Is free downloadable content really a good thing?

In the history of gaming, downloadable content (DLC) is still a pretty new idea. In theory, it’s a great one too. Adding significant new content to a game you love lets you spend more time in that world. We have this already with BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den and Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. New content can be a lot of things depending on the game. It can offer new ways to play, make significant additions to the story, or new modes. But most importantly, it has to feel worth the price. DLC that doesn’t last long or isn’t of a certain quality is a sure-fire way to disappoint fans. Perhaps this is why there has been a shift to free DLC models this generation: to avoid potentially angering players. Yet, has the quality of DLC suffered as a result?

The beginning…

Initially, people were opposed to the idea of DLC, often complaining about having to pay for more content that wasn’t part of the base game. Some of the earliest examples of this arose in the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 generation. Halo 2 had paid downloadable map packs near the end of the original Xbox’s lifecycle. Unfortunately, many gamers seemed largely unaware of it, perhaps due to internet culture not being as prominent as it is today.

Contributing more to the trend was the Call of Duty series. The Modern Warfare games introduced multiple downloadable map packs for each entry. While many other games around the time also did this, it could be argued that Call of Duty had the biggest impact on the trend. While some players enjoyed having new maps to play throughout the year, others were opposed to the idea. This is most likely because it would divide the online player base by who did and didn’t own the DLC. By the time all DLC had released, it was time for the next Call of Duty to release and start the cycle all over again. 

Gamers were further angered when DLC plans were announced before a game had even launched. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim announced it had post-launch DLC months before the game was out. This led to rampant speculation that the DLC content wasn’t a paid addition, but rather players being asked to pay for content that was cut from the main game. Whether this is true or not we can never know for sure, but it certainly wasn’t a smart move if publishers wanted to get consumers on board with their DLC plans.

Has the quality dipped with free DLC?

In the current generation, the situation has changed. Slowly but surely, many games have moved to an alternate model of giving free DLC to their players. In some cases, like Doom, publishers made the paid DLC free well-after its release. Perhaps this was a response to the backlash of last generation’s paid DLC trends. However, I think it’s more likely due to the rise of microtransactions in this generation. Knowing that more profit is generated through a continuous stream of paid microtransactions (such as cosmetic items) helps. By doing away with the traditional paid DLC content, publishers get to appear more consumer-friendly, all the while making more money than ever before, thanks to the slew of smaller paid content.

It could be argued that this shift is a good thing. After all, cosmetic microtransactions rarely have any impact on the core gameplay experience and give more options to players who want them. When they occasionally do impact gameplay, the community responds with vigor, leading to eventual changes. (See Star Wars: Battlefront 2.) On the other hand, there’s a side-effect that is becoming more apparent: the surprising lack of quality in the ‘free’ DLC.

On Xbox One, we’ve already seen this with games like Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4. Fans criticized Halo 5: Guardians for adding DLC that consisted mostly of remakes of current and user-created maps. Similarly, with Gears of War 4, many fans were not pleased about the quality of free content they were receiving. For reasons like this, I believe going back to a paid DLC model might not be a bad thing for many games. While it would make gamers have to pay once more, the quality could well be worth it. 

DLC that still gets it right…

All of the above said, there are still games that get both paid and free content right, such as the Fortnite phenomenon. The free-to-play battle royale asks for money in return for its battle pass and cosmetic items. However, after paying for its battle pass once, subsequent battle passes can be earned through gameplay. In addition, the free updates feature content like new weapons, modes, significant changes to the map and some impressive crossover events. By having all core updates be free, its players are never segmented, and the quality of content hasn’t dipped either. It is indeed one of the best examples of “free” DLC this generation.

On the other hand, some developers also know how to develop quality paid DLC too. Simply put, they have to offer new content that’s worth the asking price for gamers. Among these are examples are Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Both of its expansions were highly praised. Its second one, Blood and Wine, was also considered to be worth the price of its season pass alone, thanks to an expansive new story, map and more.

You may have noticed a key difference between good, paid DLC, and free DLC. Good, free DLC tends to work in multiplayer-focused titles, where it can help sustain a connected player base. Meanwhile, quality single-player DLC is often at its best with paid expansions that offer significantly more playtime to their game. While there is no perfect answer for creating quality DLC (whether free or not), I believe sticking to free DLC models for online games, and paid models for single-player content, could be a good way to start.

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and loves all things Japanese.

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