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Examining the game industry's love-hate relationship with DLC

Game developers weigh in on the drawbacks and benefits of season passes for games, which offer a single up-front price for DLC content.

In recent months, the subject of DLC and season passes has become increasingly fraught. There's been an outcry against the idea that major releases are being sold piece-meal, with players asked to lay down extra cash on top of the already hefty base game price for content that is seen to 'complete' the game.

The question of how decisions are made about what to include as DLC during the development of a game is one that is only becoming more pertinent, as triple-A development looks more and more to post-release content as a way earning back the huge development costs.

Season pass culture

With season passes in particular, players are being asked to pay a price that is often comparable to the base cost of the game on the promise of future DLC, the content of which is rarely specified. It’s not wholly clear what the incentive of the player is to commit to a season pass before they've even had a chance to play the base game. 

In the past few weeks, Techland came under fire for increasing the price of their season pass for Dying Light by $10, saying that the scope of the content had increased significantly. The outrage that ensued might lead you to believe that most players have a wait-and-see attitude about DLC purchases. 

But DLC still sells, and often sight unseen at the time of the intial release.

"I prefer to have all the content in one box with a clear ending. I’m not a fan of incomplete experiences. I understand there are other business models out there, but I hope we don’t have to embrace them."

“There are several spikes in the expansion pass sales curve,” says Marcin Iwiński, co-founder and joint CEO of CD Projekt Red, which this year launched the hit game The Witcher 3. “Obviously, the first one is when the game launches. That’s when the game is the big thing, and a lot of gamers decide to buy the whole package.”

CD Projekt has adopted an interesting model for The Witcher 3's post-release content, pushing out frequent small updates including new items and single quests for free, and then releasing big expansions, such as the recently released Hearts of Stone, with a price tag attached. As such, it wouldn’t be a big leap to suggest that players feel a certain degree of goodwill towards the studio that asks them to pay up only after so much content has been offered free of charge.

"Some publishers and developers out there do their best to offer high value for the money and treat their promise to the gamer very seriously, while others abuse it," says Iwiński. "This is, however, always up to the gamers to decide, to check what is being offered, what exactly they are going to get and when. If they have any doubts whatsoever, or maybe they were not so happy with their last expansion/Season Pass purchase from a given publisher/developer, they can always wait. In the digital era season passes and DLCs never go out of stock. So remember, dear gamers – don’t let yourselves be fooled. With your hard-earned cash in hand, you are the ones in charge here."

Which content becomes DLC?

The biggest question  is the one that causes the most controversy: how much of what is being sold as DLC was initially intended to be part of the base game? The perception is that some add-ons that are made available so close to release must have been cut from the original game only to be sold to the player for an additional cost.

Creative Assembly is experiencing this vitriol firsthand with their upcoming title Total War: Warhammer. One of the factions in the game, Chaos Warriors, will only be included for pre-order customers, otherwise being offered as paid DLCThe developer's response to grumbling from fans is that by using them as a pre-order incentive, they can secure the funding required to develop them as a faction, as they would otherwise be post-release DLC. 

Many developers are quick to point out that the timelines for releasing games on disc to stores around the world is quite different from the timelines for preparing add-on content for download.

“Generally, the conversation about DLC occurs well after the conversations about game content,” says Forrest Dowling. He worked on Bioshock: Infinite at Irrational Game, and Homefront under THQ, and is currently developing the independent title The Flame in the Flood.

“Typically, the lead time on content for the main game is months out for DLC content," he says. "While DLC conversations happen long before the main game is done, they tend to happen well after the doors have closed on additional content in the main game. I know there’s a sense that DLC must be cut content from the main game, but in my experience, the only time anything like that occurs is when the content had to be cut from the main game for scheduling reasons, but was at least partially done so there was a head start for DLC.”

Sustaining AAA production

This much is clear: as triple-A development becomes more and more labor and cost-intensive, what’s possible to achieve during a typical development window is decreasing in scope.

"If you want to wait and see the review scores, please do! It’s up to us to convince you, it's not up to you to have blind faith in us."

