From DLC to free-to-play: a brief history of everything you love to hate

By Brenna Hillier
19 March 2015 08:40 GMT

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street_fighter_x_tekken

Paid DLC

Downloadable content is a tricky business. It has its roots in the time-honoured traditions of PC gaming, and it was only when consoles got in on the action and the internet came into play that things went south.

Add-on content makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint; you’ve just spent an amount of money producing a huge number of assets and either building a new engine or monkeying around with an existing one. Why not leverage that effort and investment to just make a bit more of the game you’ve already released? New story, characters, locations, systems and features don’t come cheap, but compared to a whole new production they’re laughably affordable.

From a consumer perspective, paying a smaller amount for more of what you liked isn’t a bad deal. Unfortunately there are multiple ways for everything to go wrong, and they’ve all have happened on multiple occasions.

Even if your game sells well the profit margins on triple-A is not always significant enough to fund the next project (and getting worse all the time) let alone please shareholders. A few popular add-ons can make up the shortfall. From a consumer perspective, paying a smaller amount for more of what you liked isn’t a bad deal. When consoles got hard drives, it made sense to bring the expansion or add-on business model to them, and since most gamers have an Internet connection, developers and publishers didn’t even have to weather the expense of a big boxed re-release, and could make smaller slices of extra content.

At this point it’s all sunshine and butterflies and capitalism at its best. Unfortunately there are multiple ways for everything to go wrong, and they’ve all happened on multiple occasions.

The first problem is not exclusive to DLC by any means, but was especially prevalent and egregious early in the last generation: lack of value for money. If you pay one third of the cost of a game for DLC, you expect it to provide about one-third of a game’s value, right? It’s taken quite a while for DLC prices to standardise at a level (some) people are happy to pay, but before we got there we had all sorts of disasters, most famously Oblivion’s Horse Armour.

That companies have the right to make extra money from add-on content is not in dispute. But that some companies have bollocksed it up in ways that seem really exploitative of the consumer is also not in dispute.

The second problem is definitely a DLC issue: the perception that content is being “held back” to make extra money. There are a couple of ways this can manifest. There’s microtransactions that nickel and dime the player hoping for a complete experience. There’s story content that arguably ought to have been part of the main game, as with Asura’s Wrath story conclusion or Dragon Age: Origins characters. And then there’s content that is so much a part of the base game that it is on the bloody disc, as with Street Fighter x Tekken.

That companies have the legal right to make extra money from add-on content is not in dispute. But that some companies have bollocksed it up in ways that seem really exploitative of the consumer is also not in dispute. Whether companies can charge you extra for content included on a piece of physical media you’ve already purchased is definitely open for debate.

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