On DLC and Expansion Packs

It is quite staggering to consider the meteoric rise of DLC and expansion packs within the video game industry in recent memory, their influence long mounting and continuing to mount. Much of this ascension is of course tied to the Internet, while similarly important are console dashboard systems, like those popularized by the Xbox 360; less than twenty five years ago, long before the release of that console and its immediate predecessor, the Nintendo 64 and the original Playstation dominated the home console market, and that former console was completely inoperable if no cartridge was situated within the cartridge slot. This simplistic approach resulted in considerable limitations, which were rectified by the Xbox 360, which were turn further refined by the Xbox One, and which will be a state of perpetual refinement: very little regression characterizes the video game industry, a wonderful, encouraging statement. Now, with the release of that console in 2005, improved opportunities for console interaction were made available, and over the course of its eight year life span, the Xbox 360 altered the landscape, the greatest altering being the stronger integration with the Internet, which had massive consequences, building upon principles of the original Xbox and the lesser known, though still influential, Sega Dreamcast. Most influenced, of course, were DLC and expansion packs, which could now be distributed more conveniently, greatly enhancing their appeal. The Xbox 360 in no ways birthed DLC or post-release content, but it did popularize it. Post-release content has long been thriving in the PC realm, though purchasing of that content oftentimes involved a trip to a retail marketplace to purchase those expansions: consider Diablo, released well before the near universal adoption of the Internet.While opportunities persist to purchase expansion packs in-store, the convenience of online distribution has resulted in the dominance of that distribution method. Jumping ahead some years, one watershed expansion pack then released, fully showing the creative capabilities characterizing post-release content: The Shivering Isles.   

The release of this expansion pack absolutely was critical, considering the fairly fledgling state of post-release content upon the expansion’s publication in 2007. Immediately preceding this release was the much derided horse armor DLC pack, a pack near universally belittled as being essentially pointless and frivolous – most players, so the story goes, saw no justification for the horse armor’s release, seeing in that content a lazy cash grab by Bethesda. This may absolutely be true, but the existence of this content is easily explainable – it was within this DLC that Bethesda as development team was testing the waters, DLC then largely being characterized by uncertainties – expansion packs had certainly existed, but the market remained misunderstood. Still, Bethesda was uniquely situated, situated in a position of justified self-confidence: Morrowind, that great title, saw two considerable expansion packs in its wake, both favorably received, both expanding upon the base game in valuable ways, offering new narratives, new land masses, and of course new weapons and armor. In a manner, Bethesda were pioneers, and they absolutely still remain pioneers, their post-release content being deserving of considerable praise; however cheap and greedy might be the horse armor, Bethesda’s other post-release content should erase it from memory – it was, again, mere experimentation. Bethesda generally has developed a storied prestige within the realm of DLC and expansion, owing to their great consistency, their sometime swelling ambitions: Morrowind saw its expansion, packs, Skyrim saw its own expansions, while even the two Bethesda-developed Fallout games were well supplemented after launch. And then there is The Shivering Isles, that masterpiece, a masterpiece whose successes show what precisely DLC could become: imaginative and broad in scope, sometimes making radical departures from the central narrative or world design, other times taking the formula and bettering it, making slight alterations. Oblivion’s expansion pack certainly belongs to that former development philosophy: the titular landscape could not be father removed from the base game’s Cyrodiil, and the expansion must absolutely be praised for those departures. It is unfair to compare this seminal expansion with post-release content developed for other genres, or in later years. But still it must be said that The Shivering Isles was a pioneer, its strengths only serving to illustrate the flaws of DLC in other video games.  

And indeed, it must be acknowledged that a consider degree of DLC released today is devoid of any soul or ambition, offering nothing novel while never expanding upon the experience. Most irksome are titles with robust micro-transaction models, titles which push the purchasing of in-game currency or battle passes, content supposedly central to the experience, though which in actuality can be skipped; consider something like Call of Duty: Warzone. No matter what are its failings, the consistency of post-release content is commendable, with frequent map changes and balancing changes, alongside the release of new guns to experiment with. Even with Activision’s money-loving nature, Warzone is pushing boundaries, boundaries being pushed by similarly positioned titles, like the ubiquitous Fortnite, or the dark horse Apex Legends. Their monetization models are morally bad, but this is not some insurmountable failing – enjoyment can easily be had by engaging with these titles without resorting to the purchasing of post-release content. Given the status of Fortnite as a completely new IP and Apex Legends as an offshoot of Titanfall, their histories are not long or storied. This cannot be said of Call of Duty, which truly exploded fifteen years, in 2007, with the release of Modern Warfare. Notably, this was course the same year which saw The Shivering Isle’s release, a coincidence which illustrates the failings of Modern Warfare’s post-release content, which consisted exclusively of map packs, essentially a collection of four or five maps for various gameplay modes, maps which have the potential to evoke enjoyability, though enjoyability inevitably wanes as their newness goes away. By that point in the industry’s history, the free-to-play model lacked any commanding significance or popularity, which helps explain why Modern Warfare’s map packs had an actual price tag attached to them. This practice of selling map collections persists, but Warzone, Apex Legends, and Fortnite have shown the consistent content updates – all of them free – lead towards greatest success, whether speaking of player engagement or the swelling of publishers’ pockets, a swelling which is hastened when new weapons, emotes, and character skins are peddled as being substantial “content,” even as they are actually valueless. The Shivering Isles contained potentially dozens of hours of continued enjoyability for the player; in Fortnite, one can spend a sometimes considerable sum to gain access to some frivolous, sometimes obnoxious dance – clearly, the industry is divided over post-release content.

