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The Great Game Design Debate: DLC - The Future of Games or An Incoming Nightmare

DLC has become one of those hot button topics in the industry. The inclusion of it has affected both game content and the issue of game pricing and this gives us two areas to discuss.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

April 4, 2012

8 Min Read

DLC has become one of those hot button topics in the industry. The inclusion of it has affected both game content and the issue of game pricing and this gives us two areas to discuss.

DLC - three simple letters that have caused a lot of discussion. DLC has become commonplace across consoles and PCs, as developers have seen the success and profit from mega hits like Call of Duty and Oblivion. However, many gamers feel that DLC has done more harm than good, forcing them to buy games for less content up front. The other feeling is being nickel and dime as developers forgo expansion packs for just DLC.

Talking about DLC, we actually have two discussions to examine. First is the issue of what should be considered DLC? One of the arguments that gamers make is that any content developed before the game is released, should be available with the retail purchase.

When Street Fighter 4 was released a few years ago, many fans complained that costumes which were already completed and in the game, were locked behind a micro transaction. Personally I'm not a fan of designers before launch deciding what content is included, and what needs to be purchased separately. Day one DLC has caused arguments from gamers, such as the recent announcements about Mass Effect 3. This was discovered that a good portion of their day one DLC was already on the game disc. On one hand, continuing to develop content after the game has gone gold is commendable, but it does lead to that grey area of what is considered DLC and what should be retail.

Another part of this first issue is with the quality of said content. Playing Saint's Row the Third, I have been really disappointed in the DLC. The bulk of the DLC are little costume and gun packs, and the full DLC episodes each last about an hour. I just can't help but feel that the quality just isn't there with the DLC packs so far. It feels like a lot of the content so far would either best be free, or built upon as expansion content.

With Civilization 5 there is not only DLC of new Civs and maps, but also an announced expansion pack. That to me sounds like double dipping or having your cake and eating it too. It remains to be seen just how much content is going to be in the expansion and what will be left to continue adding DLC. What is the point where newly developed content should be priced as DLC, or if it should be saved and put in an expansion?

Another important point about the quality of DLC has to do with the decision to make it. A popular reasoning designers use to support DLC, is that the content would not have been created otherwise. Once again quality plays a big deal for this argument. I could see things like additional characters, skins, maps and costumes fit this criterion. However, when we talk about new story missions, or content that changes the gameplay this point loses momentum in my opinion.

As a case in point, the DLC for Supreme Commander 2 restructured the tech trees and added in new experimental weapons. Now on one hand, the DLC only affects multiplayer games, but the changes radically affected player's strategies.

Before we move to the next part of the discussion, let's talk about where DLC has helped a game. I know that most people are going to cite Team Fortress 2, but I'm going to say something crazy and state that Team Fortress 2 is not an example of the pros of DLC.

Of course TF 2 has gotten more than its share of patches and new content. However every one of them (last I checked) cost the player nothing. For me, I can think of a better example and one that could not have succeeded without DLC: Rock Band.

Rock Band must have at this point the most DLC available for a console game. Between the three games, there have been new songs added on a weekly basis. Besides new songs, new challenges for players to compete against have given the game massive replay-ability. There is just no way that Rock Band could have succeeded as a music platform without DLC.

Moving on, the second half of this discussion has to do with pricing. Hopefully I'm not the only one who has noticed that big name retail games are still being priced at the high end of the scale, even though they come with DLC.

DLC has become a marketing tool by retailers to convince gamers to purchase from them. Unique skins, characters, weapons and more are popular hooks used. Then we have future DLC in the form of quests and new plots, such as with the Mass Effect Trilogy or Fallout 3.

The problem with DLC and retail pricing is that it really screws the early adopters or the core fans of the game. As a case in point, when Fallout 3 was released it went for the full price of a retail PC game, which I believe was $50 for the regular edition. Then the DLC which is now priced at $5 a pop (although I can't remember if that is the original price.) Let's say for the hell of it that a fan buys the game new and all the DLC, turning that $50 investment into $75. I however, as someone who wasn't a fan waited for a steam sale and got the ultimate edition that came with everything for either $5 or $10 (I can't remember this either.)

Think about that for a second, a hardcore fan or someone the developers want to keep happy, pays about seven times what I, who is not even a huge fan of the game paid. Now you can argue that over time the price of a game degrades, however dropping from $75 to $10 is a huge drop. Stories like this one are one of the common reasons I hear gamers say that they'll wait for a bundle package before buying games with planned DLC.

The pricing of DLC and micro transactions have a huge correlation of the original game's price. Free To Play titles like League of Legends and World of Tanks actually have expensive micro transactions. For instance in LoL, you can buy regular skins or champion skins which I believe come to $15 or $20 a pop. While in World of Tanks players can spend money on a variety of in game items. However in the grand scheme of things, both games allow gamers to pick and choose how much or how little they want to spend and can still enjoy the content of the game.

When DLC is priced adequately and has something to offer, it can be a great way to extend the life of a game and provide compensation for the designers. Last year, two of the games that I spent the most time with: Dungeons of Dredmor and Binding of Isaac, cost me a total of $12. Both games were $5 and Dredmor released DLC for $2 more, adding new skills, enemies, items and more elements to randomize. That added a huge amount of content, which you could argue is more then what most retail games give for more money.

With Isaac, the first DLC pack was free and the second one will most likely cost a few bucks. However once again, the content being offered according to previews will add a lot to the game. That I feel in my opinion is where DLC is at its best: making a great game better. Instead we keep hearing stories about online passes and day one DLC. These stories have affected gamers to the point that lurking on message boards, I hear the same response from gamers who flat out refuse to buy games with any DLC whatsoever.

Once again in a debate I get to sound really old. When I was younger, there was no such thing as DLC, whatever came on the cartridge or CD was it. I support well designed DLC, with the phrase "well designed" being the optimal term. That's why I bought Dungeons of Dredmor DLC and will buy Isaac's DLC on day one, as I enjoyed both games and want to continue supporting the developers. However, whenever I hear about retail games with day one DLC, or those that will have constant micro transactions, I just know to wait for a Steam sale and save.

As digital purchases become more commonplace, the inclusion of DLC will become more frequent. As games are developed with more and more robust digital packages, there will be fewer reasons to buy a retail copy. The question remains though, will we see a drop in game prices? Or will we still have to spend $60 to buy our games in pieces?

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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