Tuesday 2 July 2019

Following the Vanishing Path

How does post-release DLC affect the intended experience of a game?

These days, almost every AAA game receives some kind of post-release DLC (downloadable content). They can vary hugely, from huge expansions to the game and new levels to play through, down to alternate costumes or animations to add some variety and fun. Whilst players were initially sceptical of the idea, and there were some fairly egregious examples of companies abusing this arrangement (just Google 'Oblivion horse armour' or 'Prince of Persia Epilogue') it's now become an integral part of the gaming landscape and on the whole, I think we're better-off for it.

Understandably, developers cater these post-launch experiences to their most loyal customers: the people who are already playing (or have even finished) the game. Since a lot of the time this is content people paid extra for, most games will go out of their way to highlight the new stuff as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the combination of these two factors means that the experience for new players can be weird and confusing. There is a central contradiction at work: DLC is almost always intended to be end-game content, something new for players who have already seen everything, but the game will try to direct the player towards it as soon as possible. Thus a player starting the game fresh with all the DLC installed will often reach a point in the game when they start getting mixed signals from the designers. Should the player continue on the original path of the vanilla game, or branch off into the more advanced stuff that came later?

This problem is exacerbated by the rise of 'Game of the Year Edition' versions of games, usually released roughly a year after the game's original launch, which pack all the game's DLC content together with the base game for the same price as the original release. Due to how quickly games get discounted, a couple of years after a game first comes out it's almost always possible to buy a version of the game with 100% of the released content built in for a fraction of the original cost. During the latest Steam Summer Sale, for example, I was able to pick up Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Presequel with all their DLC for 97% off the original price! I buy far more games this way than on day one, and I'd be willing to bet that a lot of other people do too.

Different games manifest the conflict between the original path and DLC in different ways. Folding new content into a pre-existing game poses some challenges, and developers have variously struggled to do it in an elegant way. Fallout 3 came up with the novel, in-world idea of having mysterious radio broadcasts guide players to the new content. Whilst this works great for people who have already been exploring the game's wasteland for tens of hours, the system backfires when it comes to new players leaving the starting area for the first time. Stepping out of Vault 101 is a very important moment in the game, the point where the sheer scope of the world is revealed to the player. In the vanilla game it strikes a clever emotional balance, a cooling breath of fresh air and a wide open vista contrasting the claustrophobia and desperate struggle to escape the vault. The player is given no instructions, just the objective of finding the player character's father and the space to explore the world stretching out before them.

In the Game of the Year Edition, players barely have time to admire the skybox before being bombarded with multiple radio signals pulling their attention in all different directions, most of which they are severely under-equipped to visit just yet. The original feeling of freedom and open-endedness that excited and intimidated players is swept away by a tide of notifications, like returning to your work email inbox after a week's vacation.

A lot of games don't even bother to come up with an in-world way of serving the new content. The opening of Rise of the Tomb Raider is an exciting, dynamic scene in which Lara Croft becomes separated from her companion in the mountains and must find shelter and light a campfire to survive the night. In the Tomb Raider games, the campfires are the checkpoints at which you can do things like level up and unlock new abilities and gear. Thus it was quite jarring after having Lara struggle through the snow, barely surviving the biting cold, to discover that because of the DLC that came with the Game of the Year Edition, she was already carrying half a dozen outfits, some relating to the people of the region that I had yet to explore (see the screenshot above).

These content packs not only break the immersion and flow of the game's story but can also disrupt the game's design. Those DLC packs I owned for Rise of the Tomb Raider came with numerous gameplay benefits like stronger weapons or crafting bandages without using any resources, which is going to change the difficulty and progression curve. Games dole out rewards and abilities slowly as the player gets more familiar with the system, and designers spend countless hours finely tuning this progression: giving the player these special items right out of the gate throws the whole thing off the rails. Imagine if Metal Gear Solid gave the player the stealth camouflage which makes you invisible to enemies on the first playthrough! I specifically decided not to use any of the bonus content in Rise of the Tomb Raider so I could enjoy the 'original' experience as much as possible, which is not something that a brand-new player should need to think about.

This problem isn't going away any time soon, and will only get worse as games embrace the service model and expand their post-release content schedule. The launch version of the game becomes an increasingly small slice of what the game even is. Over a long enough time-frame the population of players who own the Game of the Year Edition will start to become larger than the day-one players, and yet the original intended path for them to walk will be completely lost under the weight of all the bonuses and add-ons.

I hope that developers will start to think about these problems from the start and try to design the path to their DLC in a more elegant way. There are already some good examples of developers avoiding these pitfalls. I deeply respect the designers of Dark Souls for simply adding its DLC to the game world and expecting the player to figure out where it is, but then being obtuse and mysterious is Dark Souls' modus operandi. Other games like The Witcher 3 take a slightly friendlier approach, still sprinkling the new content into the world in a natural way, but also tucking instructions on how to find it unobtrusively into the game's glossary system, and giving larger expansions a slightly different visual treatment on the game map so that they stand out.

DLC has transformed the gaming environment and given creators a new avenue to tell stories and stretch their creative muscle even after the game is finished. I'd just like a bit more thought to be given to those of us who play most games well after the initial release, and may struggle to find that original path that the designer intended us to take.

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