Reading the comments on my current survey about how publishers have violated gamers' trust, it is clear that business practices around downloadable content have left a bad taste in many gamers' mouths.
"On-disc or day 1 DLC is just greedy." wrote one gamer, expressing a popular opinion that DLC is part of the nickel and diming infecting modern gaming.
"I paid for a $60 game, I expect all features to be available at launch. I shouldn't have to spend another $30 on top of that to ensure a complete gaming experience," wrote another gamer. The viewpoint that "modern DLC feels tiny and short at the best of times and often too expensive for so little" captures many gamers' frustration with DLC.
"DLC has a bad reputation, because it deserves the bad reputation it has," agreed Brad Wardell, CEO of PC software and gaming company Stardock in a lengthy discussion we had on the role of DLC at his studios.
Given the 8 confusing flavors of purchase available for recent AAA release Evolve, it's hard to disagree with him.
Although these are valid opinions and publishers have given plenty of reasons for you to dislike or distrust DLC, I think you should love DLC even if you don't buy it. In a number of substantial ways, DLC results in better games than you would get in a world without it.
In my last piece I revealed that 51% of gamers have bought DLC and 25% have bought a season pass in recent months. Now I want to explain how the immense popularity of DLC makes games better.
As Wardell puts it "DLC is probably, more than any other single factor, improving the quality of life of working at a game studio." This increased quality of life for us game developers directly improves the quality of the games we are able to make for you.
Wardell has seen that, for his peers, "before DLC took off, you laid off lots of people" upon launching a game. "You really had no choice."
Most AAA game teams follow the same growth pattern. During the early phase of development, a small leadership team works together to establish the core vision for the game. When the game moves from pre-production to full development, the team explodes in size as tens to hundreds of programmers, artists, designers, producers and quality assurance people are hired to bring that vision to life. Once the game is complete, paying that team's salary is an enormous cost to the developer. Only a small group of leaders is needed to establish the vision for the next game. A huge round of layoffs is common once a game goes gold. In the worst instances, developers have lost their jobs at the party celebrating a game's completion.
Although Stardock has had remarkably few layoffs in its 20 year history, Wardell has seen that, for his peers, "before DLC took off, you laid off lots of people" upon launching a game. "You really had no choice."
However, in the world where DLC supporting a game for a year or more after launch is the norm, post-release layoffs are reduced. Instead of getting pink slips, those massive teams of developers who created all the game's content stay employed crafting DLC. While the game's leadership team is busy working on the sequel (or a new game), the company is able to keep developers employed and generating additional revenue.
So why should you care if me and my developer friends are able to stay employed? Because it directly translates to better games for you.
Wardell has experienced firsthand how DLC has played a pivotal role for Stardock in recent years. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, released in 2013, "is where it really took off." Although the strategy game performed well at launch, Wardell noted that "there was so much more we felt we could do with it.
"In the old days there was just nothing we could do. We could either make a Fallen Enchantress 2, which, while the game did well, it didn't do well enough to justify that—especially since the choice was either between working on Fallen Enchantress or working on Galactic Civilizations 3, it was a no brainer. The team was going to work on GalCiv 3."
Above: Galactic Civilizations 3
"So, what we came up with was: if we could release DLC that would generate enough money...we could do free updates to the game itself. Because users on the forums would constantly list off things they wanted in the base game, and we were happy to put those in but those engineering hours have to be paid for. And so we funded that through DLC."
Eighteen months since launch, Legendary Heroes' base game is still receiving substantial, free updates for all players. Version 1.8 was released in November and "it was not a non-trivial update, it was not like 'hey, we fixed a little bug here.' It was big improvements throughout the game that made the game better from a feature perspective. But it was paid for by this thing called the Battlegrounds DLC."
Game development is a team sport. DLC sales can improve job security and keeps talented people working together. The strength of any game team is dependent not only on the talents of its individual members but how well those members work together. The simple act of allowing a team to continue working together with shared tools and processes instead of spreading out to other studios once a game is completed will improve team cohesion and ultimately, game quality. Additionally, developers who do not live under the anxiety that they will be axed as soon as a project they've devoted years to is released will be happier, less distracted and work harder.
Just like the gaming audience, game developers are rarely 100% satisfied with the games we ship. "People don't realize we love what we create,' says Wardell. "I always feel like a bit of our souls end up in these games. I'm not very spiritual but some part of me is left inside that game… and it pains me when I have to move on.
"But now I don't really have to move on" thanks to DLC, Wardell explained. "It allows me to create a much more stable environment for our developers. Because, if I have too many scripters, now I have a plethora of games and I can say 'you know what, why don't you make DLC for this game?' And I don't have to worry about laying someone off. And [that DLC] will make the fans happy."
Additionally, by freeing a team from the traditional hire-and-fire cycle of game development, DLC increases the amount of energy and focus spent on any game's development. As a game producer I can tell you first hand that hiring is extremely time consuming, especially for a game team's leads and senior members. An incredible amount of time is spent writing job postings, reviewing resumes, performing phone screens and interviewing prospective candidates. The less time a lead programmer needs to spend screening prospective candidates, the more time they can spend making sure a game runs smoothly. The less time an art director spends reviewing portfolios, the more time they can spend creating a unique look and feel for the world.
By keeping developers employed inside a company, DLC helps maintain a leadership team's focus over the course of a game's development.
Wardell and I agree that, "for consumers, even though some companies have abused DLC, overall it's the best thing that has happened for game development." By improving job security, keeping game teams together and reducing the amount of time, energy and money spent on hiring, DLC helps make your games better.
In addition to these more intangible benefits, by reducing the amount of hiring a team must do, DLC increases the amount of money from a budget that is spent directly on a game's development. In addition to being time consuming, hiring is extremely costly. Recruiters are employed or staffing firms are contracted. Bonus programs are put in place to reward employees for recruiting their friends. Job postings are paid for. The significant costs of recruiting talented game developers are "something that most people are completely oblivious to," says Wardell. Recruiters, for example, charge "20 to 30 percent of [a hire's] salary" as payment for services. Each person a game team must hire diverts money from the budget that could otherwise be spent on a game's development.
Wardell and I agree that "for consumers, even though some companies have abused DLC, overall it's the best thing that has happened for game development." You may dislike the modern business practices around developing, promoting and selling DLC. However there are many undeniably positive benefits created by its popularity. By improving job security, keeping game teams together and reducing the amount of time, energy and money spent on hiring, DLC helps make your games better.
DLC is just one of the many elements of modern gaming that contribute to gamers' loss of trust with game publishers. To let your voice be heard please take my short survey on how game publishers have violated your trust. I look forward to sharing the results in my next article.
Ethan Levy is an 12 year veteran game designer and producer who has contributed to over 50 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including Pandemic Studios, EA, BioWare and Playfirst. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a game monetization consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for PC, console, mobile, tablet and web.