Downloadable content has become commonplace in the gaming industry over the last decade. Games are no longer just a singular event, but an investment for the long term. Players now expect to be able to get replay value out of games through continued support by developers. This often takes the form of new playable characters, new quests/levels, and the all-important new clothes.
As Nintendo has embraced DLC in recent years accusations have begun to fly that Nintendo is exploiting gamers with these practices. The issues raise are the same that fans have had with all developers and DLC. I want to examine the complaints of DLC, the development realities for the gaming industry, and finally evaluate if the critique of Nintendo’s DLC is valid.
The gaming industry has abused DLC as an easy way to double-dip your audience. Companies have locked off content on the original release, only allowing access with a second payment. The content you already have on your disk is essentially ransomed to you. Capcom, we know what you did last summer!
The other major complaint with DLC is that it is overpriced. AAA gaming titles often run $60 at launch. For a collector’s editions, players drop roughly $80-100. In recent years, developers have begun including DLC for those that preorder by certain dates. Determining value can be difficult, but the logic follows the lines of thinking, “If I paid $60 for a full game then, $20 should get me 1/3rd of the content of the full game.” If the game comes with 12 co-op maps, 6 guns, and 12 single player missions, then the DLC would have four maps, two guns, and four missions. The reality though is the DLC usually includes a new mode and roughly three multi-player maps for an FPS. Is that worth $5-10?
Pricing can be a challenge, but there are two ways of looking at this. First, if DLC is overpriced then do not buy it. The old adage, things are only worth what someone will pay for it, rings true here. I do not value new costumes for characters at all and refuse to pay for them. To me those are worth $0. New Starcraft II commanders for co-op play are of big interest. However, I still do not want to spend $5 on a single one. Blizzard keeps pumping them out though so they must be popular enough at that price point. The second thought is that gamers do not really want another game, they want more time in the original game’s world. If the company delays two long then the market for their product has moved on. If you release the DLC while interest is still high in the game, then it will likely sell better.
The solution advocated for by fan/critics, is to wait to launch the game until everything that would go into DLC is complete. If developers launch DLC near the launch in the game, then why was that not included in the main game. Advocates of this way of thinking might point to games like Ni No Kuni 2 as an example of a game that delayed to implement deeper town building into the fabric of the game. Others might use Blizzard and Valve as examples of companies that wait until the games are complete before releasing them.
Reality bites hard on this notion. Gamers may not realize it, but what is being advocated for is returning to retro gaming. Launch the game once it is complete (enough). The result of this thinking can be seen in countless games. One perfect example is Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The game was rushed to meet a deadline, black Friday. To make the date an entire zone had to be scrapped from the planned game. While more time to make the best game possible is ideal (I even advocate for this in a slow game movement), publishers and budget often dictate a point when the game simply has to be released. With DLC, the game can then add in the content that was not ready. Doing so gives fans the best game possible, though we might have to wait a bit for it to really be complete.
The other challenge is when developers have great ideas late in the development cycle. Often budget and time mean scrapping a great idea because there is no way to implement it before the title has to ship. With DLC, developers can add in these ideas after the fact. These aspects can even be worked on when the game goes to the audio department, allowing for quicker release than thought.
If we are honest, creating content is difficult. Most of us are not developers, yet we too can relate to the creation process. If you have ever written a book, article, or even a paper for school then you know the challenge of a deadline. You begin by wanting to create perfection. As a deadline looms, you have to accept your limitations. Even without deadlines, like creating a Mario Maker level, there comes a point when you can keep working on the level for eternity, or it has become good enough.
In watching a youtuber playing Mario Maker, he made the comment that the level felt like the creator got bored and gave up. The design felt intentional and measured to begin with. Then as the level dragged on it became more chaotic and slapped together. This can happen when creating. The designer gets bored, or was never interested in the first place, and gives up on their project. At some point we all realize that nothing will ever be perfect, no matter how hard we try. There are diminishing returns for the continued polish. If developers had to release games that had no bugs, then we would have no video games. Need proof? Look at speedruns of legendary video games like Super Mario Bros., Halo, or Mega Man 2. Players glitch through walls, Master Chief floats on levels, or Chris Houlihan rooms are created because it is easier than fixing all glitches. No game is perfect.
The bottom line is that developers and publishers need to make money. No profit means no video games. I think we can all agree we want more video games. The companies behind gaming then will ensure the team sticks to the budget. Without doing so, the company loses money and programmers’ jobs are axed.
Where does Nintendo fall?
Nintendo waited out the DLC game. In doing so, they were able to learn from early adopters mistakes. Nintendo goes two main routes when releasing DLC. Shockingly, much of their DLC is free. If we take Mario Odyssey as an example, we see fun game modes that likely never would have made the release without a DLC option. It likely makes fiscal sense as it keeps the game visible to prospective buyers.
Kirby Star Allies was another game that got free DLC added in two weeks after launch. Why did the DLC release so close to launch? We have examined many of the possibilities already. The characters were not ready by deadline, but the development team thought it would be a good addition. The production time did not allow the team to add in the characters originally. If they waited for these characters to be released then the game might not have hit the optimal date for release. As gamers, we get additional content, no charge. In retro gaming, we never would have had those extras.
The other route Nintendo goes is to add content that was not needed in the original game, but still is a welcome addition. Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a complete game upon release. Nintendo added in more shrines, treasure, and clothes for people to find and equip. Essentially, they are giving gamers the option of spending more time in the world that they have loved and enjoyed. New resources and modes have been added, like a map that tracks all your movement. I would have loved this while playing so I knew which areas I missed. Is it overpriced? If people are willing to pay for it then it is worth $20.
Other Nintendo games have added new characters for DLC. When it comes to Smash Bros. and Pokken, this provides the most value to players. Having gamers vote on which characters to add into Smash Bros. was a genius idea. It allowed Nintendo to do free market research and only include the characters that would sell the most copies. For gamers this was a win as it was the characters they wanted the most.
Overall, I would say Nintendo’s model for DLC works well. They do not skimp on their games. DLC is used to extend our time as gamers in the vast worlds they create. Nintendo gives free updates to many games, and how can you argue with price on free!? When Nintendo does charge for DLC content it might be a tad high, but if gamers are paying the price asked then it must be worth it to many fans out there. In the end, Nintendo is a great example of how DLC can be done to extend the enjoyment of their games and reward gamers for purchasing their games. More companies should take notice and follow Nintendo’s lead here.