Insert a Quarter to Continue: DLC and Broken Storylines

Downloadable Content? I love it! It’s like printing free money! It’s a trick we learned from heroin dealers: give people a little bit, but not enough to tide them over, and then charge them exorbitant fees to continue with the taste of heroin that they’ve come to love. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go eat bacon-covered diamonds. Because I’m that fucking rich.

-Unnamed Microsoft Executive

The most obvious complaints against Downloadable Content, or DLC, have been made many times, so I’ll rehash them quickly before I get to my point. Basically, companies sell incomplete games, and then make you pay to complete them. Or, they charge too much for content that adds very little to the game. (“For only $10, you can get the Modern Warfare 2: Hat Editor! Change your character’s hat to a cowboy hat, fedora, or bowler! And if you like the Hat Editor, make sure to get the $5 Hat Editor expansion, which allows you to purchase a baseball hat in one of 4 awesome colors!”) Those are valid points, and reason enough to hate the policy of charging for DLC.

I’d like to add another problem with a lot of DLC: it breaks storylines.

And Now For 10 Hours of Something Completely Different.

Not too long ago, I started playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It was fun, but overwhelming, and not too long after posting about it I had to give up. Why? DLC. I had purchased Oblivion from Steam, in the fancy-pants “Game of the Year Edition.” (Game of the Year seems to be one of those things that a video game company can decide to bestow upon its own games, simply by adding more crap.) The Game of the Year Edition basically came with all of the Oblivion expansions and whatnot, which expands an already massive game to a supermassive, holy-crap-look-at-that, way-too-much-for-me-to-deal-with game.

The DLC in Oblivion is a series of side quests that you stumble upon in your travels. For instance, there is an attack on a church that you hear about from various NPCs. Upon investigating, you’re sent on a series of adventures to try to get the armor of some ancient knight so that you can kill some ancient evil. While playing, I had no idea that this was a massive side quest. (Keep in mind, I started playing Oblivion more than 3 years after everyone else. Also, I’m kind of stupid.) So I went on the quests, found all the parts of armor, killed the Big Bad, only to find out that I had, basically, wasted my time. The plot had not progressed one iota.

Fine. No problem. I’ve played enough RPGs to know that in most, you spend half the time just dicking around. Let me continue with the quest! I’ve got nice clean new armor, and I’m ready to go!

So I continue on the main quest, trying to light the candles to seal the portal to Oblivion. But guess what? Now I’m too powerful. I found awesome armor, and along the way got plenty of experience. Although the enemies adapt to your level, theoretically becoming more powerful as you do, my character had far surpassed the enemies. The game became too easy, and I’d spent so much time on the side quests I no longer cared that much about the story.

I stopped playing.

I play games for quality, not quantity. I enjoyed the 8-or-so hours of Shadow of the Colossus far more than the 60+ hours of Final Fantasy XII (in which I made it to the last level, and then got bored, because my characters were also way too powerful, thank you very much side quests). I don’t want to go to the Olive Garden and fill up on shitty bread. Sure, you could say I’m getting more for my money, but it’s not worth it if it’s tasteless, gummy, thawed-out Olive Garden bread. I’d rather eat less and enjoy more.

DLC is often just an excuse to shovel filler. It weakens the overall story, and muddles what may be great about a game.

Thank You, Mario. But our Princess is in another castle! To access the next castle, please use call 1-900-CASTLE2. $5.95 per minute plus local charges…

Dragon Ages: Origins, is, overall, a very good game and I enjoyed it with few reservations. Unlike many RPGs that have come out recently, the overall story is presented in such a way that you actually want to keep going. Everywhere you go, society’s imminent collapse is apparent, pushing you forward to the next quest. The side quests are generally small, and essentially short detours from the main road.

I did not purchase any DLC for Dragon Age: Origins. With most games, I wouldn’t have even noticed. “Oh, you mean there were more quests I could have done? Well, that’s great, but I beat it already, so I think I’ll play something else.” Dragon Age, however, consistently reminds you of the DLC. Like many sprawling RPGs, it has a Quest system. You talk to to an NPC, who offers you a quest. If you accept it, then the quest shows up in your journal, and markers show up on your maps, nudging you to complete the quest. The DLC for Dragon Age: Origins are, as usual, side quests off of the main quest. The problem is that people remind you of these quests rather consistently, even if you don’t have the DLC.

