Levels Matter

How DLC producers could learn from the modding scene

DLC or ‘Downloadable Content’ has become the big thing in gaming as of late.  Earlier iterations, previously known as episodic content (a la Half Life 2) and expansion packs, were PC exclusive; but with the latest generation of consoles coming complete with hard drives, DLC has become not only feasible, but an almost mandatory requirement for developers.

However, thinking about the recently announced DLC packs for Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake, and Mass Effect 2,  it struck me that DLC is really just a licence for developers to mod their own games.  As I understand it, the way the DLC system works, you can add new content to a degree, but you can’t make radical changes to the codebase.  So in essence,  developers are now in the business of games modding.  The problem is, unlike the mod scene, they’re charging good money for it.

Frankly, I don’t blame them — if it wasn’t for legal restrictions, I’d probably charge for my mods too.  Surely Katana is worth a measly 400MS points, no?  But here’s where I take issue — a lot of the content on offer seems a bit meagre.  New skins? Guns? Custom armour?  That’s great, but if it wasn’t in the original game to begin with, why should I care about it now that I’ve finished it?

Though I loved the game, from what I’ve heard on various games forums, the latest RDR packs don’t sound that enticing.  In total you’re looking at $40 for the lot, which for a bunch of multiplayer maps, skins, weapons, and a few extras, seems like asking too much.  Weapon and skin mods are the easiest (and therefore the most common) mods you’ll see for any game, so to see a developer do this, and charge a LOT for it, is a bit disappointing.

Still, if DLC is just a fancy term for a mod that you pay for, is there anything developers can learn from the mod scene?  Well, the most important thing I learned from modding, and this is the real point I want to make with this post, is that the only new content truly worth making are new levels and missions.  For instance, releasing new cars in Forza 3 is OK; but if you expect me to pay money for it then what I really want are new tracks to race on.

Adding new weapons, characters, vehicles, and gameplay can extend the life of a game, or even force players to replay the entire game (e.g. Max Payne Kung Fu3, which actually is worth $10).  However,  it’s my belief that gamers constantly want to see and do new things. And by that, I mean genuinely new content, not modifications of existing content — brand new environments, new enemies, new challenges, and new stories.

That’s why the first couple of hours of a game are usually the most exciting, when everything is still fresh — that boat ride to Bright Falls in Alan Wake; Navi flying through the woods in Zelda; the first time you step outside in Oblivion/Fallout3; the first time you take control of the Normandy; running around the castle grounds in Mario 64…  these moments have a powerful impact on gamers, and are often the most memorable.

Unfortunately, gamers are very quick and very systematic about devouring and deconstructing this kind of stuff and there’s nothing, as a developer, that you can do about it, except make more.  It’s no secret that games are getting shorter (Modern Warfare 2 is shockingly brief); but this is where DLC and modding have the potential to make a real difference – to extend the story and create new adventures.  But it’s got to be worth the effort — for both the developer and the customer.

From what I’ve seen in the mod scene, the really popular, long-lasting mods are the ones that offer a substantial amount of new content — namely new story-driven levels.  Whenever someone shows an interest in games modding, I try my best to encourage them to learn the level editors and make new levels, because none of this extra stuff — kung fu, katanas, guns, skins, etc,–  are half as important.  In the long run, I think the same is true for DLC.  It’s new levels that are going to entice gamers to reach for their wallets, not peripheral content.