Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Expanding My Horizons – Traditional Game Expansions vs. DLC

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 2, 2010

I think the first-ever commercial “expansion” I ever bought for a game was Wing Commander: The Secret Missions. Followed soon thereafter by The Secret Missions 2: Crusade. It was a novel concept that I was all too ready to get behind. I mean, when you really love a game, at the end you want more. Wing Commander was that game for me. I lost count of how many times I replayed that game, but I do know that around my third full play-through I won the highest medal the game had to offer.

And here were two expansions. Each seemed only a little shorter than the original campaign. Between them, I got to fight new enemy ships, fought “friendly” ships (captured by the Kilrathi), and the chance to fly the signature enemy ship, the Dralthi (AKA the “Flying Pancake”). But mainly, the feeling was that I got to enjoy a lot more game for half-price or less with each expansion.

The next expansions I played were either for Wing Commander 2 (Special Operations) or The Forge of Virtue for Ultima VII.  Origin, again.  I can’t say they truly pioneered the idea – I’m really not certain on the mainstream / commercial side of things, and I played non-commercial “expansions” or “modules” for games years earlier in games like Eamon. But for gamers like me who really loved the game and couldn’t get more of it, it made sense for the developers to assign a “skeleton crew” to expand the experience for us.

Then at one point (probably about 0.5 seconds after they decided to create an expansion in the first place), they hit upon the idea of re-releasing the game bundled with all of its expansions. Sometimes they might even throw in an extra new bonus or two, like a band’s “Best Of” album, for the gold / platinum / collector’s edition. New players, after hearing praise for the game for months (or years), could jump in on the bundle deal, and even some veteran players would re-purchase the game with all updates and patches pre-applied, and all the expansions in place.

That era’s not gone by a longshot, but the advent of downloadable content (DLC) sure has changed things a bit.  Although DLC often still gets bundled up into a single expansion or deluxe edition (which I hope to see happen with Fallout: New Vegas on the PC), it does seem that the expansion concept has been cranked up to eleven. I have nothing against the theory, but I have found myself taking exception with the particulars that seem common:

#1 – It feels like we’re paying more to get less. The most famous example of this was the early “Horse Armor” DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but it hasn’t stopped there.  Part of the problem is that very small transactions tend to have a higher overhead cost than bigger ones – a problem somewhat solved by consoles, which have you buy “points” in bulk.

#2 – The tiny bite-size of expansions themselves is some cause for concern. When they are that small, is it easy to “miss it?” because they are so narrow in focus? Will I have to replay my game to enjoy the expansion?  With larger expansions,  that’s rarely been a problem, as they historically tried to make sure there was something for everyone to enjoy at any point in the game.  The plus side of this a la carte approach is that like buying individual songs instead of albums, you don’t have to pay for things you don’t want.

#3 – An excess of these “micro-expansions” makes things really confusing. I’m really glad I bought the “ultimate edition” of Dragon Age: Origins to enjoy all the expansions… otherwise, there’s a very good chance I would have bought none of them.

#4 – An even more dangerous problem is that some games have felt that they were “unfinished” without the additional expansions. The more games try to market the DLC from inside the game, the more they will feel that way. The perception is that they ripped off parts from the original game in order to sell them as extras. Like a car salesman saying, “Oh, did you want tires for you car TOO?”  And while marketing the DLC from inside the game like that might be a more successful short-term approach, in the long term that eroded trust with the customer WILL hurt.

My apologies to those who have suffered me ranting on this in the past already.

I don’t think these are fundamental problems with DLC. At their heart, they are just expansions, and I’ve loved expansions. They are good for game-makers and for the players. I think the problems will eventually go away through plain ol’ Darwinism, but if I were to be so bold as to make some suggestions, as a customer:

#1 – For most games, be careful about overdoing it on the quantity of DLC. Players can do math. When they see that they’ll have to spend $200 to buy the “complete” game with all of the DLC, they’ll balk.

#2 – Offer free DLC. This is a good will gesture to players, first off. But besides that, free bonus DLC can be offered as extra incentive for buying other DLC. “Buy any one of these four content additions, and we’ll give you a free new dungeon to explore.”  This may again go a long way to helping players feel like you aren’t just trying to nickel-and-dime them to death.

