Saturday, January 17, 2009

Op/Ed: Is DLC Bad or Good?

DLC seems to be the new wave these days when it comes to the console markets. Pretty much everyone knows what it is; add-on's for pre-existing games whether it be items or whatnot. Of course, we had stuff like that before in the form of PC games and their expansion packs sold in retail on physical discs. But downloading through the internet straight to the system seems to be the wave of the future; and it's not just items anymore as full expansion packs are starting to be offered through these services. So of course, the question becomes; is downloadable content really all that great or really a good idea at all?

Well, it's damn sure got it's negative qualities, that's for certain.

One thing I've noticed since services like X-Box Live appeared - and to a lesser extent when console exclusivity started going out the window - is that a problem that used to only affect PC gaming has unfortunately started creeping into console titles. In effect, console games have started being pushed out the door unfinished in several cases, which need patches shortly after release or down the road. In essence, it feels like developers have started to get lazy; or maybe even greedy, which it is doesn't really matter a whole lot.

I grew up during the days when you bought a game and that was pretty much it. The whole thing was there, for better or for worse, and there was no going back; the next time you'd see Donkey Kong or Sonic would be in a sequel. Of course, the offset is that the developers had to actually try in those days. The games they shipped needed to have as few bugs as possible because once it was out there, that was it. If it was a glitchy mess, it would be an ink blot on their record that few gamers would forget in the future. Sure, the gameplay experience was finite, but this was a golden age of sorts; games were getting longer and hidden secrets were starting to become the order of the day, which made the games a better time investment than the days of the NES and Sega Master System. Not being able to extend the experience didn't matter a whole lot.

These days, however, more and more games are being shoved out the door for the cash reasons; especially when we're getting around the Holiday season. Sega in particular is notorious for this sort of behavior, having forced a good deal of their games out the door to meet the holiday season for years now; but it's becoming a problem with a lot more developers. In the old days, there were fewer bugs in general; but the games were also tested a hell of a lot better. What happened?

It seems the online patch happened. Coming right alongside downloadable content and arguably the same thing. As was unfortunately demonstrated to me recently when I finally got a true next gen system, when big name games like Fable II or Fallout 3 are released with gamebreaking bugs or big ones, with a patch promised down the line, you know there's a problem here. It's gotten even worse with PC gaming; some games, from what I hear, can't even be played for some people until a patch is released and downloaded; rendering their fifty or so dollar purchase into nothing more than an expensive frisbee or coaster to put your ice cold soda can on.

To add insult to injury, downloadable content is not exempt from problems. As I've started to see as a new user looking in, price gouging is beginning to become a bit too much of a factor in these sort of things. It wasn't that much of a problem when it came to price back when DLC was little more than items added to the game; a microtransation ordeal that was experimented with to find just the right price point. Now, with new quests and expansions starting to become the norm, it becomes a bit dicier.

Things like what are upcoming with Fallout 3 are generally priced alright. Operation: Anchorage, for instance, adds new quests, new achievements, new equipment and allows you to simulate a battle through one of the most important points in Fallout history for the standard issue price of 800 Microsoft points. or ten dollars US currency. Ten dollars for what they offer in that alone is a fair price by far. Another good example was the Mass Effect DLC offered, which gave a new planet to explore, maybe another two to three hours of gameplay depending on how you went through it, a new achievement and other stuff for 400 points, or five dollars. Not only do these add story, but they are meant to enhance the gameplay experience. That's fine.

Unfortunately, then you get to the other end of the spectrum. Like the upcoming Mirrors Edge DLC, which more or less amounts to ceveral time trial maps where you race around a level for the fastest time; this being for the price of 800 points, or ten dollars as mentioned. Now that is ridiculous. Time Trial modes are generally an afterthought in most games and have been for years. Often they are there as extra's alongside of the beefy main game, there mostly to please the people who enjoy racing for the best times. Which is all fine, well and good, but not when you're overpricing it. That is the sort of content that's worth maybe five dollars, or 400 points; ten dollars is just ripping you off by hiding it behind arbitrary points systems to mask the real price point. Let's not get into Halo 3, which charged you asinine amounts for simple multiplayer map packs of three.

Nintendo and company are just as bad at this sort of thing. The Wii is home to some of the most overpriced schlock I've seen, not the least of which being Virtual Console games, where you will end up paying anywhere from five to fifteen dollars a pop for games that often enough don't even fully emulate the games shoved up there; an insult when you consider kids in their basements have written software that could play these games perfectly for years and years as opposed to a multi million dollar company with all sorts of resources at their disposal.