DLC and expansion packs broadly are at their strongest when they are completely detached from the base game, whether speaking of gameplay systems, or, as is more commonly the case, in narrative construction and world-building. Cyrodiil, while impossibly beautiful and atmospheric for its time (an atmosphere which continues to dazzle sixteen years later), largely clung to the tropes of high fantasy fiction, with elves of many races, with more traditional environments; no radical breaks from the genre were made, this safety not being exactly a failing but occasionally a disappointment – Bethesda by this point had proven themselves masters of world-building, and yet they designed highly-traditional Cyrodiil, its mundanities observable when placed alongside Morrowind’s exoticism. The Shivering Isles, so bold and ambitious, completely disrupts this safety, the end result being a masterpiece: the titular environments are far more interesting than simple Cyrodiil, and Bethesda thus took many risks; if a player is so immersed in a title – like Oblivion – that they could spend hundreds of hours questing, might they react unfavorably to such a radical departure? Bethesda clearly did not care about the answer to this question. Many expansion packs, while considerably less involved than Bethesda’s masterpiece, adopt similar design philosophies, being completely self-contained experiences, detached from the base game. The post-release content for Far Cry 5 instantly springs to mind, one expansion pack transporting the player backwards towards hostile Vietnam right when the Vietnamese War was at its fiercest. In another pack, the player character is literally transported to Mars, permitted to navigate bizarre environments which could not be farther removed from the base game’s Hope County, Montana. As experiences, they are certainly on the shorter side, far from rivaling The Shivering Isle’s massiveness, though their existence is absolutely welcome, in that they both bring something new to the table, most specifically from a presentation perspective, though some subtle gameplay alterations are made; Hours of Darkness, the Vietnamese-focused expansion, places considerable emphasis upon stealth, for instance, while Lost on Mars emphasizes movement and verticality. Many purchasers of DLC make their purchases largely because they enjoy the experience attached to the base game, and merely which to see a prolongation of that game’s gameplay experience. This statement would seemingly lead developers and publishers to approach DLC and other post-release content safely, hesitantly, thinking they could alienate their core player base if their post-release content is particularly radical. Some developers likely cling to this safeness, which makes all the more impactful the post-release content which makes radical departures, bold strides forward.

Knowing when precisely to purchase DLC can be a sometimes thorny, problematic issue. Many AAA titles being released today offer a season pass option, which supposedly entitles purchasers to substantial post-release content. The presence of season passes can feel rather predatory, in that some gamers will feel guilt or unfulfillment is they purchase an “incomplete” version of whatever game they are investigating. From an ethical perspective, then, season passes might be expressions of greedy immorality, though this absolutely must not be taken as a call for their abolishment – in some instances, they do feature substantial content. Still, why purchase additional content for a game even before you know if the base game provides enjoyment? It is bizarre all around, and it should generally be advised to exercise some restraint, to reject publisher predation and buy the base game solely; if enjoyability is there, then absolutely season passes should be purchased. But some consumer risk is lessened when considering certain developers, those who show continued aptitude in the development of post-release content; consider the mentioned Bethesda. If The Elder Scrolls VI released in a year’s time, and assuming it had a season pass offering, it would be fairly easy to recommend a purchasing of the base game alongside the season pass, owing to Bethesda’s sterling reputation in crafting compelling post-release content. As an additional illustration of consumer trust, consider Gearbox, most renowned for the Borderlands series, developing its three central installments, all of them featuring robust post-release content, some of which expands upon the content considerably. In this vein, the situation is the same: it is not difficult to encourage the purchasing of a Gearbox developed title alongside its season pass. Still, consumer weariness should be preserved, and this is not the appropriate place to speak of pre-orders or their role in the industry; it is merely an attempt to show that certain developers have obtained a certain credibility, approaching post-release content with respect and affection, both of those objects being central to any video games’ potential successes. But if weariness does predominate, or if the consumer is hesitant to depart with upwards of eighty or ninety dollars for a “complete” experience, then they may wait some year or two for a game-of-the-year edition or a similar compilation of base game and DLC. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and the consumer must be guided by their own personal inclinations. Conversely, if an indie developed title, released by a studio with no track record of post-release content, interests the player, they ought to jump upon the opportunity, in that there will never be an “incomplete” version, but always simply one version.  