#3 – Be really, really careful about providing any premium content that apparently just “unlocks” parts of the game.  To players like me, that means you are just charging extra for something we should have already received. Ditto for marketing DLC from inside the game. It’s not a flawed practice – Rock Band 3 seems to handle it pretty well – but it needs to be handled carefully so that the players don’t feel like they’ve been duped into buying an incomplete game.

#4 – Offer decent bundle deals, for crying out loud. Give players the option of buying new mecha for $3 a pop, or all twelve for $25. The bundle deals make a traditional-sized expansion. That can simplify the experience for gamers, AND increase the value-to-price ratio. And with the exception of the rabid fans who would have bought everything separately, the publishers will probably generate more revenue this way too, as players opt for a bigger purchase instead of a piecemeal approach.

#5 – Keep the prices down in general. Think about the value to the player. And don’t you DARE compare the cost of DLC to the price of going out to a movie. People are going to movies less because they are so friggin’ expensive as it is, but at least they go they get to be out of the house in some air-conditioned place with stadium seating and a big screen that can double as a social activity. Playing DLC at home is more like renting a video.  I’m paying $16 a month for that, how about you?  I guess the market will decide, but for me, paying $5 for 5 hours of quality additional gameplay would be a killer deal, but the same price for a new hat and boots would be ridiculous. When in doubt, err on the side of too cheap. More bang for the buck = repeat customers and a good attitude towards DLC in the long run.

Anyway, that’s my opinion, offered free of charge and no doubt worth every penny.

Filed Under: Biz, Mainstream Games - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Xenovore said,

    Amen, say hallelujah! Preach on, brothah! =)

  • Calibrator said,

    IIRC, the first expansion pack I played was “The Second City” for the 3D vector graphics game “Mercenary”.

    As much as I loved playing the original game on my trusty Atari I do remember being disappointed, because it appeared to be more or less the same stuff as the original game – just jumbled around a bit.

    I’m very cautious in regards to DLC, especially since modern stuff is now more or less virtual, linked to an account or even a particular machine (thanks, Nintendo!).
    You don’t like it? Back then I could sell the expansion pack but nowadays? Better luck next time, you sucker!

  • Xenovore said,

    @ Calibrator: That’s good point. You’d better like any game (or expansion) you purchase, ’cause it’s yours now! Good luck getting rid of it!

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Forge of Virtue was probably my first expansion…

    I felt it did add something to the game, it got you that extra bit of story.

    I guess it was kinda necessary for Serpent Isle too, since the Black Sword was part of the main quest.

    Anything to lengthen U7 though, which is why I also loved the flawed and buggy Serpent Isle and Silver Seed expansion.

    There was supposed to be an expansion for Ultima 8 too, The Lost Vale (I think), but all I heard was rumours.

    These days I’ve tended to wait for the “complete” editions (which are sometimes incomplete), the only exception being Neverwinter Nights 2, which I bought the two expansions separately (Storm of Zehir was my favourite).

    I’m really not a fan of the Bioware/EA way of doing things, I didn’t have a great time with the DAO DLC. I’d rather not have to have accounts for every game I purchase from a new publisher or developer.

  • McTeddy said,

    I don’t really mind the way they do the small chunk DLC nowadays, but that probably stems from the fact that I usually ‘Just say no’.

    Many people enjoyed Dragon Age enough that they wanted more. The DLC let them enjoy a couple news hours of story for the parts that they wanted.

    This bite-sized DLC allows the developers to keep a steady flow of game coming. This allows the developers to make more money and the players who are still hungry for more can continue enjoying the product. Greed driven or not, Everybody wins.

    I agree that I think it’s silly to pay $5 for a hat, but I also realize that they didn’t promise anything more with the purchase. I have the CHOICE to buy the hat. If someone likes the hat enough to buy it… not my loss.

    The only DLC I consistently buy is actually Rock Band. Despite my initial hesitation to it, I’ve realized that the small chunk format lets me pick ONLY the songs I want to play.

