From Expansion Packs to DLC: The Evolution of Additional Video Game Content
Downloadable content – or DLC – has become a mainstay in the video game industry. Now, every high profile game is expected to have additional content roll out over the months that follow its release. New games for PC, PS4, and Xbox One generally carry a price tag of 59.99 USD, and additional content requires players to pony up anywhere from 5.00 USD up to 25.00 USD to purchase extra content. The video game industry, like any other, is business oriented – profits mean that a game company can continue to produce content. Purchasable additional content for video games can be traced back to its initial inception in the early 1980’s with Dunjonquest: Upper Reaches of Apshai. In the mid 1990’s, expansion packs became increasingly more viable for companies and more appealing to gamers, paving the way for the current trend concerning DLC on both PC and consoles.
There are some who see a problem with the current trend of DLC. Many believe that some methods are exercised to purposely release watered-down products – having DLC already in mind to fill in the holes – a nefarious attempt to gouge customers past the initial purchase of a game. Drawing a path from past PC game expansion packs to the present state of digital content sheds some light on the positives and negatives additional content has had on content, consumers, and the gaming industry in general.
The Emergence of the Expansion Pack in Mainstream Gaming
So what is offered in typical downloadable content exactly? Depending on the game, it could be new characters, items, areas or game modes. Expansion packs of old included most, if not all, of the above. One way to understand the evolution of DLC would be to go back and examine expansion packs that hit PC gaming in the 1990’s.
Picture what media was like back in 1996: Tomagachi’s, the Spice Girls, VHS tapes and dial-up modems that now seem ancient compared to the high-speed internet of today. Back in the 1990’s, people played their video games predominantly on Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and then later on Nintendo 64 and Playstation. These game consoles did not have internet connections, therefore the games you bought remained in the state they were released in – meaning their initial update version would last for each particular game’s lifespan – in contrast to the almost weekly updates some games get in today’s industry. Not only did console games in the 1990’s receive no patches, the content remained unchanged as well, what you bought was the final product. For PC gamers of the time, updates and the like were available, but the internet of the 1990’s was not the internet of today. Services like Amazon and Ebay were still in their concept stages, it took the arduous act of actually taking a trip to a computer store to get additional content, and that extra effort in contrast to today’s accessibility meant that expansion packs for video games needed to have sufficient content to warrant a purchase – it couldn’t just be a few new maps or a makeover here and there.
Blizzard Entertainment is one of the popular companies known for their expansion packs, a prime example of what additional content was doing for the world of PC gaming, and by analyzing what worked and what didn’t concerning expansion packs of the past, a picture of the present state of DLC emerges.
One of the pivotal instances of additional content in video game history came to the PC in 1996 with Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal, an expansion pack to the acclaimed 1995 Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness, beginning a successful trend that would carry through into the future of Blizzard’s catalogue. The Warcraft series is a staple for Blizzard, and has helped in their rise to become the big name brand they are today. Before their massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft, the series was a RTS (Real Time Strategy) game. Warcraft 2 was known for its rich gameplay and graphics for the time, as well as its lengthy single player campaign and easy-to-use map editor. The charm and atmosphere of the game was also a staple, due to its art direction and voice acting. What hooked most gamers, however, was the online aspect of the game – one of the first that caught on with the budding PC multiplayer scene.
An initial review by Gamespot of Warcraft 2’s expansion pack shows that it was well received upon release: “More challenging and more diverse than its namesake, Beyond the Dark Portal proves once and for all that you can never have too much of a good thing.” Indeed, Beyond the Dark Portal is a prime example of additional video game content doing exactly what gamers should desire from an expansion pack. It features a more grisly campaign, and most fittingly continues the story of the main game in a meaningful and interesting way. Should this not be the goal of additional content? A memorable experience that builds upon the original game? This expansion pack began the trend of including a tighter story and hero characters who carried the narrative of the single-player campaign, a signal of what was to come in future additions to Blizzard’s series.
Blizzard did not become a premiere video game company on the back of Warcraft alone. Before the introduction of Starcraft, their other series in the mid 1990’s was Diablo, which completed a gruesome twosome that propelled Blizzard to their top status. Diablo, like Warcraft 2, was incredibly popular – especially due to its online community Battle.net – one of the first in the world of video gaming that Blizzard still operates for its catalogue today.
Eventually, Diablo had an expansion pack released for it entitled Diablo: Hellfire. However, it was not developed by Blizzard itself, instead it was commissioned to a third party developer, Synergistic Software, and published by Sierra On-line. In other words, Blizzard outsourced for this expansion pack – but do be fair, they were busy making what would become one of the greatest sequels of all time in Diablo 2. Nonetheless, the lack of Blizzard’s personal touch concerning Hellfire was felt to detrimental effect.
