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Keeping players playing without adding DLC
Keeping players playing without adding DLC
July 27, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

July 27, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing

"DLC is not needed to keep players engaged if the game is well executed."
- Avalanche studios head Christofer Sundberg urges developers not to get too hung up on producing downloadable content in an interview with Eurogamer.

The Just Cause 2 developer explains that while most developers produce downloadable content to prolong user engagement, the real trick to long-term success is to make a game that players don't want to put down in the first place.

"We create a game allowing players to properly explore and have fun and not focusing so much on the actual end goal of the game," he says.

Avalanche experimented with its own DLC for Just Cause 2, but Sundberg found that the content just didn't make much of an impact in the long run. And while plenty of other single-player games have added multiplayer to better hold players' attention, he's not sure that's the answer either.

"The big thing now is to force multiplayer into games that are really single-player games just to combat second hand sales and that makes absolutely no sense as it just consumes budget and does not add any value except on the back of the box."

But adding so-called "value" to a product is a vague pursuit, to say the least. With so many factors at play, is there a magic formula for making a game stick? Perhaps there's something developers can do to make their DLC or multiplayer efforts more worthwhile?

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k s
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I loved Just Cuase 2, it had so much to do.

Brian Tsukerman
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This is a sentiment I agree with strongly, though I have long since stopped vocalizing it. Though I'd much prefer more studios approach things like Sundberg does, the advent of DLC means the companies that create games have more leeway regarding when they release games, since they only need to produce enough content to create a "full" game for the initial release, and can save side quests and other ideas for the DLC. Plus, it boosts the total price of a game through installments, boosting the games price from the current norm of $60 to somewhere between $75 and $120.

I can definitely say though that I've played more single-player games with largely unnecessary multiplayer (Bioshock 2, Doom 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, etc) than ones whose multiplayer was surprisingly awesome (Assassin's Creed).

Adam Rebika
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Well, AC's multiplayer is justified since no game in my memory had this kind of MP gameplay before that.

Michael G
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Damned straight. I played JC2 for over 200 hours, though I suppose the sheer size of the game world accounts for some of that. Then again I played Half Life 2 for over 50 hours, Dead Island for 30 (despite realising long before that it was a rubbish game), Left 4 Dead 2 for 80 hours and Portal for 40 hours. In contrast, I played Modern Warfare 2 for 5 hours and completed it on regular difficulty, haven't even looked at the box since.

Marc Magi
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While well crafted games that allow players to "properly explore and have fun and not focus[ed] so much on the actual end goal of the game" can obviously entertain for much longer than typical games so too can games that are pretty linear and extended via DLC's.

I think the key is managing to create well crafted games. Whether it is open or not, is not an indicator of success.

The fact that you (and others, myself included) can play HL2 for much longer than it takes to complete the game is testament that well crafted linear games which relentlessly drive you towards a goal and lack the ability to truly explore can be deeply satisfying. And ofc, HL2 added 3 DLCs (albeit one of them free) and multi-player was bolted on, so it's probably the antithesis of what Mr. Sundberg would advocate.

Michael DeFazio
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consumers are becoming wise to the fact that some publishers are releasing games which are "intentionally incomplete" to capitalize on DLC... in this case i think you can really hurt the long term viability of a franchise (and company loyalty) because consumers become jaded for always having to shell out to get "the full experience".

DLC can really add to a franchise if
-- it allows players to interact in the world in a new and interesting way (not just more of the same)

-- it can expand upon characters/features/narrative that players loved and want more of (i.e. i'd love for more "dark brotherhood-type" quests for skyrim, and just try to keep me away from day-1ing the Dark Souls Prepare to Die edition (I love Lordran and the lore of that world)

i look at the Dawnguard DLC and kinda scratch my head, i loved skyrim and all (and I don't think this is a pure cash-in) but, I mean I'm already a walking Jedi-Tank capable of single handedly taking on a town or small army... do I really want to grind up another perk tree to be yet more powerful?

Marc Magi
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No matter how good a single-player game is, at some point other variables are needed to prolong the title. Other than what Mr. Sundberg says about why Avalanche creates games** and his comment on about "[needing]...multiple paths to success" the most interesting thing about his comments is what he doesn't say. Note, he never explains or states what he considers essential for game title longevity and his knock against bolting on multi-player features has some truth but is not completely on solid footing.

Let's say you have created a near perfect (I'm generous, so anything over an 84 MetaCritic score) game and your business model is solid. There are still many ways for Game Studios to screw-up long term sales:

First, is not releasing an SDK prior to or concurrent with the game's release. Map and Mod authors need to be considered important allies because they keep the game relevant long after release and they offer different game styles that appeal to a broader audience. Somehow in the DLC era it seems as if Moddders and DLC Sales are mutually exclusive. I think there is room for both in any game, in any genre.

Second, add a generous helping of multi-player modes. I'm not a gaming expert but it seems to me that once you have created all the assets needed for a single-player game that pretty much has covered most of the fixed costs. The cost to create some larger multiplayer maps shouldn't be that prohibitive. Also, let's say that you aren't very imaginative about multi-player modes, the dozen or so standard ones work very well almost universally. And hey, here's a tip... if you don't want your bolted-on multi-player section to adversely affect your Metacritic or GameRankings rating add it as a free DLC for the game. After all, you can wink wink price the game to cover those costs. But, if you are designing a game with both SP and MP from the ground floor up, as opposed to bolting on MP in the last 18 months, then for God's sake add a co-op mode out-of-the box. That's one mode that should not be left up to Modders.

