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DLC Changes How We Define Games

Let’s go back to Super Mario Bros. for a minute, but add DLC. Now, after you beat all 8 levels of SMB, you can download another 8 levels – a whole new adventure after you beat the first story. A new super-power: the raccoon tail. Or a new character

Downloadable Content for video games is probably here to stay, despite the cries of some fans that developers are no longer shipping the whole game, but instead, asking gamers to pay full price for a half-finished game and providing the rest of the game in small downloadable chunks (for a price, of course).

Of course, not all gamers are pissed about DLC. Some like it, because it means their favorite games receive more updates than they probably would have if the developers weren’t still making money from the game. It also goes without saying that developers like it. After spending months (years?) developing the tools to easily add content to a game, they can take those tools, after the game is out, and pipe out some hot new content to players. In terms of time investment, it’s a pretty sweet gig.

But there’s no doubt, DLC is changing the face of gaming, both the way gamers and developers see games. Whether it’s good or bad remains to be seen.

To show how DLC is changing gaming, let’s pretend we’re the Prince of Persia (from The Sands of Time iteration) for a minute and do a little rewinding into the past. For you older gamers who remember the original Super Mario Bros. (yes, on Nintendo), I’m talking to you.

Think back to the first time you played Super Mario Bros. Don’t worry, I’m not going to romanticize it and talk about the awe you felt or anything cheesy like that. Nah, SMB is just an easy game to pick for this example because it’s iconic and most of us played it when we were young.

So when you think of playing SMB, what do you think of? Strip away all those years of playing games and think about what it was like to play SMB. Think about the first level. You start out, run out of the castle – kill that first goomba, get the mushroom that makes you big, jump over the first pipe, and so on, jumping and squashing enemies until you get to the end of the level.

The thing about the original SMB is that the first level never changes, no matter how many times you’ve played the game, or how far you’ve gotten – you always start by killing that first goomba and getting that first mushroom.

There are a million things that made SMB a great game and I don’t want to list them all here. Instead, I’d like to say that there were two main things that made it a great game: good mechanics and good level design. It’s easy to see that now.

But what about when we were kids? Back then we didn’t separate mechanics from level design. We didn’t see them as two different things. We saw them together, as Super Mario Bros. Mario always jumped the same when you hit the button and the first level was always the same. That first level was SMB. Mario jumping was SMB. The whole package was the game.

Well, technology has progressed a lot since the old NES days, and gaming has changed, too. But DLC could be one of the biggest changes yet. It’s a big deal because it gives gamers the clear distinction between game mechanics and game content. It helps gamers separate Mario jumping and shooting fireballs from SMB level 1, stage 1, with that first goomba and first mushroom.

Let’s go back to that SMB game for a minute, but add DLC. Now, after you beat all 8 levels of SMB, you can download another 8 levels – a whole new adventure after you beat the first story. A new super-power: the raccoon tail. A new main character to play as: Yoshi. Or whatever.

Suddenly, that first level of SMB doesn’t seem so iconic, does it? It’s the first level of the first chapter, but there’s also a first level of the DLC chapter. And maybe another one after that. And maybe his fireball attack doesn’t seem like the ultimate weapon anymore, since the raccoon tail is more powerful. And Mario is great, sure, but Yoshi jumps higher and can eat people and spit them out again.

It’s not the same game anymore. Now SMB is a set of mechanics and levels, powers, and characters are just content to go with those mechanics. They are separate entities. They don’t seem to hold together as well as a cohesive whole.

Well, that didn’t happen to SMB. So let’s go back to the present now, where DLC exists. Right now a gamer buys a game from the shelf and plays it, beats it (or doesn’t), and then heads to the Internet to get some DLC. Another fifty levels, or a new area, or a character outfit – whatever, it doesn’t matter.

But once that DLC is added, the player is able to see the split between mechanics and content more easily. The game ceases to have iconic scenes since it is no longer a complete and finished masterpiece, an immutable thing that can be conquered and finished, but a ball of digital clay that can be changed at any time.

Because here’s the thing: DLC always either feels tacked on or it completes a game that should have been complete when the player bought it, with the possible exception of episodic gaming. But the game was either purposefully short and cut so that DLC could be added – or, the DLC is an epilogue, an extra mode, a thing separate from the whole experience. An afterthought. And afterthoughts can never feel as iconic as the original experience.

But they can ruin the original experience, by demonstrating to players that the collections of content and mechanics and graphics and music that make up their favorite games are just that – collections. They aren’t highly polished masterpieces. They aren’t carefully collected and arranged. They’re whatever made the shipping deadline.

Coz the rest just got slapped into DLC.

And even if that’s not true, if the original game release was a full experience and amazing and all the DLC’s were great an worth the money – it doesn’t matter. DLC changes games so they are no longer static things, but fluid things.

20 years from now, will gamers be looking back and saying, “Man, that 4th DLC for Jimbo and the Rocket Whale, man, that’s what sealed the package for me. That game was great” or will they still be holding up the old classics because the old classics were easier to define as complete?

I’m not sure. Because it’s easy to say what Super Mario Bros is. It’s a guy who jumps. It’s that first level with the goomba and the mushroom and makes you big. But what is Fallout 3? Is it the mechanics? The original release? The game of the year edition? The DLC? The feeling the game evokes? That screenshot of the Brotherhood guy standing there with a gun looking all menacing? Who really knows?

I’m not saying DLC is good or bad. And it’s been pretty successful monetarily so it’s probably here to stay. But it makes games different. It turns games from polished, completed art, into mechanical systems separated from their content. It makes them fluid. It makes it hard to define what’s “cannon” and what isn’t.

And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I want to like it because the potential for great things is there.

But I’m just not sure how.

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