You, Me, & DLC. Part three: Enemy of the People?

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If you’ve already read parts one and two – and why on Earth wouldn’t you have? – you’ll know that my comments on DLC so far have been overwhelmingly negative. The digital distribution of games and add-ons can be a force for good, however; demonstrably so. It’s done a lot of good not only for business but for us cash-wielding consumers, too, and it will continue to do so.

One of the most obvious and most discussed benefits of the digital market is the development of games that never would have made it to retail. If buying games still meant buying hard copies, titles such as Braid, Limbo, Fez, Flower, Stacking, Joe Danger, and many more would almost certainly never have been made. Though it should go without saying that this is largely because of the costs and complications involved in traditional development and publishing, many such titles often tend to be over much quicker than retail games. They can be priced to reflect this however and, as downloads, they generate much more profit than games which require allowances to be made for manufacturing and packaging costs (not to mention in-store advertising).

This brave new world of the digital market, which is still evolving, is far from perfect. It has however served to breathe fresh life into the indie scene which, despite its long and respected heritage on the PC, had previously been all but nonexistent on consoles. Though there are big-name indie titles such as those mentioned above, it’s worth remembering the indie game catalogue on XBLA. There are plenty of things I don’t like about Xbox Live, but I applaud Microsoft for opening up the market to pretty much anybody with enough skill and time (and money) to develop for, and submit to, this section of the Arcade.

...are usually a bit rubbish, but some are great.

Let’s be honest. The fact that most of the titles in the indie arcade are priced at a modest 80-120MP doesn’t take away from the fact that a depressing number of them look like lazy, derivative crap. Mind you, the same can be said for the games you see on the shelves of your nearest retailer (satire!). The point is that now and again a gem pops up that’s so good, so memorable, snapping it up for such a small price almost seems like a crime. Again, only the phenomenal impact of online gaming and the resulting digital market has made this possible.

It’s not just budding developers with limited or non-existent budgets that have been empowered by the unstoppable march of DLC. Online play and digital distribution got funky together, and started making player-empowering babies that look set to crawl into more and more nooks and crannies of the industry as time goes on. Again, the PC led the charge here years ago with the modding scene. As modding in the traditional sense currently isn’t possible on consoles (not legally, at any rate), a new culture of ‘user created content’ has arisen there.

The best example of this is surely LittleBigPlanet (for the purposes of this feature, I’ll be talking primarily about the PS3 games). I have to admit I’ve had a soft spot for the series ever since being overawed by the first title. These games have always had a passionate following, but I remain puzzled as to why sales haven’t crushed the competition. In case you aren’t aware, the basic premise runs thus: Each game has a set of pre-made levels in a story mode, each of which can be played by 1-4 players online or offline, The game also includes the same (surprisingly user friendly) level editor used by the developers which allows players to come up with their own creations. Players can publish their levels online to the community. Bottom line: a theoretically endless supply of free levels (which do, of course, vary wildly in quality).

Dozens of important tweaks to the LBP2 level editor means that pretty much any genre can be explored, or at least mimicked. Thus many ‘levels’ are in fact machinima, top-down racers, homages to classic arcade titles, shooters, beat ’em ups… anything you can imagine. Some users have even used tricks to emulate a first-person view, resulting in memorable results such as an FPS game ‘trailer’, and a stunning, playable homage to Flower. LittleBigPlanet has given a powerful development tool to those who wanted one but didn’t know how or where to get one, and even to those who never even considered making games or levels before – and consequently found that they have a skill for it.

Getting praise for a level you've published can make you feel like you're... no, I'm not going to say it.

When most people think of DLC they think of add-on packs with a price tag attached, and the LBP games have plenty of those. Mostly costumes for Sackboy or decorations to plaster around your levels, with the occasional editing pack with new add-ons, music, and backgrounds to play with. Personally this has never bothered me; buying a new set of trousers for your avatar gives you no advantage over other players, and so much is given away for free it just doesn’t seem to be an issue. Best of all, levels published to the community that used paid-for DLC in their creation are available for everybody to play – regardless of whether you’ve bought that DLC yourself or not. Obviously you can’t copy anything from the level that you haven’t paid for but, for those interested, information on what packs were used is available.

Surely the LittleBigPlanet DLC model is ideal for everybody? Players get lots and lots of free content which keeps on coming week after week, day after day. Because of this, many people who would otherwise have become bored with the game remain engaged. This reduces the game’s presence in the secondhand market, and increases the long-term audience for paid DLC – which will become more attractive to more people, as they become more invested in the game and look upon it (and the developers) with kindness and respect due to the aforementioned free content.

Though not at the heart of the experience as with LBP, Infamous 2 also encourages and distributes free user created content. To be more specific, players can create their own missions in the existing game environment – though they’re able to set objectives, and even place enemies and objects until the layout of the area is completely different from anything in the main story. Again, this encourages players to hold on to the game for longer and become more invested in the experience – thereby more likely to pay for the price tag content – simply by offering them even more value for money. This is how to treat us, Mr Industry Man; use the carrot of online play as a tasty treat to feed the player, and not as a carrot-shaped online pass to shove up their backside.

In today’s market, when it comes to DLC, it’s not possible to have the good without the bad. As “enhancing” retail titles with digital distribution becomes ever more popular and publishers start to realise what tactics work, what will prevail – punishment for secondhand buyers, or rewards for long-term players? It’s still too early to say. Rewards are still just as healthy as punishments however and, ultimately, we need to shout with our wallets (or purses). Invest in games which care for and reward the player, while snubbing the tidal wave of DLC from greedy companies charging for everything that, in better days, was included in the original code and/or available for free via a cheat code.

In the fourth and final part of ‘You, Me & DLC’, I will (finally) tackle the issue I’d promised to discuss in part two – what right to ownership, if any, players have over the story and general development of the games they play. Let’s just hope that the long-awaited (ahem) conclusion to this series doesn’t kick off a high-profile internet protest…

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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