Expansion packs are generally of immense importance to MMO’s, and accordingly games of that genre see considerable post-release content – consider World of Warcraft, that titan of the genre, a game which is still prominent nearly two decades after release, a prominence partially attributable to the base game’s ample number of expansion packs, which serve as an injection of new life. MMO’s can be uniquely tranquil experiences, especially if players remain in a PvE server. Given these tranquil attributes, it is easy to understand the genre’s appeal: if the player has but a free hour or two, they can join a session and derive instant enjoyment. After years and years of these periodic sessions, inevitably a considerable span of time will be lavished upon any individual character, and barriers are eventually reached – even expansive World of Warcraft has an endgame. Especially problematic are the hardcore players, who can invest hours upon hours, days upon days, in their character over a shorter span of time; they, too, reach the endgame, but at a far rapider pace. Herein lies the alluring nature of expansion packs: those therapeutic sessions are extended for the casual player, while the hardcore player is provided the opportunity to begin another binge cycle. A point could be leveled, though, that if the experience has run dry or grown boring, that any given player could reroll a new character, but in MMO’s a certain attachment is in place: it is difficult to part with a character the player has spent hundreds of hours constructing and developing. World of Warcraft’s various expansions, then, can revive one player’s flagging interest, prompting them to return to the experience, while satiating the more ravenous of the intended audience. Tragically, it must be acknowledged that the acquisition of wealth is of some importance in the video game industry, only rivaling the developers’ desire to provide players with engrossing experiences. Given this money-driven approach, it follows that publishers will resort to whatever means to increase their profits. World of Warcraft still clings to a subscription based model, so it behoofs publishers to seek at all costs the maintenance of that subscription, mitigating server costs – hence the releasing of post-release content. But Blizzard is in a very unique position, its relationship to the target audience quite profound, in that a symbiotic relationship is in place rather than a strictly parasitic one – Blizzard releases content which satisfies the masses, sometimes attracting new players, while they in turn receive a tidy profit. It is this wonderfully symbiotic relationship which partially explains WOW’s longevity.            

When considering DLC, there are displays both good and bad; in the former approach, developers refine an overall experience or depart from it completely, raddling and disrupting the formula, the end result oftentimes being innovation, greater player engagement; regarding the latter, much post-release content is greed-driven, efforts by the publishers to accumulate as much capital and from as many different people as possible. This black / white dichotomy might be an oversimplification, but still it is a useful blueprint to speak of the industry. Much greediness stems from those individuals who despair if purchasing an “incomplete” title, publishers enticing them to purchase their games – for full price, on release day – by the inclusion of oftentimes frivolous content, though certainly some of this content has value; it is difficult and confusing, though, to sift through post-release content which is outright bad and that with potentially rewarding attributes. Character skins and weapons skins do not constitute robust content, instead being lazy content, and yet they are pushed, as are battle passes and other worthless trinkets. Not all is bleak, though, in that some games continue to thrive, being repeated recipients of massive content updates – consider not only WOW, but its fellows in the MMO genre, like The Elder Scrolls Online, while The Witcher 3 is an excellent demonstration of the enhancing nature expansion packs can have on single player experiences. One final illustration must be made. Grand Theft Auto Online, while now nine years old, continues to thrive, spanning some three console generations, bringing in for Rockstar considerable sums. The game is still actively supported, superficially an impressive feat, though upon investigation not so impressive, in that the updates are oftentimes meagre and lacking in depth. All these vocal Grand Theft Auto V players desire is single-player DLC, for it within single-player DLC where developers can be at their most experimental. Guided by greed, this content has never materialized, likely never will, in that they have let Red Dead Redemption 2 die outright. It is an especially frustrating affair, in that Rockstar displayed their talents for single-player DLC with Episodes from Liberty City. While far from the first substantial illustration of post-release content, again The Shivering Isles must be mentioned, in that it laid the groundwork for expansion packs and DLC in the industry broadly – its influence has been justifiably immense, and one hopes that post-release content of similar depth and ambition will be released always, will not be lost in the displays of greed many publishers make when they sell post-release content which is shallow and valueless.

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