Guest Column: Why DLC and Single-Player Don't Mix

Phillip Levin | 23 Mar 2009 21:00
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Two recent examples of episodic DLC are Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage and Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned. With both of these, you can see the problems that are inherent with the single-player DLC model. Fallout 3 is 30-hour game that relies heavily on atmosphere and immersion, and Operation Anchorage delivers just an hour or two of gaming -- not nearly enough to become absorbed in its game world. The Lost and Damned, meanwhile, is an example of forced story extension. GTA IV's story was interesting because of Niko Bellic. But Niko isn't a part of The Lost and the Damned. Instead, we get a supporting character turned main star in a story that feels like it should have been told through a series of missions in GTA IV itself. The story and missions aren't nearly interesting or different enough to pull me back into the sandbox. Maybe if The Lost and Damned released a month after GTA IV, I would have been sucked back in. But about a year later, it's not as compelling.

Some developers, however, don't feel there's much of a problem with pulling players back in. One such person is Bethesda's Todd Howard, who told me, "I agree to some extent, but that assumes the person is also not continuing to play the game during those in-between months. For us, at least, we've found that most people buying DLC have been playing the game continuously since the games are so huge."

Howard has a point about single-player DLC working out well for gamers who are still playing the original game, but what if you finished the game 6 months to a year ago? Do you find yourself lured back into a game by the enticement of new content? My answer tends to be no. Out of curiosity, I might check it out, but such DLC just doesn't grab me.

Of course, there are exceptions to my argument. Some games, like Mirror's Edge, work well with downloadable content, but that's because the game is set in a genre that meshes well with single-player DLC. Mirror's Edge is an easy title to pick up and play. It doesn't require a huge investment of time. and has a more competitive nature to it than most single-player titles, making the idea of having new levels to "master" more appealing.

But there is at least one other notable problem with single-player DLC. Developing any game, whether it's a standalone title or a downloadable expansion, requires a lot of resources. When it comes to creating DLC, there are special challenges. "The main issue for us and this is always with the first DLC for a game, whether that's Oblivion or Fallout 3, is just the system working well," says Todd Howard. "You'd be surprised how many little things we need to handle since our DLC adds 'into' the existing game and handling all the different player characters and save games. So the first DLC is always the most basic, and then once we get our feet under us, we start getting more ambitious."

Large studios, like Bethesda and Rockstar, can assign small teams to work on downloadable content. But every person who is working on downloadable content is one less person who could be working on something entirely new. I'd simply rather see developers put their resources towards new, full-fledged games than short bursts of DLC.

As much as I enjoyed Fallout 3, I would rather Bethesda have spent the time starting its next game instead. And the same goes for The Lost and Damned and pretty much any other DLC that's designed to extend the life of a single-player game.

True, it can be hard to let go of a really great single-player game. Thanks to the concept of DLC, it has become possible to extend the life of the games we love. But sometimes it's better to let great things end on a high note, rather than trying to artificially extend their life.

Then we can get onto newer, greater games.

Phillip Levin is a freelance video game journalist who has been writing about the industry for seven years.

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