Then there are the points systems, which are really the most unnecesary and asinine restrictions ever really placed on transactions. It's fine for kids, I suppose; it allows parents to measure how much their kids can have a week or month or whatever without having to hand them a credit card or such. But there really should be an option by now for adults to just use their credit cards to purchase items online. And if that's out of the question, the least they could do is allow you to purchase a specific amount of points at a time. As anyone who's gone online with a console so far has probably noticed, any of the companies force you into purchasing one of set point amount packages instead of choosing the amount you want to buy yourself. Which usually goes from ten dollars worth to twenty on up. This is positively asinine as it forces you to buy more points than you need, leaving you with unfortunate leftovers you really wish you hadn't needed to buy. If this restriction was eliminated or a more advanced option allowing you to choose how many points to buy was put in place, things would be so much smoother.

To make matters worse, Microsoft, the notoriously greedy corporation that they are, have actually been forcing some people to price their downloadable content. Remember that Halo 3 thing I mentioned earlier? Microsoft pissed Bungie off by forcing them to price those packs instead of giving them away for free. Epic Games, forerunners of the Gears of War titles, were also victims of this; being forced to stalemate with the game until a compromise was able to be made, making Epic have to price their map packs for four months before being allowed to offer them for free. Even XBLA is not exempt, with Microsoft recently forcing the creators of Braid to sell a dashboard theme instead of giving it away for free, to much chagrin. Of course, Microsoft is more than happy to give away free dash themes that are nothing more than ad's; which I'm sure they got money to put up for free. Subway theme anyone? I didn't think so. Of course, Microsoft loves forcing people into things anyways; there's no way around getting the New X-Box Experience dashboard whether you think it looks like horse manure or not. They've made it a mandatory update, after all; and there's no option to keep the old "blades" dash, which would probably cost them maybe two days of coding to rework and offer as an option.

Can you tell I don't like Microsoft at all? I didn't like them long before I finally broke down and got a 360 recently because of the system finally getting some good games. I don't know if it's comforting or not to see them as bad as they've always been. Of course, this is hardly our topic.

Of course, even with all that bad, there's a big part of me that believes DLC can be something special in the right hands. Anyone who's played the recent expansions that have been offered for some of the most recent games can see the sort of potential inherant with this kind of service. Instead of agonizing waits for sequels to a favorite game, downloadable extra's can be added to give you more fun and make that wait just a little less painful. I've played several games over the years that I've finished and wished with all my heart that there was more of. Now, with games like Fable II and Fallout 3 beginning to offer add-on content to their main games online, we're finally starting to see what I was hoping would come around the first time; true expansions and not just a plethora of priced items for games, "free" online MMORPG style. Something that is undoubtably very exciting.

Also, while the negatives inherant in patch updates and what they seem to bring still hold true, it also allows developers a lot more leeway that before. Leeway to listen to fans. Bethseda in particular are champions of this. They seem to take pride in listening to their fans to get reports of bugs on their forums and to get suggestions, which leads to the strong possibility of more focused downloadable content furthur in the future. If a game actually does slip through with bugs despite efforts and it wasn't just laziness, now the developers can respond to peoples cries and fix what they missed.

Above all, development of online resources have the possibility of actually helping small developers. There are fee's, of course, but things like the Wii Shop Channel and X-Box Live allow for smaller developers to stretch their legs and make games for less overall money, without having to worry about the pressures of things like publishing and such. It has the possibility to, and already seems to be, expand on the video game market into other avenues.

Which all makes these problems and greed on the part of some so much more frustrating. It's always such a sad thing to see something with great potential and realize the things that hold it down. But maybe, just maybe, it can rise above all that. As it stands, I must admit I'm very disappointed in the way that it has gone so far; there are a lot of negative elements springing from the emergance of online functionality with consoles. Pricing issues in general seem to be the biggest problem with it all so far, one that I think really needs to be sorted out before anything else. At the very least, Microsoft needs to lay off; and if developers have to charge for certain content, they should be allowed to decide how little.

Can it do it? We'll see I suppose. We're only in the second real console generation of online functionality, with the original X-Box Live having paved the way for it's second incarnation, along with Sony and Nintendo's own online funtions. Hopefully things change moving forward. They have to. Otherwise I fear that the road of online content is only going to get rockier thanks to underhanded tactics and overpricing.

In case I haven't really made it clear enough, I personally think that in the end, DLC and online connectivity in general is just as much in bad as it is good.

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