Thursday, January 22, 2009

February 2009 - The Month of DLC

February is looking to be an odd month when you look at some of the new videogame related stuff coming out. FEAR 2: Project Origin and Street Fighter IV are coming out, but it seems like the biggest new releases are for games we've already played.

Fallout 3, Burnout Paradise, Mirror's Edge, Tomb Raider Underworld and Grand Theft Auto IV are all getting new expansions to the original content they came with in some form or another. Developers now seem fully committed to extending the life of a game through new downloadable content, and now that the holiday crush is over, they want us to return to the games we rushed through earlier, or finally pick up the ones that we regretfully decided didn't make the cut for a purchase. I would love to see the sales figures for downloadable content from the last few years, but that information seems to be a closely guarded secret for reasons I don't understand.

In a way, Bethesda helped pioneer this brave new DLC frontier we're currently exploring. They still haven't lived down the overpriced horse armor they released for Oblivion, but the subsequent expansions they released were much more feature rich and sensibly priced. It sounds like the new stuff they have planned for Fallout 3 will take a lot of what they learned from their experiences on that earlier game. They all look like they're going to offer a substantial amount of content for the amount of money being asked for. The DLC for March will also fix one of the main complaints about the game: not being able to continue past the main quest.

Burnout Paradise of course has been receiving free content for the past year, but February's DLC will mark the first time an update is being charged for. There will also be a free patch to go alongside it, but the paid portion will test just how much goodwill has been built up over the past year from the free stuff. My worry is that this first premium pack seems to add features that nobody was really asking for, while not adding what people DO want. It adds a local multiplayer "party" feature where players pass around a controller and compete in challenges like the online multiplayer has. What people have actually asked for is a split-screen racing mode, but that has not been added in. The free patch will be adding a restart option for events, which will at least address the other large complaint many people have about the game. I still contend that pining for such an option misses the point of the game, but I'll live.

Mirror's Edge is getting a new pack of time trial levels for players to master. The interesting thing about them is that they're presented in a very different and abstract style compared to the levels in the main game and original time trials. As shown in the picture above, the new levels look to be purely a playground for the fast, fluid freerunning the the story mode only occasionally got right.

The DLC for Tomb Raider and GTA4 seem to be the most traditional. Tomb Raider simply adds a few new levels to explore that were cut from the main game. GTA4's episodic expansion, The Lost and Damned, will cost $20 and feels like the disc-based expansion packs that used to be sold for PC games a few years ago. It adds a new story and characters, but other than that we don't know much about it.

The first three examples are the most interesting to me because they all represent efforts by the developers to respond to player feedback. Mirror's Edge may be a happy coincidence, since the DLC for it was announced soon after the game was released, but otherwise we're finally seeing significant changes come to game instead of having to wait for a sequel to fix our collective gripes. It will be very interesting to see if The Lost and Damned has responded to the narrative and character complaints that people had about the original game. I think it would also be hilarious to hear the term "ludonarrative dissonance" mocked on one of the new radio or TV stations that will be added.

Responding to player feedback through patching has been pretty common on the PC for years, but it's new for consoles, and monetizing it is new to both sides. Bethesda once again seems to have paved the way for paid downloadable content on the PC with Oblivion and Fallout 3. Valve has released a slew of free updates for Team Fortress 2, but will be forced to charge for them on the Xbox 360. Infinity Ward released several free map packs for Call of Duty 4 yet charged for them on both the Xbox and Playstation 3. I'm frankly surprised that there wasn't more of an uproar from PC gamers when the Oblivion content was released. Except for the horse armor, perhaps people felt that the content being offered was done so at a fair price. When you add in the fact that DLC may directly address the larger issues that players may have had with a game, it becomes worth the price even more.


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