Expand your Adventure: DLC and gameplay experience

By Alexander Leach

Not based on a Green Day song.

Screenshot from Fallout: New Vegas' Lonesome Road DLC, which contained a new area, storyline, weapons, and enemies // PICTURE BY BETHESDA SOFTWORKS

Because I’d be remiss in jumping on the prison wagon of the breakout hit, I’d like to talk about Skyrim. It’s a fantastic game, if buggy to a significant degree and with some slightly annoying balance issues, and it kept me playing for a huge span of time. However, all games have an end – even ones with unlimited random questing.

So, the one thing I’m thinking of now that I’ve beaten the 220+ hours of gameplay: what’s next? Repetitive Radiant quests aside, I’m thinking downloadable content: new adventures to happen alongside the old ones.

While nothing’s announced yet, there have been hints on the way Skyrim’s updates might be going. In this article, Bethesda director Todd Howard said that “ways to make the game better, not just have more, because the game is so big. So we’re going through ideas right now, and processing everything people are doing in the game, and trying to think of ways that we can improve it.”

So….a patch? A really, really big patch you pay for?

I’ll admit the similarities are striking. Patches were DLC before it became popular to sell small updates for a game for money, except they were fixes to correct otherwise broken or poorly designed systems. While I don’t doubt for a second that Skyrim needs patches, and while we don’t know enough to cry koopa on this, it does raise a question as to what we consider ‘DLC’.

To start off, only content that actually adds to a game is generally considered DLC. Things like extra items and powers, characters, and new levels or storylines are the most common. Each of these adds to the game, giving you something new for a small fee.

But it is for a fee, and that immediately raises the question: is it worth the money?

Back in the 90s, we had expansion packs: CD-rom or discs that require the previous game to install and play, but add new levels and even entirely new games. Some of my favorites were Baldur’s Gate: Throne of Bhall, and Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal. They were essentially new games on their own, that use the same system and let you carry over characters, thus extending your playtime. And there are still expansions like this (any MMO expansion is released as a new game; Dragon Age: Origins had Awakening).

There’s lots of DLC like this: my favorite example of this is Fallout: New Vegas. There were four major DLC packs – each an entirely new area and each its own seperate storyline, with its own sub-objectives and characters. Better still, they were all perfectly integrated with the main story – hints to them could be found even before their release, and latter ones led back into previous ones (the science facility in Old World Blues, for example, shed some light on the toxin-shrouded casino in Dead Money).

But there’s also DLC for smaller things: new characters, new skins for old characters (a new look), or new items or individual ‘quests’ “or other mini-adventures. These obviously aren’t as expensive as a full expansion – usually only a few dollars for each little pack – to enrich your play experience.

Except I’m not convinced that they do.

Most games rely on weapon escalation to give the players a sense of growing accomplishment. Gaining a new weapon is a mark of achievement, an indicator of the time, effort and sometimes skill put in. Moreso, it’s a feeling of discovery, finding these things for the first time.

Weapons packs mean that you expressly know what you’re going to find (assuming you don’t get them automatically, as with some of Bioware’s item pack gear). It also doesn’t enhance your play experience any – unless the game was unfinished, there are weapons or items in the game that can be earned that do the same thing. At this point, it just comes down to vanity – which is the major problem with this small-style DLC.

A controversial example is the infamous ‘horse armour’ from Oblivion, the prequel to Skyrim. The barding’s benefits were cosmetic, and it still cost a few dollars. Selling something like that, even for pocket change.

Totally useless. The knees are clearly unprotected.

TES: Oblivion's Horse Armour DLC provides little in the way of substance for players, for its cost. // PICTURE BY BETHESDA SOFTWORKS

In a single player game, there’s no audience but you (people in the room sitting with you watching you play don’t count). How your character looks only matters to you; costumes and DLC items only impress you. New characters may have new content – which seems to be where I’m putting my DLC money in terms of what’s good DLC – but probably don’t add anything to the mechanics. I didn’t bother installing Dragon Age: Origin’s ‘The Stone Prisoner’, so I can’t say personally, but it seems to be a kind of middle ground between content expansion and crunchy bits.

In an MMO, it’s a different story. There are multiple players who can see the cool-looking unicorn or steampunk bike or drunk hippo or whatever you’re riding and think ‘man, that’s cool’. And companies recognize this: Blizzard sells vanity pets and mounts for real money in their online store, alongside t-shirts and hats. There’s a prestige value to online items, that single-player games don’t have – ‘bragging rights’ has some credence when there’s someone to brag to who might understand. City of Heroes’ entire market revolves around buying new costumes for your superheroes.

Extra levels or areas, as a final point, have a distinct advantage over smaller bits of content – they contain all of those minute elements present in item and character packs. New areas mean new characters to interact with, new items to find, new tricks to learn; and you get a new place to try them out, too. It’s the best of all worlds, and for a larger chunk of price, you get all the little things that, really, aren’t enough to expand a game on their own.

Because just improving a game is a patch. When players pay for something, they want more.

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