Probably the most criticized move concerning Diablo: Hellfire was the lack of a multiplayer element. As stated, this is one of the most popular aspects of Blizzard’s games. Diablo’s multiplayer is what made it endure for many years, and while Hellfire is a treat for single player enthusiasts, in the grand view of the series it has been mostly forgotten. This is in contrast to Beyond the Dark Portal, which is seen as a must-buy for players of Warcraft 2, while Diablo: Hellfire is seen as expendable, a side entry that can be passed over. While Blizzard would continue on to make well received expansions to Warcraft 3 and Diablo 2 – expansions that would stand the test of time – the misfit Diablo: Hellfire serves as an example of superfluous additional content, and a sign that even at a time of great expansion packs there were some viewed as anything less than.
Blizzard Entertainment and its catalogue are not the only example of popularizing the trend of expansion packs. Valve Software is also known for their numerous instances of additional content for their influential game Half-Life, released in 1998. Half-Life changed the face of FPS (First Person Shooter) games – subsequent iterations in the genre would borrow heavily from its seamless gameplay and narrative. Half-Life however is known more for the plethora of modifications created for it rather than its expansions (fan-made entries that used Half-Life as a base for their own creations.) One most notable mod was Counter-Strike, which at the time of its release was a free fan-made game, becoming one of one of the most played online games along with Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft. Counter-Strike was so popular it landed its creators Minh Le and Jess Cliffe jobs at Valve, and because of the title’s success, Valve Software would end up releasing a game changer of their own, similar to Blizzard’s Battle.net.
The Rise of Digital Content and Distribution
In 2003, Valve released Steam. Before that, Counter-Strike’s native server search engine was cumbersome and insufficient. Most players would use third-party programs to obtain more complete server lists (rooms to play online with other players). Steam was an answer to this problem for Valve, allowing players to use an official program instead of unofficial ones such as Gamespy Arcade or the All-Seeing Eye. This gave players more streamlined access to search for servers, but this was not the only goal of Steam. It was also created to heighten the anti-cheating software for Counter-Strike and give players an easier way to download updates, thereby doing away with having to search the internet for a suitable download link.
The requirement of using Steam was a big change for many players accustomed to their particular ways of finding game servers for Counter-Strike. Because of this, Valve added an incentive to get players to hop aboard the Steam train. Counter-Strike’s pivotal 1.6 update was released exclusively on Steam, adding touches to popular levels, and most importantly adding new weapons to the game. The smoother interface of Steam – in conjunction with providing exclusive access to Counter strike 1.6 – was enough incentive to get the majority of players to try Steam out. On top of this, if a player had a CD-Key (proof of purchase) of a Valve game – say the original Half-Life or the CD version of Counter-strike – Steam granted access to many other Valve games such as the expansion Opposing Force or the multiplayer Team Fortress.
Eventually the user-base for steam grew, especially once the release of Half-Life 2 was on its way. In August 2004, Valve began open beta testing through Steam for their new Counter Strike: Source, a sequel to the original Counter-Strike. This is a crucial instance to take note of, as Steam was the only way to play this open beta, as well as the only way to play Half-Life 2 once it was released – a restriction that was the start of a new practice – nowadays considered common for a high-profile release. Valve’s release of Half-Life 2 along with the mandatory use of Steam was met with some friction upon the game’s release date in November 2004. Steam allowed users to pre-load the game before it released, and most gamers bought the digital copy over Steam. For some, it was the first digital purchase of what would become many.
The trade-off with this new practice was being able to purchase and obtain the game from the comfort of your own home, but in doing so you forgo not only the physical copy of the game in the form of a CD – but also the case, the boxart, instruction book, and any other items like maps or artwork. Some customers had issues on release day concerning their connection to Valve’s servers, which despite much preparation, were nonetheless overloaded. Despite the negatives, the release of Half-Life 2 through Steam would be a landmark for digital distribution in video games – a bit of a gamble at the time for Valve, but a gamble that would pay off for the company, as Steam would become the model for digital distribution henceforth and the new way for many PC gamers to purchase titles.
What does this all mean for DLC? This ease into an increasingly digital method of distribution coincided with the rise of high speed internet connections, and Steam became a model for many other game companies afterwards. Content became more streamlined, which on paper is all well and good, but purchases of this sort are tied to your Steam account, not a physical copy that some find more secure. Half-Life 2 brought about the shift from using cd-keys to the proliferation of steam accounts, a move that meant purchases would become tethered to Valve’s revolutionary distribution tool.
The Present State of Additional Content
The current trend of DLC coincided with the release of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, a parallel to the rise of high speed internet. Like Steam’s platform for digital content and delivery on PC, Microsoft and Sony had a similar service for their respective consoles – a more premium, streamlined service. Also, the more jaded view of contemporary DLC coincides with this distribution and subscription trend that the video game industry has taken on.