Third, lose gimmicky practices designed to extend playing time. You'll simply alienate a number of players by prohibiting them from playing the game how they would like to play it. Stuff like limiting the number of saves per level and the current demented reasoning that somehow all FPS's that feature co-op should set it at four players. Let your environment decide on the number. It peeves me off to no end that almost all FPS co-op games on Steam are in the same cow-path minded rut.

And obviously there are a lot more ways to list but who has the time...

**"We create a game allowing players to properly explore and have fun and not focusing so much on the actual end goal of the game."

Eric Schwarz
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I think more broadly the question that should be asked is "can DLC enhance an experience in an appreciable and valuable way?"

Games that stand up on their own for long periods of time are great. I've got more enjoyment out of titles like Morrowind, Skyrim, Fallout: New Vegas, Grand Theft Auto, etc. than I have from many, many others. Although sometimes they aren't mechanically interesting, they have a lot of content and a lot of freedom in how they can be navigated, meaning the games take much longer before they grow boring.

But, that's not the only type of game. I think it's also fair to create an experience that is narrower in scope, especially if it leads to a more polished product. As much as I love huge games that give me lots of gameplay, I also appreciate smaller, shorter, simpler and more direct games. They are *not* inferior because they are more limited.

The problem is that DLC is often created not to build upon the original gameplay, but precisely to give players more of the same thing. Marketing says players want exactly that, but in truth I think we all want new, novel experiences that shed a new light on things. I don't know whether it's dispassion towards DLC that developers themselves might have, or rushed production schedules, or a lack of resources devoted to DLC, but not enough DLC truly expands upon what players enjoy about a game. I'd pay for DLC that adds new gameplay options, mechanics and so on far more often than I'd pay for another map pack.

Recently I tried out some of the Dragon Age DLC included in the Ultimate Edition. Some of it was good, but nothing about it stepped outside of the bounds of the core gameplay model. No new classes, kits, item types, etc. that improve the core game, and often not even any interesting stories to enjoy. The reuse of many, many levels from the main campaign also hinted at a lack of commitment and resources that I could plainly see - in other words, as a consumer, I didn't feel like the DLC got me my money's worth, because $10 for a 1 hour piece of gameplay copy-pasted from the main title is not value to me. With the same amount of effort, the base game could have instead been radically improved, and I would have been a much happier player.

Just Cause 2 is an interesting game to bring up in this context because I actually don't think it has much room to benefit from traditional DLC. Nobody cares about the story of the game, so that's out. It's not wanting for new content because it's so huge nobody will ever fully finish it. What really matter are the tools that players can use to expand their sandbox - and for the record, Avalanche did exactly that. However, Just Cause 2 already has jets, it already has cars, it already has rocket launchers and assault rifles and any other form of weaponry you can think of. Adding another jet or gun does not appreciably extend the game. From a certain perspective, Just Cause 2 is good value; from another, it's also extremely limited in that it doesn't have much room to grow mechanically.

Marc Schaerer
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I think there are two types of DLC.
There is real DLC like the HL2 episodes and similar DLC for other games that really adds something to the experience. These are absolutely fine and more than welcome (I love the Sam & Max episodic approach or the monkey island tales for example).

But if the DLC is just content that for 'monetary or time reasons' got cut from the real game without cutting the cost of the game too, then it just doesn't work out and the game normally gets no second chance from me to even show me its DLC if the actually desired higher price is hidden behind masses of DLC costs.
Thats a business model which I highly doubt will work in the future, chances are significantly higher that platforms like metaboli with 'access games while you pay subscription', or its cloud brothers Gaikai and OnLive, will actually be the future for this kind of thinking.

And I fully agree. Adding MP really adds nothing. MP games need a lot of time to train to have the needed skill to be able to enjoy a game, otherwise its only an added frustration.
I played through BF3 which I got on origin through preorder already but after finishing the SP, I basically never started it again. Even on the best day I enjoy iOS SP enough to not see a reason to enter the frustrating world of the badly matched MP where I as level 4 or 5 soldier get paired against level 20+ enemies with equipment that blows me out the water just like that - a problem BF2 already had in MP and which DICE absolutely and arrogantly ignored (scopes that make normol soldiers capable of sniping snipers is bullocks, as are armors that make low level snipers useless and stuff like that).

MP out of my view only makes sense if the game is also moddable - see HL, Starcraft, Warcraft - so the MP really brings a platform to life for a new experience.
Or if the MP adds something totally different as in the already mentioned case of AC

Ujn Hunter
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What ever happened to "Hey, let's make a fun game."? I still play God Hand to this day. ;)

Phil Lemon
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As an indie developer I find there are benefits in the implementation of DLC. Because we have limited budgets (and thus time) DLC affords us the opportunity to focus on a smaller but much more highly polished game core, get it out there and then reward the players with more gameplay. As long as the core game is solid and the DLC has been planned from the start, not just tacked on, the end result should be win win for developer and player.