long would a lifespan of a game last?

In the early days of gaming, games are difficult by design due to their arcade heritage- where its business model is to ensure people keep coming back and put in more coins to progress, or the game designers have become terribly good with their own creation which made them to up the difficulty. Its rare for somebody to beat the game, a true test of skill.

Or maybe it was cheat codes.

Anyway, as time progresses, a shift of game design happened as games are designed for more players being able to see all the content offer. Nowadays, most games are beatable by the average gamer, some for a good 20-30 hours, some even in just one sitting. With the game beaten, and for some, completed it 100%, some players would sell the copy for some money back to buy new games rather than keeping it.

The question of today is how do games present themselves to be valuable longer than just a playthrough? What if developers can provide more content than just what is in the disk?

On that point, let’s discuss about extending a game’s life.

Demo discs were also another way PC games distributed game patches in the early days of the Internet
Demo discs were also another way PC games distributed game patches in the early days of the Internet

The Standards of PC Gaming

When you hear that a game has gone gold, it means that it is basically completed. Development has ceased, a master copy has been created and all that’s left is to manufacture the copy disks for retail and wait for the sales number to come in once release date hits, as well as doing some marketing push in between if the budget permits.

For PC games, developers have the opportunity to issue what is called patches, an installation file that addresses flaws in the game that was unintended or did not work. More successful studios would even create what is called an ‘expansion pack’, a new game disc which adds more content to the original game.

Consoles before the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii do not have any ways to distribute post-launch fixes. Console games have to ensure their Quality Assurance (QA) team did their work and spot all the bugs, so the developers would able to fix it and ship a working game, or face the harsh reviews from gaming magazines and lose potential sales.

PC games have the advantage of increasing a game’s longevity by this. By the release of Xbox 360,PS3 and Wii, that consoles finally caught on to this concept.

At launch, this costs 5 USD. That's about RM15-20 just for this one item. Is it worth it?
At launch, this costs around 5 USD. That’s about RM15-20 just for this one item. Is it worth it?

Downloadable Content (DLCs)

While both the original Xbox,PS2, Dreamcast and a few other older consoles have some network capabilities, this new generation pushed the use of the Internet that has increased in accessibility and bandwidth sizes, via online stores and server back-ends for online play. This allows developers to not only issue patches for console games, like their PC brethren, but also sparked the idea of selling Downloadable Content (DLC). What differs DLCs with expansions is its size. DLCs are designed to be smaller content delivered cheaply. However, these definitions are now blurry, and both terms can be interchangeable.

With that said, the first few DLCs to produced and sold are not what we would have expected. The Horse Armour DLC for Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion is the case study of choice. If PC users can have these sorts of ‘content’ as mods for free, would buying it on consoles worth it?

The idea of DLC is good on paper, but the first few years are rough, as developers, publishers have no idea how to implement it well. Controversies like Street Fighter X Tekken having character DLCs available for purchase already on-disc but locked behind a paywall made people lose interest of it quickly, which is just a smack in the nuts for the game, resulting in poor sales and completely lost the already-waning interest of the fighting game community. Having a character that supposed to critical to the lore and story of Mass Effect 3 stripped out and sold as DLC also got some bad press.

To make DLC a worthwhile investment, games start promising that a number of DLCs are planned, and a purchase of season pass would give players all the DLCs cheaper. However, there’s also practices of bundling all the DLCs released with the game as a Game Of The Year/Definitive/Ultimate/etc. edition with all the released content bundled together, all for the price of a normal, standard game (around RM180-220). A good value for those who might have missed out when the game original launch, at a cost of making early adopters and those who bought all the DLCs being in the short hand for paying more than late adopters.

Not all DLCs are terrible. Borderlands’ The Secret Armory of General Knoxx added a substantial amount of content for its price. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Episodes featuring minor characters that appeared in the original storyline are excellent, full-fledged GTA campaigns, just shorter. This is planned DLC done right, as all the seeds for all the storyline have probably been written earlier as all of them feel coherent. Of course, then there’s free DLCs, some offered as an apology- like the horrible launch of Driveclub, some are given out of goodwill like The Witcher 3. Free stuffs with no strings attached is always good, isn’t it?

XCOM Enemy Within's box art still carries the
XCOM Enemy Within’s box art still carries the “Expansion Pack” moniker- to warn custmers they needed the base game for this to work. On Steam, all expansions are treated as DLCs. These two terms are highly interchangeable nowadays

Expansions Are Still A Thing

GTA IV’s DLC is so substantial it could be argued it should be called an expansion. Although not many in the industry would use the term, some still do.

Firaxis, famous for its games bearing the name of its founder and pioneering game developer in the late 80s’-early 90s’ Sid Meier, and the well-received reboot of XCOM, XCOM Enemy Unknown. Having roots in the PC game development for years, they still produce what is essentially expansion packs. This strategy has worked most of the time, as the expansion packs do change a lot of the core gameplay in the original game, and feel tightly integrated that it would be hard to imagine playing the game sans expansions. XCOM Enemy Within, Enemy Unknown’s expansion, exemplified this.

