Downloadable content has come a long way since the infamous “horse armor” of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. What originated as a way to expand content distribution past launch has become a controversial element to games – one often conflated with greedy cash-grabbing (not the fun kind). But we shouldn’t forget all the good that can come with DLC. Games like Fallout 3 use DLC to bring fresh new challenges to gamers who already invested in the vanilla game. Even in this season pass world, there’s still one series that exemplifies convenience and choice with its add-ons. Harmonix’s Rock Band is still the gold standard of DLC done right.
Prior to Rock Band’s creation, Harmonix had already experimented with downloadable content with Guitar Hero II. Thanks to the networking capabilities of the Xbox 360, Guitar Hero II allows players to download new songs through the Xbox Live Marketplace. Early offerings were expectedly slim (it was a first step, after all), ranging from classic metal like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest to modern hits like My Chemical Romance and Dropkick Murphys. Harmonix’s philosophy of choice in content continued with the release of Rock Band, which introduced new downloadable songs for the game every week. Harmonix’s partnership with MTV allowed both fresh and classic tracks to appear each week, in addition to full downloadable albums and retail track packs. One of the coolest features was the Rock Band Network, which allowed smaller artists and labels to make their own songs playable. Over the course of six years, Harmonix released songs for Rock Band on a surprisingly consistent basis. April 2, 2013 marked the final main DLC release for Rock Band (Don McLean’s “American Pie”), with new Rock Band Network submissions closing on September 17 of this year.
Rock Band was a huge part of the seventh console generation’s cultural zeitgeist. Between new control schemes and more avant-garde design, the status quo of the time was in constant fluctuation. Downloadable content had been done before on a small scale, but to the masses, buying new content over the internet was a revelation. Harmonix used the technology to incrementally, but consistently expand their game. With Rock Band, downloading specific songs from your favorite artists for a low price replaced the unwieldy expansion packs of yesteryear – packages that charged a higher price for less content.
Today, however, we live in an age where downloadable content is frequently abused. Publishers these days rush unfinished games only to release paid DLC a few weeks later. In worse cases, the content arrives at launch or even on the disc itself. These practices have ruined games like Batman: Arkham Origins, which saw bonus content before recieving crucial bug fixes. The supposed freedom of choice offered by DLC has become a way to wring extra cash out of the most basic extra functionality.
But Rock Band never did that. Not once does it make you feel like the downloadable content locked you out of something crucial to enjoying the game. Sure, certain challenges require a particular song to play, but Rock Band’s DLC approach is based entirely on player choice. Songs can be bought either individually or in bundled form, so you’re never forced to spend money on a bundle that you might not love in its entirety (cable companies, take notice). If you only want Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Scar Tissue” but not “Monarchy of Roses”, you can buy the songs individually. Contrast this with Activision, who sold multiple full retail packages of Guitar Hero every year, forcing players to pay $60 for mixed-bag setlists (and eventually over-saturating the market). To this day, Rock Band defines how DLC should work in the gaming world, and though its flow of content is finally running dry, Harmonix have proven themselves to be true champions of post-launch support.