Last week we got new single player downloadable content for The Last of Us, titled Left Behind, a fantastic piece of new story content for an already fantastic game. Despite examples like Left Behind and a handful of others, however, single player DLC doesn’t always reach the same heights as the core experience of the games in question. With the amount of development focus being placed on DLC, even before the game is finished in some cases, you’d think it would generally be as good as the main game, but that usually isn’t the case. So, why exactly is downloadable content of the same quality as the core game such a rarity?
Downloadable content is often quite different from a complete game, and as such it usually comes with very different expectations. Despite essentially being a small addition to an already existing game, most gamers expect DLC to be more than just a new mission or level, especially considering the prices that are usually being asked. The fact of the matter is that gamers are very wary of DLC, and for good reason. DLC is ripe for exploitation, and there are countless examples from last generation of DLC that could easily be qualified as a “cash grab” with little effort put in. If we look at the best DLC releases, most share several key elements in common, while most bad DLC also share many things in common. Let’s look at some of the key elements common to both quality DLC and bad DLC and see where the difference lies.
Having a strong foundation is a good start for anything, and in the case of DLC that foundation is the original game. The best DLC manages to capture what the original game did great in the first place and implement those elements into a new experience. As an example, Fallout 3 had five separate DLC packs, and they were all over the place from a quality standpoint. The best of the bunch is Point Lookout, which manages to take everything that made Fallout 3 one of the best games of 2008 and craft an entirely new experience. Taking place in a completely new open world environment about a quarter the size of The Capital Wasteland, Point Lookout felt like a brand new bite sized Fallout game. Like the core game, Point Lookout gave the player freedom to explore the game world, which was full of interesting places to discover. It also featured about as much side content as story content, once again giving the player the freedom to experience things how they chose.
The weaker DLC releases for Fallout 3 are the exact opposite of Point Lookout in that they miss the entire point about what made Fallout 3 so great. Operation Anchorage is an entirely linear piece of content that is almost completely combat focused. The defining elements of Fallout 3, freedom and exploration, are entirely absent from Operation Anchorage, which instead revolves around combat, the weakest aspect of Fallout 3‘s gameplay. Even character progression and loot are mostly absent from this DLC, further removing the enjoyable elements of Fallout 3 and distilling it down to the weakest aspects of the game.
Relying on the strengths of the game that already exists is probably the most important element of any DLC, but few actually do this. If you look at some of the worst DLC in the industry, the majority of them fail to do this, and the most egregious direction many pieces of DLC take is the combat arena route. Things like Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot for Borderlands, Pinnacle Station for Mass Effect, Clash in the Clouds for Bioshock Infinite, Dunwall City Trials for Dishonored, and countless other combat arena packs for countless other games represent the cheapest and laziest form of DLC. Combat in these games ranges from great to passable, but no one would argue that these games are defined by combat encounters. It’s easy to understand why combat arena DLC exists, it’s an easy way to generate a substantial amount of new content with little design work or asset creation involved, the mechanics of the game already exist after all. In the majority of the games mentioned above, better DLC packs were also released which do a better job of representing the strengths of those games, but combat arenas are a cheap way to pad out of that DLC catalog.
While providing new opportunities to explore the strength of the game is a great start for quality DLC, sometimes sticking too close to the core experience can create a feeling of sameness. Treading the same ground of the core game and not adding much to it can result in some quality content, but the best DLC takes the framework that already exists and adds new things that wouldn’t have existed in the main game. We saw this in Left Behind, which possesses all the strengths of The Last of Us while also doing some brand new things. The multi-faction encounters add a new layer of strategy and depth to the combat, while some of the interesting gameplay moments in the prequel portion of the DLC make new and interesting use of the game’s mechanics.
Some other examples of DLC that provide an experience that would never exist in the core game are Citadel for Mass Effect 3, Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption, Blood Dragon for Far Cry 3, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep for Borderlands 2. Citadel is a major tonal shift for Mass Effect 3 and would feel out of place as part of the main game, but as a stand-alone piece of content serves a great (if a bit fan-servicey) way to send off the trilogy and the characters players have grown to love since the series began. Undead Nightmare takes the basic framework of Red Dead Redemption and presents a crazy non-canon zombie story that could never exist in the main game. Blood Dragon may stretch the definition of DLC, being sold separately, but it’s still a great example of how to create a new kind of experience on the framework of what already exists. It’s got a great sense of style and totally commits to the idea of an ’80s action movie view of the cyber-future. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, like these other examples, takes the fundamentals of Borderland’s 2 and provides the player with a crazy new experience that is both familiar but entirely unique, in this case a table top RPG vision of Borderlands.
It’s possible for DLC to be of high quality without really adding much new to the game, but in many cases this results in the feeling that you’re paying a quarter the price for what amounts to about 10% of a game you’ve already played. An example of this is Omega for Mass Effect 3, which unlike Citadel, feels like any other mission in Mass Effect 3. It’s certainly a passable, but doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. The $60 that Mass Effect 3 cost gave you around 20 missions, so paying $15 for a mission that feels no different from any of the others you’ve played isn’t the most enticing proposition. Another example of this type of DLC is Knothole Island for Fable II, which while once again totally fine from a quality standpoint, offers much the same basic experience you’d find in the core game without really adding much of significance other than new loot to entice you.
So, if a piece of downloadable content successfully captures the fundamentals of what originally made the game great while also providing a new kind of experience than what was available in the main game, is there anything that can hold it back? The answer to that can vary, but one thing that hurts many DLC releases is a drop in overall production quality and polish compared to the main game. Getting voice actors back in the booth for post release content is always a challenge, and many story driven DLC offerings can suffer from a lack of voice work. Many of the Mass Effect 2 DLC releases suffer from this, resulting in teammates either not saying anything or spouting lines from the main game in places where they might be appropriate.
Another example of a drop in production quality is the Metal Gear Rising DLC, which was interesting in that it told character driven side stories and allowed you to play as new characters, but was held back because the majority of the game’s assets were taken straight out of the main campaign. Even some of the better DLC releases suffer from somewhat of a drop in overall production quality. As a rule with very few exceptions, you usually can’t expect DLC to feature the same high quality presentation, voice acting, and environment design as the main game for which it is based.
Much of this is likely quite obvious if you’ve purchased any DLC this past generation. Even knowing most DLC isn’t quite as good as the original game, many still buy it. Whether it’s out of optimism, love for the particular game, or simply a desire to support the developer will vary from person to person. I am personally more than willing to throw down $10 or $15 to get new content for a game I’ve enjoyed, though there have certainly been instances where I was let down. I think the best way to encourage developers going the extra mile and producing post-release content of the same quality as the core experience is to lay off on the combat arenas or similarly phoned-in content and only support DLC with real effort put into it.
Of course, I’m only touching on actual single player DLC here; I haven’t even gotten into things like weapon packs, character skins, or other horse armor equivalents. I think it’s safe to say that type of DLC has little redeeming value, even compared to things like combat arenas. Downloadable content certainly isn’t going anywhere, so we can only hope more developers put the kind of effort seen in things like Left Behind, because whether you’re in favor of the concept of DLC or not, higher quality content is always better.