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

Phillip Levin | 23 Mar 2009 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

In five years, if you ask gamers what made this generation of consoles stand out, you'll probably get an answer like, "High-def gaming, duh." But there's a less obvious, smarter answer: downloadable content. Indeed, the growth of broadband around the world has made it possible for studios to release a wide array of patches, extras, expansions and other downloadable content for their games months after shipping. True, PC gamers have had access to this kind of content long before this generation. But for console gamers at least, the Xbox360/PlayStation/Wii generation has signaled the advent of downloadable content.

It's almost become standard practice for developers to release some kind of DLC for their games, whether it's a multiplayer or single-player title. Typically, we see new maps, levels, weapons, outfits and other extras, but more and more, we're seeing larger-scale add-ons, such as episodic content or expansions for single-player games. On paper, these things sound lovely, but there's just one problem: Single-player DLC doesn't work so well.

Part of the videogame experience is becoming absorbed in a virtual world. With single-player games, you often become "hooked," and thus find yourself propelled through hours and hours of gameplay. When it comes to episodic DLC, new extended single-player content is often not available for months, and over that time, you lose that inertia from when you played the original game. It can be hard to get back into a game that you haven't played for months.

This is especially true of games like Grand Theft Auto IV, which are story-driven. Problem is if a game effectively wraps up its story, any episodic DLC for it will have to expand on a story that has effectively been told and ended. How do you do that? You either reopen the story where it left off, or you invent a new story based around a new or supporting character in the game world. Neither of these approaches work well with the storytelling process, though. When a story is written, it has a beginning and an end. Unless the writers plan ahead, any storyline extension will feel unnatura; and forced. On occasion, there will be a brilliant storyline that can be expanded upon -- either in sequel or prequel form. But in order to pull this off, you have to have a story that's worth telling and you have to have enough time to tell it. Episodic DLC is often limited to an extra couple hours of gameplay, which just isn't enough time to do that.

That's because games take a long time to develop. When Valve set out to release episodic content for Half-Life 2, gamers were excited about the idea of not having to wait several years for more Half-Life. Oops. Turns out, we've had to wait an average of two years in between each Half-Life 2 episode. There's really no way around this, though. Games are not like TV shows, which are usually completely filmed before their seasons begin airing. TV studios simply chop their 12 or so hours of finished content into 12 or so different episodes. There's little production handled after the season begins airing. Now, game publishers could deliver episodic gaming if they followed such a model -- that is releasing their game in staggered portions. But I don't think many would like that. At least I wouldn't.

So, instead, developers must work on episodic DLC after a game has released, rushing to have it ready in a reasonable amount of time. Short deadlines and videogame development don't mix particularly well, though. When a developer must come up with episodic DLC in, say, 6 to 12 months, the game will automatically be on the shorter side. But again, games aren't like TV shows. When you play a good game, you become engaged in it, and you have certain expectations as far as progression and length goes. Because videogames require more time to play and are a naturally longer entertainment format, it's nearly impossible to deliver a good story or an experience that you can really become immersed in in just a couple of hours.

The Half-Life 2 episodes might be an exception to the rule, but, really, they're more like full games than they are episodic content at this point -- with the development time and price tag to match.

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