My Kingdom for a Horse Armor Pack: What Was Lost With the Rise of DLC
Note: Minor spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution follow.
On April 3, 2006, Bethesda released the first piece of new content for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The “Horse Armor Pack” allowed the player to acquire barding for their horses from a stable manager outside the Imperial City. This wasn’t unexpected, as Bethesda had released numerous small additions for their previous game, Morrowind, ranging from new quests to added ambient sound effects.
There was one difference. While all of the Morrowind enhancements were free, the Horse Armor cost money: $2.50 on the Xbox 360 and $2 on the PC.
The internet exploded with rage, as it is wont to do. The objections basically boiled down to two points. First, Bethesda was charging for something that had previously been free; nobody likes a price hike, and they particularly don’t like one when it’s infinity percent. Second, and somewhat more pragmatically, it was seen as a poor value. This wasn’t a new line of quests, or a new landscape to explore. It was an aesthetic change accompanied by a small stat tweak.
Bethesda got an enormous amount of flak for this, enough that one could easily have seen them backing down, apologizing and promising not to gouge customers in the future. I honestly think they would have, were it not for one little detail: it sold hundreds of thousands of copies, netting upwards of $500,000 in revenue from something with a production cost close to zero. After that, there was no going back.
Horse Armor didn’t really bother me. I looked at it, saw the price tag, and gave it a pass. Oblivion had some problems, but a lack of content wasn’t one of them. If some people felt equine accoutrements were worth a couple bucks, more power to them. I mention it here because this was what opened the floodgates, what led suits racing to discover the best way to capitalize on this new source of income. And some of those results WOULD end up infringing on my play experience.
Insert Quarters to Continue
The first problem was when the absent DLC started to infiltrate the design of the base game. Early on it was only a minor annoyance. In Dragon Age: Origins, there was an NPC who begged you to help save his family – and then demanded you pay him real money before doing him the favor. It was a flagrant breaking of immersion, but it was an isolated incident, and didn’t affect the rest of the game.
More recently, games have been released with outright holes. The penultimate level of Deus Ex: Human Revolution closes with protagonist Adam Jensen trapped on an automated shuttle that crashes into the ocean. The cutscene fades out with the shuttle sinking beneath the sea. Another cutscene opens with Adam standing on a raised ocean platform. Where’d the shuttle go? How’d he get out? How the heck did he manage to climb onto this structure?
This inexplicable temporal leap looks, at first glance, like shockingly inept narrative design. It came as no surprise when Square-Enix announced that DLC would be filling the gap. Announcing the new DLC—shamelessly titled “The Missing Link”—one of the designers commented “We are very excited for Deus Ex: Human Revolution fans to be able to complete Adam’s journey.” In other words, he fully admitted that I’d just paid $60 for an “incomplete” story. DLC was no longer a luxury, but a prerogative.
The holes can also be mechanical. The awkwardly titled Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 featured a number of enhancements over its predecessor, including a new mode called “Archenemy,” in which three players can band together to take down a single player with an extra-powerful deck. Yet for no apparent reason, only the AI could play as the Archenemy. A few months after release, publisher Wizards of the Coast announced that you could now “become the archenemy” if you only gave them another $5. Observant gamers noticed that they didn’t actually have to download anything after forking over the cash – it had been implemented in the game from the start, being an intrinsic part of the design, and was arbitrarily “roped off” so they could charge players extra down the road.
Thankfully, such practices are not yet widespread, but there also seems to be little to no opposition to them. Almost no reviews mentioned Deus Ex’s narrative omission, and Wizard’s devious content-locking never became a news story on any of the major sites. It’s probably because critics see these as little issues that aren’t worth addressing. Yet it’s also worth noting that ten years ago, such intentionally incomplete products would have been unthinkable. Now they’re normalized, and if current trends continue, DLC is only going to become increasingly pervasive and intrusive.
Only One Way to Play
The second problem came when publishers figured out that they had to compete with someone else: the mod community. No PC gamer in their right mind would have forked over the cash for the Horse Armor Pack when there were thousands of free content add-ons from the likes of TES Nexus. Increasingly, publishers are releasing their games without mod tools, and I suspect this is at least partially as a response to this competition. The claim by EA’s Patrick Sunderland that Battlefield 3 wouldn’t have mod tools because the Frostbite engine was simply too complicated was ridiculous, and gamers started to wonder at the ulterior motive. One frequent answer was that EA wanted to protect its fancy new proprietary engine: but if that was the case, why couldn’t they just come out and say it? I believe that the lack of mod tools, combined with the server-side Battlelog intergration, is designed to prevent the sort of custom maps and mods that have flourished in previous games. If users can’t make maps, than the only way the end-user can feed their need for more levels is by paying EA.
This is a shame. Half of the fun of Battlefield 1942 was with the vast array of mods for it. Forgotten Hope turned an arcade game into comprehensive, quasi-simulative WWII experience: an indicator of how much new content it had is the fact that it upped the vehicle count from 34 to 130. The Desert Combat mod took us to “modern warfare” well before Call of Duty 4, and was so accomplished that DICE hired the team who made it and used the design as a basis for Battlefield 2. These are only some examples; nearly every online shooter from Quake II onwards had an active modding community. These days, there aren’t many big, PC-lead multiplayer shooters released, and the temptations of DLC has led to the only such release this year shipping with no modding capability.
DLC isn’t an inherent evil. There have been a number of solid, complete products that have benefited from additional downloadable goodies. The model’s lack of distribution costs and short production time makes it ideal, much-needed revenue source for independent developers. But the temptation to compromise the quality of a game in order to create further monetization opportunities is now ever-present. Some developers, like The Witcher creators CD Projekt and Bastion makers Supergiant Games, have refused to implement DLC, seeing it is inherently consumer-unfriendly. But for the foreseeable future, they will remain the minority. All we can do is try to curb the worst excesses by voting with our wallets; and if we fail to do so, then gamers have no one to blame but themselves.
Source for Deus Ex: HR quote: http://forums.eidosgames.com/showthread.php?t=121152