    If I bought their “Song Pack” expansions I’d get 10 great songs and 20 mediocre. Buying pieces means that I can get all great ones.

    At first I was irritated that I am forced to pay 5$ to upgrade EACH song I’ve bought over the years to use the new functions… but I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to do all of them. I can pick and choose what I want to upgrade.

    I’d love to see more games use such a model. I can choose which quests sound like fun. I don’t need to buy all of the pieces… only the ones that appeal to my desires.

  • Binh Nguyen said,

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Dragon Age, though it generally did a good job with the DLC on offer and bang for your buck, did commit a pretty major sin, which if you just bought the Ultimate Edition you probably never experienced.

    In the vanilla game, once you make camp on the road for the first time, you notice an NPC standing in the distance. You can talk to him and he implores your help and talks about having known the Grey Wardens before and his family’s castle and lands, etc.

    Then the game STOPS, and a 4th wall shattering message pops up saying if you want to do this quest, give us your $7 and download this awesome DLC now. Like, it is totally worth it. It is awesome! Give us your money now or this NPC will just stand here and be useless every time you camp for the rest of the game.

    Your ratio of $1 to 1 hour of additional game time is what I go by. I’ll gladly pay $25 for DLC if I get 25 more hours of play time out of it.

    I’d say I have 2 big peeves in regards to DLC:

    1. Don’t make DLC items. Just don’t. Players should never have to pay $1-$5 for a piece of armor or a weapon. That kind of content takes less than a work day to add to the game. If you want to include an “Armory Pack” DLC for $5 and make it include dozens of new items, great. But don’t nickle and dime us for something you had an artist and programmer do on their respective lunch breaks last Wednesday ya greedy cheats!

    2. Don’t include DLC on game discs that only needs to be unlocked. (See Resident Evil 5) Wow. That takes balls game developers. That’s like ordering dessert at a restaurant and paying for it and having the waiter remove a false bottom in the bread basket to reveal the desert had been at your table all along. This move just proves you’re being greedy. If you could burn it on the gold master you could have included it with the original game I bought.

  • Mark said,

    Until TF2 started selling hats at five bucks a pop I was willing to declare horse armor dead, and the market had adjusted to what people were actually willing to pay.

    The thing about DLC is that there’s content, there’s content, and then there’s content. You might buy something that just adds a few more options without much cognitive overhead; these are for the players who’ll pay a premium for a richer version of the same experience. You might pick up a nice little bit of standalone content; more levels, a kind of minigame, the sort of thing that gives you more to do in the game but only if you’re interested in seeing it.

    Then there’s DLC that would be like a (small?) expansion from the old days, with extended plotlines, expanded mechanics, and evidence of reliance on user feedback. No idea which of these are the best return on investment, but I know that I’ll almost never buy the first kind but almost always the third.

    Standard pricing structures have yet to emerge; the lesson of Steam is that if you make things cheap and convenient to buy, then you’ll end up with more revenue. The most important part of DLC is the “DL” – not having to muck around with retailers and their boxes means that you can really make the stuff a genuine impulse buy.

    The accusation of cutting content out in order to sell it later is a grave one, but that’s just the reality of the market, which is faced with an inflexible (but loosening, thanks to indies) price spectrum that makes it harder to accurately reflect the value of what goes into a game.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    That 4th wall “buy the DLC now” thing sucked. Though not as badly as Fable 3 – every time you go to save the game/equip a different item/travel you get John Cleese telling you “there’s something new in the shop”. No there isn’t. It’s the same dog outfit I didn’t want to buy last time I looked. Gah.

    I don’t even bother looking at item DLC, but I feel that if people will pay for it then why not, *providing* the game doesn’t feel like they skimped on item customisation to do so.

  • John said,

    I had pre-ordered Dragon Age and knew they were planning on DLC, and I really enjoyed it, until I got to the guy who wanted me to buy the DLC – that really took me out of the game. In fact I have never made it past that point. It did give me that “ripped off” feeling.
    Unfortunately for Bioware, I have almost completely lost interest in their games.
    IMHO DLC is fine for pets and stuff like that (I recently just bought the pets in WoW), but not for quests and story lines as it gives me the impression that the game was shipped incomplete.