Downloadable content (DLC) is a beast that has been evolving since the last generation and continues to do so even now. In the previous generation, DLC was initially a rare sight reserved only for the highest "AAA" titles. As the years went on it became the norm for games big and small. The current generation has now seen microtransactions being implemented into a number of different games, in some cases even replacing the old DLC model. The latest trend has studios making traditional DLC such as maps and modes free while only charging for microtransactions. While some may feel this change is for the better, I'd argue it's much worse.
Various AAA games have recently caught on to this new trend. Games such as Halo 5: Guardians, Destiny, and the upcoming Gears of War 4 are all offering free traditional DLC along with paid microtransactions. The problem I have with this new model is that the focus on the part of the developer shifts from producing high quality extra content to enticing gamers with never ending smaller purchase options. Rarely is it simply a case of them providing the same level of formerly paid content for free. More often than not these games are instead offering less content than before and at a lower quality.
This isn't just speculation, there are already games that exist as unfortunate examples. In the first year Destiny released, there were two traditional DLC expansions: "The Dark Below" and "House of Wolves". The first offered four story missions, one strike, one raid, as well as new bounties, equipment, multiplayer maps, etc. The second expansion added a new social area, six story missions, three multiplayer maps, new equipment, and two new modes in Trials of Osiris and Prison of Elders. Both of these expansions were part of the Year One season pass.
Since the launch of "The Taken King", Destiny hasn't seen one expansion on the level of either "The Dark Below" or "House of Wolves". Instead Bungie now focuses on free, limited time events called Live Events which offer minimal content and maximum opportunities to spend real money on their in-game currency. Destiny isn't the only game taking this approach either. Have you ever wondered why Grand Theft Auto V, three years after release, has yet to receive any meaningful single-player DLC like GTA IV did? It's likely due to the fact that they are too focused raking in $500 million from microtransactions alone thanks to GTA Online's Shark Cards, the in-game currency.
Gears of War 4 also recently announced their free DLC plans. The Coalition plans to release 24 additional maps post-launch at a rate of two maps per month. The catch is that there will only be 12 maps in rotation at one time (10 original maps + 2 DLC maps). Vanity items such as weapon and character skins can now be obtained through the new Gear Pack system, a handy little slot machine that can be pulled by either spending real money or earning them over time by playing matches.
To completely understand the drastic changes we can compare the model of Gears of War 4 to that of Gears of War 3. In Gears of War 3, the $30 season pass included: 13 maps, 13 character skins, 13 weapon skin sets, 4 characters, 4 fortification upgrades, Elemental Cleavers, the Re-up system, and a 3-hour campaign -- a hefty amount of content for a fair price to say the least. In all three of these examples implementation is the linking factor. Instead of simply offering DLC for free, the focus shifts too heavily on trying to sell microtransactions over providing quality content.
The one counter argument I always hear when this topic arises is how paid DLC splits the community of multiplayer games. But it isn't that simple. While the notion that paid DLC splits the community is a valid argument, there are far too many factors at play. First and foremost are the gamers that choose to not buy the DLC. If a majority of gamers purchased the DLC for a popular multiplayer game, the community being split wouldn't be an issue. If a developer releases a high quality and quantity of post-release DLC and a gamer chooses not to buy it, how does the blame fall on the developer? Then again, the pricing of the DLC is also another factor. Industry giants such as Call of Duty may be able to get away with a $50 season pass, but smaller games like DOOM will likely suffer for even charging $40.
The popularity of a game almost always dictates whether the community can withstand paid DLC. In cases like the previously mentioned Call of Duty, paid DLC has little if any effect on the community as a whole. While other games such as Titanfall and Battlefield Hardline clearly struggled with it. To simply say that all paid DLC splits the community is a blanket statement for every multiplayer video game in existence and doesn't take into account the specifics of each title.
Yet even more than the lackluster content these games are offering, the thing that annoys me the most is the message, the message that the developers, publishers, community managers, and anyone else tries to convey when speaking about this new model. From my perspective, it's a message that tries to proclaim they are doing these things for the benefit of gamers. For example the studio head of 343 Industries Josh Holmes had this to say on Halo 5: Guardians free DLC plan:
When you have paid map packs and content, you divide the player base into two groups: the haves and the have-nots. The people that have the map pack can play together but the people who don’t cannot. That to us is a real problem. So we’re delivering all the maps to all players free so everybody will be able to play together. That, we feel, is really important to having a great multiplayer ecosystem.It's a message filled with half-truths. Yes, I'm sure they don't like it when the community is split up, but where is the line stating "we make more money from microtransactions anyway" -- or how about "you won't be getting as much DLC as before." I can't shake the feeling that these developers are trying to pull a fast one on me by making it seem like they are doing this for my benefit alone. When in actuality they are the ones benefiting. When publishers such as EA have recorded double the amount of sales from bonus content (microtransactions, season passes, etc.) compared to full releases consistently, or Rockstar reveals that they have made over half a billion dollars from microtransactions from GTA Online, it's hard to believe that these tactics are for my benefit.
DLC has been a touchy subject for a very long time. It seems with every passing year there are more games pushing the boundaries. Right when things start to become the norm, one game has to attempt to break it. Now the formula of season passes and paid DLC is becoming obsolete. Instead we're getting less post-release content in terms of quality and quantity, with the added bonus of microtransactions being shoved in our faces. Back in my day a consumer could head to the digital store and buy some DLC, no questions asked. Now they want me to continuously spend money on their slot machines while attempting to lure me in by giving the first pull free. I don't know about all of you, but I'm done pulling the lever.