The only time I bought downloadable content for a game was an accident. I don't need more gameplay or story that isn't crucial to the core experience. But what if the developer strips content from the game and turns it into DLC — on launch day no less? Word on the street says that is exactly what BioWare did with Mass Effect 3.
Of course, you don't believe everything you hear do you? Every time I've heard about launch-day DLC, I've also heard people complaining about it. So how about we examine the reasons behind launch-day DLC and why everyone needs to just RELAX about it. Sheesh.
The first part of the analysis is simple. One of the reasons this type of DLC exists is to give people who immediately beat a game something that adds to their play time. This means publishers can make more money, and, as well all know, publishers like money.
For traditional games (ones with physical copies), a period of time exists after a game is "complete" and before it lands on store shelves and on services like Steam. To keep things easy, let's say this time frame is about one month (Deus Ex: Human Revolution took 27 days from "going gold" to release). This period accounts for printing disks, distribution, getting early copies to reviewers, and other miscellaneous things.
Now, before you argue that substantial DLC can't be made in a month, we need to look at the development process. Knowing the timelines for how a game is made will help us figure out the amazing and wondrous truth behind how day-one DLC that isn't just cosmetic, and isn't cut from the final title, can exist.
Assuming a very, very short review period for a release, let's look at four major parts of development: writing, design, art, and programming.
Writing: I would expect all the story elements for a major production to be finished and finalized long before a game ships. Let's say in a two-year dev cycle this is done at least nine months before release. After all, you can't make a game without knowing where it's going.
Design: The design team implements the narrative and creates systems to support and allow the story to be told while making the game fun. They decide things like map layout, character stats, and balance. Generally in a major title, I would expect this stuff to be mostly done around two-to-three months before a game ships. You probably shouldn't be adding new systems that might break or ruin the balance just a couple short weeks before deadline. That is unless you want to end up like the team working on Diablo 3 of course….
Art: These people draw, model, and animate stuff. They collaborate with the design team to work on maps and other important elements. Most of these guys are probably done a month or more before a project's completion.
Programming: These are the individuals who get really worried right up until deadline. They handle the review process and, along with quality assurance, need to make sure everything works before a game is shipped.
My, my, would you look at that? It seems that plenty of time is available for a side story to be written and new elements to be implemented before that all-important shelf date. Even with a super-short, one-month review time, all the teams, but the programmers, have at least eight weeks to create launch-day DLC. Ta-da, brand new content that isn't "cut" from the completed experience.
So please people, stop complaining about releases that have day-one DLC. It probably wasn't cut from the original game. If it's not on the disc, it wasn't done when the base game was done. If anyone should complain, it should be the dev team who probably had to push back their well-earned vacations just for you to have something nice. Would you rather get some more time out of something you enjoy or horse armor?
NOTE: As this document from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Nick Kummert's article point out, most review cycles are actually around three months, which gives devs even more time to make great launch DLC.
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