I am not a man of nostalgia. My impression of video games, as a whole, has improved over time. My childhood may be have been filled with moments of legitimate joy, but it was also filled with many more times of trial and error. Gameplay conventions that I appreciate about the modern state of gaming were absent. I recall trying to play the original System Shock and being shocked that it required the player to use a slider on one of its many intimidating user interfaces just to look up. It was an era before mouselook, an era in which I was uncomfortable travelling.
But just as it would be inaccurate to view my personal childhood through rose-colored glasses, so too would it be inaccurate to view the present state of gaming through the same lens.
My largest gripe is the surge in DLC or downloadable content. DLC is pretty self-explanatory in concept. Previously, additions to a game could only be released for PC games as expansions. Consoles for the most were absent from this process, though the lock-on cartridge for Sonic 3 and Knuckles could be argued as its own form of an expansion pack (though it would be more accurate to describe it as a standalone expansion). As the Dreamcast introduced online connectivity, and the original Xbox introduced hard drive storage, it was now possible for a game to receive patches and updates from the internet.
But, the widespread adoption of DLC came quickly, and without structure. People were still trying to figure out what to do with it. Arguably, they still are. But what was happening as a result?
Vacuumer of Wallets
DLC can be certainly done ethically and logically. But it often isn’t. There are many thorny practices that are employed when rolling out DLC, many of which I’ve experienced firsthand.
Since people are less likely to purchase DLC the longer a game has been released, there is an incentive for what is known as “Day One DLC”. This practice is when DLC is made available at the game’s launch, hence the “Day One”. In practice, this means cutting a piece out of the finished product in order for it to be purchased separately. Those who don’t purchase it get an incomplete experience. For instance, the purchase of “Mighty No. 9” will require an additional $10 in order to obtain the Ray DLC, which includes an extra character. Those who go without are missing a character, though given Mighty No. 9’s lukewarm reception, perhaps that’s not of concern.
In other more notorious examples, costumes for characters (also known as “skins”) in Capcom’s “Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3” are on the disc. However, they are locked off unless the player purchases a downloadable key that unlocks them. In other words, they’re present, but unobtainable without additional purchase. They are hidden behind a paywall.
For me, purchasing DLC is nearly impossible. The only case where I have purchased DLC was for Super Smash Brothers for Wii U, and I have no interest in doing that again. Part of the reason is because I compare the cost of the DLC to the cost of the base game. In the previous example, Mighty No.9’s DLC costs half of the base game. Is the DLC worth half of that base game?
The new mode includes an abandoned lab stage, a new boss, and a new playable character. Although I am not privy to this specific development process, I would say that the effort put into it does not justify the cost. A single stage, a boss, and the recycling of the game I already bought with a different character is not worth half the base game.
Toys To Broke
However, by far the worst offender is when DLC is sold in physical form. Not necessarily discs, but attached to a toy or figurine. The first franchise to practice this model was the “Skylanders” series, but in time Lego got on board with Lego Dimensions, Disney released Disney Infinity, and Nintendo released their amiibos.
These are part of a genre known as “toys-to-life”. This is when the toy is scanned through near-field communication (or NFC) or image scanning and the game reacts to that information. A character may appear onscreen, or additional stages and challenges may be unlocked.
The Wii U game “Splatoon” is normally pretty good about DLC. The game has been steadily introducing new content at no additional cost. But, should you have an amiibo, you get access to additional challenges, with the possibility of new unlockable skins for your character.
When I discovered this, I thought, Oh great, another thing I have to buy.
I appreciated the simplicity of getting a game and knowing I could play it all when I popped the cartridge in the slot or put the disc in the tray. If the upcoming “Final Fantasy VII remake” has any DLC in it, I’ll be one unhappy camper.
An Era Forgotten
Consumers are starting to push back against toys-to-life. Disney announced the retirement of its Infinity line and Skylanders’ toy sales appear to be slowing, though they are still very much a profitable franchise. Given that they’ll release “Skylanders Imaginators”, there’s probably going to be a small resurgence. Should Skylanders still be around when I have children, I would not be subjecting them to the game. I’m already deeply concerned with marketing towards children, and this is clearly a way to get kids to purchase more stuff.
Gamers are also curating lists of games with disc-locked content, though the wiki is woefully incomplete.
However, I do think that the larger practice of DLC needs to be put under a microscope. Gamers need to be able to make similar decisions of value and measure the cost of the DLC in proportion with the base game. Otherwise, we can expect many days of download keys, overpriced costumes, and a river of plastic.