The latest mainline Civilization, Civ V, underwent a major redesign that it had to compromise by leaving out systems and mechanics that were in the previous Civ games. Religion and Espionage, the said missing features, was included in the Gods & Kings expansion, and Brave New World introduced new mechanics in the late game that redesigned two of the victory conditions. These two expansion eventually fleshed out what was a solid but lacking experience the base game has to offer for Civ veterans, and a greater game overall.

But the point of making an expansion, that usually costs more than normal DLCs, is lost if it takes an expansion, let alone a few, to eventually have it be a great experience. Civilization Beyond Earth, a spin-off to Civ, but in space, not unlike Alpha Centauri, is not a worthwhile purchase for experienced Civ players- as it introduces little changes that are that meaningful to the core Civ experience. It’s also not a good enough game to recommend for new players too when the better quality Civ V, with all its expansions, are priced much cheaper. It took an expansion, Rising Tide, to finally make this game a different experience than Civ V, and even then there are lots of things still out whack- like game balancing, that’s putting off the core audience. Maybe another expansion, and the right mods, would eventually make it an experience worth paying for.

Another game franchise still using expansions is The Sims. Just look at the list of expansions, and “Stuff” packs, and you would be surprised how much money you need to fully experience what it is to be offered. Yet the expansions really do change a lot of the experience in the base game. The only limitation is how much would you consider buying.

Free Updates, With Micro-Transactions

gta-online
Still playing GTA V today? You might have been spending time with GTA Online. Or really taking time with the story mode.

A newer take on extending a game’s lifespan is to forgo paid DLCs and expansions, and make it free, available to all who purchased the game. Inspired by the how successful free-to-play games with this model, more and more modern AAA games are trying to implement it. Grand Theft Auto V developer Rockstar North stated that they have all their main staff working on its multiplayer component GTA Online. Whilst the additional content for the single-player announced early on launch as yet to materialise, they have been hard at work in bringing free content to GTA Online. Most likely the free flow of content is supported by its huge revenue, breaking sales record on release, aside from offering micro-transactions for in-game money, usable only in Online.

Capcom realised their past blunders of X Tekken, and how the player base kept splitting up as they kept pushing updated version of Street Fighter IV (There’s Super Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition 2012, and Ultra Street Fighter IV), their next mainline fighter Street Fighter V would be supported and updated throughout its lifespan– no more Super- or Ultra- editions purchased separately, and offers DLC that can either be purchased with micro-transactions, or via in-game currency earned by just playing the game.

But isn’t micro-transactions a red flag when it comes to AAA games? Shouldn’t we rally for none at all? This sense of annoyance sprouts from Dead Space 3, the first big-name AAA game that introduced the system, to universal disdain. The survival horror game makes no sense to have micro-transactions for resources, since resource management should have been the main source of tension and agency to the player. Making it arbitrarily limiting to lure players paying is just scummy business tactics that failed to see the importance of certain elements of game design. The fact that the game was not well received by users and critics proves the point.

But if done right, micro-transactions can help a game’s longevity. It’s why free-to-play mobile games are able to generate huge revenues. But just slapping it into a full priced game may not always work.

If DLCs, expansions, and micro-transactions with free updates all have their caveats, so how do we extend a game’s life?

Fun fact: their mascot is a platypus, as seen in the logo.
Fun fact: their mascot is a platypus, as seen in the logo.

So, Which Model Is Best?

While most larger companies struggle to find the best way to maintain player engagement with their products through additional content, one particular small- but growing company- maybe on the right track.

Paradox Interactive is a publishing arm hailing from Sweden, popular for coining the ‘grand strategy’ term, which best describes their games that are all based from kigdoms and nations in a specific era of time. Whilst Europa Universalis IV (2013) and Crusader Kings II (2012) have a small fanbase compared to other huge AAA games, yet these titles still received support to this day as of writing. They provide free updates or bug fixes coinciding with the release of a paid DLC. The DLC itself, although plenty ranging form just additional soundtrack to whole expansions of the base game, each one is entirely optional, so players are not felt left out for not purchasing a specific DLC. They also allow access to any DLC purchased by any player available for use by everyone in a multiplayer game, a good way to try before you buy without resorting to piracy, and avoid the segregation of players due to DLC.

This practice seems to extend to other Paradox-published games, like Cities Skylines. It’s first DLC After Dark introduced new buildings and zoning types for night time cities. The night time itself is available for all players free of charge.

Likewise, bigger publishers are trying to emulate this model as well. Ubisoft will be releasing a major free update, which includes weather and a graphical overhaul for all owners of its MMO racer The Crew, coinciding with the release of the Wild Run expansion. Destiny is now a completely different game on launch than it is now one year later, as it constantly updates and make changes, based on player feedback, as well as releasing a string of DLCs that provided more things to do for the FPS that is or is not an MMO.

A mix of DLCs, expansions, and free updates can work a long way to provide a game longevity. But for any of this to be successful, we need to vote with our wallets. Let them know if the extra content is worth the money by buying or skipping them.

[This article originally appeared on the author’s personal site, meckronos.wordpress.com]