EA DICE’s recent launch of Star Wars: Battlefront has been criticized for being bare-bones, offering Season Pass content that many people believe should've been included in the game's original release. Was the game's content limited by deadlines, or did EA try to release a product that had just enough content to justify a full standard price tag?

The answer likely takes a little bit of column a and column b. Nevertheless, the distinction between those two reasonings is where a lot of the consumer suspicion and speculation around DLC comes from.

Swen Vincke, founder of Larian Studios, which recently added a huge content update to its title Divinity: Original Sin for free, sees DLC implementation as more of a good business practice issue. "I like to make games with a beginning, a middle and an end. I understand there are other business models out there, but I hope we don’t have to embrace them because they would inevitably affect the way we have to develop our games. I’m not even sure we’d be good at it."

Vincke says that Larian never seriously considered going the paid DLC route, let alone Season Passes. "I prefer to have all the content in one box with a clear ending. I’m the guy that only buys a book from a trilogy if he knows the trilogy is complete - I’m not a fan of incomplete experiences."

That is where the crux of the perception problem of season passes sits. Is it about 'completing' the experience of the game, or expanding it? One has connotations of a job unfinished, and the other building on a job well done. And that problem of perception is one that often boils down to how a developer handles itself, both in the past and going forward. 

“I believe in building a long-term relationship with the people who buy our games,CD Projekt RED's Iwiński explains to me. The process of game publishing should never become a fire-and-forget experience and each subsequent step one takes should be considered in terms of how it affects this long-term relationship. First off, since any good relationship is based on trust, trust has to be earned. If someone was still uncertain and thinking about waiting before purchasing anything, my answer was always the same--by all means, please do! If you want to wait and see the review scores, please do! It’s up to us to convince you, it's not up to you to have blind faith in us. Everything we do should be as gamer-centric as possible; this is the way you earn trust and respect.”

This approach to player investment has become more and more prevalent in the past few years. Early Access could be seen as the indie version of a season pass--players are making a purchase based on the promise of future development. One of the reasons this is so attractive as a development model is that it discourages what Iwiński calls a "fire and forget experience," both in terms of the studios and the players. They keep playing as the game keeps changing and improving, and the studio keeps everyone employed as all aspects of the game require attention.

Dying Light

Forrest Dowling’s The Flame in the Flood is currently in Early Access, so having previously worked on Bioshock: Infinite and Homefront, he’s been a part of both models.

"DLC is often much more content- than tech-driven, so it gives a company a way to justify keeping a lot of people employed even when they’re no longer needed on the main title,” he says. “Late in development and after the game ships, there’s often far more engineering work than content work to be done, so typically a big chunk of the art and design teams would end up doing QA, sitting on their hands, or getting laid off." 

"Post-release content allows teams to fully leverage knowledge gained building the core game. It also benefits consumers because it helps maintain team continuity, which leads to better games down the line."

“This has a knock-on positive effect for players, in that it helps maintain team continuity, which leads to better games down the line," he adds. "I think another benefit for consumers is that in many cases, the post-release content can be some of the best in the game.

"Often full games have levels or systems that were built while the team learned how to best make content, and by the end they are saddled with various decisions that were too costly to change, but maybe weren’t the best for how the game ended up. Post-release content allows teams to fully leverage the knowledge they gained over the previous years they spend building the core game.”

A fixture of the industry

It might be tempting to issue a wholesale condemnation of the practice of developing DLC before a game releases. That’s certainly an attitude that a lot of players have adopted. It’s not surprising that companies like CD Projekt Red are happy to talk about their experience, as it’s been so positive; players are by and large very happy with the steady stream of mixed free and paid content in The Witcher 3, if only because the base game was already so large.

“I think season passes are overall a net benefit for the industry.” Dowling sums up, “Even if sometimes the execution is hit or miss. Games continue to become more and more expensive, but the audience for big triple-A games doesn’t seem to be growing at the same rate as budgets. Season passes allow companies to offset the increased development cost somewhat by keeping the price of the core game at a more affordable level for people who are more price sensitive or don’t necessarily need every little bit of content a game has to offer. I suspect that season passes are a part of why we’re still able to buy games for $60 even when the budgets have skyrocketed over the last decade.”

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