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DLC Changed the Face of Gaming—What’s Next?

When DLC started to become a significant force early into the last (PS3, 360, Wii) generation of console gaming. Many didn't know what to expect from downloadable content, but now it's here to stay.

When DLC started to become a significant force early into the last (PS3, 360, Wii) generation of console gaming, a lot of people—myself included—were pretty nervous. The most obvious and prominent uses of downloadable game content at the time were of two kinds. First were the add-on chapters, characters, gun packs, and map packs that seemed unnecessary and stupid (I’m looking at you, Oblivion horse armor). Second were added chapters or modes or maps (etc.) that seemed worth playing but gave you the sneaking suspicion that they’d been cut out of the original retail game just so they could charge extra by offering it as DLC (and disc-locked content for games like Resident Evil 5 and 6, Bioshock 2, Bulletstorm, and Street Fighter X Tekken didn’t help publishers look like the good guys on this one). Defenses were put forward about how DLC is often shopped out to a separate studio (or team, at least) so it really is a separate game, which I know is sometimes true (like with the excellent Minerva’s Den DLC for the merely OK Bioshock 2), but DLC mainly seemed like a money grab, and one I largely avoided except for sales.

            A few years into the generation, though, creative game designers started figuring out more interesting ways to use the DLC delivery system. (Downloadable game delivery was also on the rise with PC gaming, particularly through Steam, giving many of the games mentioned here two major markets.) We began to enjoy a proliferation of excellent indie games like Braid, Limbo, Shadow Complex, and Journey, games (and studios) that might not have seen the light of day if they’d have had to use the business model of a full $60-style title. Being able to sell shorter, cheaper games allowed risks to be taken on gameplay and narrative experiments like  Flower, ilomilo, Bastion, World of Goo, and Fez that sometimes succeeded admirably or reached niche audiences that couldn’t support the budget of a larger-scale game.

            Meanwhile, Telltale Games was experimenting (more successfully than other developers) with DLC as a way to produce episodic games. First came enjoyable titles based on properties like the excellent LucasArts IPs Sam & Max and Monkey Island as well as Back to the Future. Then came Tag’s breakthrough title: The Walking Dead, an episodic drama game more about the terrible choices the player must make than the fine but not particularly engrossing traditional gameplay elements. Based on the critical and commercial success of Tag’s Walking Dead (now in its second season), Telltale was able to quickly land intriguing deals to build episodic games in the Borderlands and Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire universes (as well as the Fables universe, though The Wolf Among Us was in development before The Walking Dead became a hit). One of the coolest things about Telltale’s approach is that they can see how players react to the choices and mechanics of Episode 1 of a series and make some adjustments in later episodes before release based on what’s working and what’s not. In this way, the episodic format allows for productive experimentation and responsive design.

            Downloadable and online play also led to the rise of free-to-play gaming, which I have yet to see done particularly well commercially, at least on the scale of something like Zynga (though some Congregate games are passable for a time). But free-to-play gaming affects my life mainly by making me want to defriend people on Facebook for being willing to spam others’ notification feeds in exchange for inane power-ups or whatever.

            Looking back, the DLC content delivery system that started with horse armor and weapons skins has given rise to so many more, and more interesting, gaming experiences. As we settle into the current generation of console gaming—and technology more generally, with our devices becoming increasingly connected and powerful, with screens ranging from the handheld or Smartphone size through tablets, Wii U gamepads, laptops and PCs through to widescreen TVs and more, I wonder what kinds of game design and delivery innovations await us. I failed to predict the significant changes that DLC would enable because I was focused on the unimaginative crap that it was used for first. I don’t intend to make the same mistake this generation. So what’s next?

            I think there is significant potential in second-screen gaming, though I’m not convinced yet that designers (other than Nintendo, where Miyamoto at least is realizing they really need to make second-screen gaming interesting to get the Wii U afloat) will go for it.  (Says Brandon Perton from The Old School Game Vault.) The trick for non-Wii U second-screen gaming is not development, which I think creative designers can handle, but getting hardware developers to let game designers connect devices that aren’t built to go together. If software designers can get hardware on board and (less challengingly, I would think) develop a business model, I think asymmetrical second-screen gaming might be a really neat innovation for the current generation, particularly since we all have so many screens right now anyway. The brilliant multiplayer ions/Android game Spaceteam might be a taste of things to come in this respect.

            The other delivery system prediction I’ll make right now is that more game designers are going to start taking advantage of the fact that we have smart devices in our pockets and bags to create games that prod us to engage with them while we’re on the go, allowing games to creep out of our living rooms and into the rest of our lives a little more. Alternate reality games do this in some ways, and Google’s Ingress for Android taps the Android platform to combine real-world environments with smart device (mainly phones) mobile processing, but there’s so much more potential than what a game like Ingress (which is alright, but more proof-of-concept than particularly fun, in my opinion) has tapped. The danger here is that games start bugging us when they shouldn’t, like during a meeting or a movie, etc. Game designers are not (usually) idiots, though, so I’m confident they can come up with ways to have games follow us around without interrupting our lives in ways that will make us want to turn them off permanently. Being able to interact with a console game (etc.) in a small but interesting way while on the go sounds like it could have a lot of potential (as Electronic Arts has at least started to realize, based on their experiments with the Datapad and N7HQ mobile apps related to the Mass Effect game universe).

            So those are my two predictions about the future of game delivery. What do you think? Will second-screen and mobile-to-console gaming be game changers in the next five years? Have I overlooked something equally or more important? How do you want to see game formats and delivery systems evolve?

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