For instance: When you need to heal your characters, or talk to them, or sell items, you generally do so using your Camp. In your camp, in addition to all of your characters, is an NPC named Levi Dryden. He shows up on your map as a big bold !, which indicates that he has a quest. Talk to him, and he tells you to go to Soldier’s Peak. Great! Saddle up the horses! Clean your armor! Wipe some of the blood off of your sword! Start singing the songs of murder!

Well, hold up there, bucko. Unless you purchased the Warden’s Keep DLC, you can’t do it. The quest shows up in your Journal, but marked as “Premium Content.” Every time I go to camp, there’s Levi Dryden, still there, waiting for me to help him out. “Why won’t you help me,” he seems to ask with his big bold ! on my map. “Because I don’t feel like spending $7 more on this game,” I want to tell him. I do tell him several times, but he doesn’t hear. He’s just a character in a game. My girlfriend hears me, however, and tells me to stop playing. This is how DLC can ruin relationships, people.

BioWare has used DLC to screw over their game twice, in one fell swoop. By forcing me to constantly acknowledge that I didn’t buy the DLC, I feel like I didn’t really get my money’s worth for the game, even though the DLC is basically just more dungeons, which is the one thing I don’t need more of in this game. And by obtrusively mentioning that I should buy more content, it removes me from the game.

I feel cheap, and dirty.

DLC can be okay.

Ultimately, DLC works best with non-storyline driven games. Sins of a Solar Empire has an excellent expansion pack, which adds new features (such as starbases) to the game, altering the gameplay significantly without breaking it. Civilization IV similarly had great expansion packs. Rock Band‘s policy of charging per extra song works well to allow people to buy the songs they want, instead of purchasing entire expansion packs just for a song or two. And Valve is the shining example of great DLC: Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead have both received substantial, free DLC.

Beyond that, however, don’t do it. It breaks the story, and makes me feel shitty for buying your game.

Curtis Retherford

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2 responses to “Insert a Quarter to Continue: DLC and Broken Storylines

  1. DLC is here to stay. As with most of the problems in my life, I blame Gamestop. Developers are tired of only making money on games for the first two weeks after launch, and then watching Gamestop make all of the money by selling used copies for $4 less than a new copy. So now we have “Free” DLC that comes with new game purchases, that are available for a premium if the user buys a used copy. For instance, Bioware is selling Mass Effect 2 at midnight tonight, and they’ll be including not just free DLC at launch, but a free DLC portal, in-game, that will only be free for users who buy new copies. If you buy a used copy, you have to pay $15 for this “free” DLC. I agree that for this to be implemented in-game is really lame, and will probably really break the reality of the universe (“Thanks for saving the universe, Captain Shepherd, but can you pay us fifteen bucks now please?”), but I’m all for more money going to developers and less money going to Gamestop.

    I think it’s safe to assume that everyone hates DLC that should have shipped with the game. Unfortunately, now that DLC is becoming part of the business plan from the start of development, those lines are becoming more and more blurred. I agree that all DLC should be substantial, useful, and not just new skins or costumes. The problem I have is that when I like a game at all, I feel inclined to buy all of the content, you know, because I want the whole game.

    I feel like the guys at Criterion did a great job with the Burnout Paradise DLC. They gave us a complete and full game on the disc, and then gave us a year of substantial, game improving and expanding DLC. They even changed their whole DLC plans after launch, based on what the community was enjoying most about their game. Sure, some of the car packs were too expensive, but overall I got more of a game I love, and it kept me playing the game for a year longer than I would have originally.

    And yes, I have spent WAY too much money on Rock Band songs.

    • Curtis Retherford

      I keep thinking of the Malibu Stacey episode of the Simpsons. “Look! She’s got a new hat! I WANT! I WANT! I WANT! I WANT!

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