Bethesda Softworks’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and its “Horse Armor” pack is a prime example of the contemporary backlash towards DLC. It is the first widely covered example of purely cosmetic additional content, and while it was only a few dollars to purchase, for many gamers this has become a growing issue, going against the old idea of additional content being something that builds upon the original experience, or at the very least something that adds substance. To be fair, many of Bethesda’s released DLC packs fit this criteria of what should make a good expansion pack, but Oblivion’s horse armor has become the poster child for those that scorn DLC, using it as an example of the frivolity in additional content.
Again, this type of content would of been an exercise in futility back before digital delivery, being offered for free if even released at all, but with the increasing accessibility on both PC and consoles, it became much easier to simply open a menu in-game and pay the few dollars it took to purchase, a sort-of impulse buying that was largely unseen before Steam, Xbox Live and other services of their nature. This increased symmetry between consoles and PC came about due to their use of digital distribution, making it possible for video game companies to get their additional content to more gamers, across more platforms – quicker then ever before.
While Bethesda has been ridiculed by some for their “Horse Armor” DLC, Electronic Arts, or EA, has been outright vilified by many for their practices concerning additional content. EA took the Steam model and used it for their own distribution service entitled EA Origin. Like Steam, it offers an online marketplace to download titles offered by EA. What many dislike about EA’s implementation of Digital services is their exercise of offering season passes for their games. These season passes cost as much as the game itself, allowing you access to all the DLC that will be available for that title – in effect paying for content that has not been released yet. Many cynics harp on Electronic Arts because of other things as well, such as while one of their titles is still in development, they already have paid DLC in mind – which some see as undermining their costumers. In other words, jaded gamers see EA releasing a watered down product at full price, then offering the content that should of originally been included at a separate price shortly afterwards.
Another big title released by EA in 2016 was Star Wars Battlefront, a game that features top graphics and nails the style and sound of the Star Wars universe pretty well – yet many have had problems with it since its release. Some criticized the lack of a single player campaign, while others felt that to fully enjoy the game they needed to dish out the extra 59.99 USD for the DLC season pass, feeling even more jaded once the announcement of a sequel was made mid-way through the current game’s season. This goes against what additional content should strive for, not something that completes the original game, but something that builds upon that initial, satisfying experience.
While the old moniker “buyer beware” should definitely be used against those who see a problem with this business model that EA has taken with DLC, it still bothers many that the industry has turned this way. A more egregious example in yet another EA game would be Dragon Age:Origins, where the in-game characters pester you to pay for additional content, content that was already contained within the initial release but was blocked off for paid DLC purposes. EA isn’t the only company in the sights of many gamers with a chip on their shoulder – Capcom has had similar complaints over the release of Street Fighter V. While criticism is thrown at companies that pre-plan DLC for their titles along with the implementation of season passes, the truth is that the video game industry is still a business after all. DLC makes an astounding amount of money for companies. For EA, it is arguably more profitable than the game itself. This increasingly negative attitude toward DLC and these issues over season passes and on-disc content being locked off for future payments is not a complete picture of the current industry however.
As mentioned previously, despite the lampooning of The Elder Scrolls 4’s “Horse Armor” DLC, Bethesda is nonetheless known for their quality additional content for their games, add-ons that go back to the roots of what should make extra content satisfying – something that builds upon the original game, or at the very least gives something substantial enough that warrants its inclusion, not just a new weapon or a new skin that brings little change. CD Projekt’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a recent example of a game whose DLC packs are highly praised and embody this picture of what additional content should strive to be. Many see the recent release of The Witcher 3’s “Blood and Wine” to be a contender for Game of the Year – despite being just an expansion pack. What this shows is that the current landscape concerning DLC should not totally be condemned, but like any other service or product, a consumer should be aware of what they are paying for and what to expect from a certain company.
In the End it is About the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
This particular look at the history of expansion packs and DLC comes to the conclusion that digital distribution is the pivotal cog in understanding how a video game’s additional content is packaged and sold to fans. Like any revolution, the digital age has its pros and cons. Anyone with a good internet connection now has the ability to purchase and download a title on release day. Good expansion packs like those for the older Blizzard games on PC are not things of the past as some would think – The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine being an example of that – yet the marketplace is filled with an over abundance of frivolous offers that many see as a detriment to the entire industry of video gaming, a shallow cash grab from a cynic’s point of view. Overall, what the history of additional content for video games has shown is that it is not the distribution abilities that is the pivotal aspect to what makes additional content worth it or not, but whether or not the time and care was put into the project. Because of the high profits being made currently, this practice that the majority of game companies follow concerning downloadable content will continue on without any major changes. Gamers should demand that additional content be something that thoroughly expands on the initial experience of the original title, and perhaps most importantly these additions must show that the makers respect their fanbase.
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