Wednesday, August 5, 2015

CD Projekt Red and The DLC Renaissance

Internet users put their Photoshop skills to use in expressing their frustration with the way DLC has changed over the years.

Media products have interesting lifespans. Like us, they are born, they live, and they fade away – but unlike us, their lives can be artificially extended. An artist will expand upon an existing work, investing it with new perspective, or maybe the benefit of sales revenue will prompt a re-release of a much-loved classic. We see it across all media: albums get reissues and special editions, movies get bonus features and director’s cuts, and games get something called downloadable content.

Since the late 1990s, “DLC” has been the way that game developers can continue to produce new content for an existing title, which is easier in every sense than creating a brand new product. Why spend money, time, and resources crafting something new and untested, when you have an existing fanbase eager to shell out for a new version of your old game? This may sound cynical, but it’s not all figures on a spreadsheet – DLC allows developers the chance to breathe, thanks to the proven success of the established title, and invest their creative energy in fleshing out and improving the experience they crafted the first time around. In 1998, Blizzard Entertainment released a strategy game called Starcraft, which sold spectacularly well and received massive critical acclaim. By 2009, the game had sold over 11 million copies, making it one of the best-selling PC games of all time. Blizzard developed what was called an “expansion pack” for Starcraft called Brood War, which added a new storyline and many new gameplay features. The game didn’t see a sequel until 2010 with the release of Starcraft II – a full twelve years after the original title’s release. If that kind of business model is viable in the gaming market, then DLC seems like a pretty smart approach.

Unfortunately, the viciously fast and unforgiving cycle of game development ensured that customers were soon paying exorbitant prices for insignificant additional content (exemplified in Bethesda’s infamous “horse armor DLC” for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which was literally just a cosmetic enhancement for your in-game mount that didn’t affect the game in any measurable way, and cost something like twelve or fifteen real-world dollars). Nowadays, DLC is seen by most consumers as a shameless cash-grab gimmick, frighteningly similar to the “pay-to-win” games that have flooded the mobile gaming market – something that almost every game will include, simply because there are enough people who are swayed into paying for it. Want a new costume for your character? That’ll be five dollars, please. How about a new mission to play? That’s worth ten. A full, Brood War-style expansion? We’re pleased to announce it’s been knocked down to a mere $39.99. More insidious, though, is the creeping feeling that many gamers experience – a niggling sense that developers are withholding completed content when their game is released, just so they can charge more money for it later. Their doubts are well-founded: that’s often exactly what happens.

So, screw it, you say. Don’t buy the extra crap, just play your game and enjoy it. I say, however, that while you might provide a wise (albeit brusque) perspective, you’re missing out on what made DLC a good idea in the first place – and you’re missing the chance to let certain developers show you how it should be done.

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt by CD Projekt Red.

CD Projekt Red is one such developer: a Polish studio known for their work on the Witcher games, a series based on the fantasy novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. These games take years in development, and are renowned for their high degree of quality, their strange, Eastern European originality, and their impeccable polish (if you’ll excuse the accidental pun). The latest installment, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, has been lauded since its release in May of this year as one of the greatest all-time achievements in gaming, and that praise is not misplaced: it is a wondrous work of art that must be played to be believed. CD Projekt Red’s dedication to releasing a quality product is evident in every vibrant frame of the game, and more than that, their release structure has breathed new life into the cold, lifeless consumer zoo that is modern DLC.

Prior to The Witcher 3’s release, CDPR promised that, as a thank you to fans who purchased the game, they would be offering 16 pieces of free DLC, in bundles of added features to be released each week following the game’s official launch. CDPR took pride in making sure this added content was made up of the sort of stuff that most developers charge money for, and which they believed should always be included for free, such as new hairstyles and beard types for the game’s hero, Geralt, as well as alternate costumes for other characters, added missions, new armor sets, new weapons, new combat animations, and more. All this is in addition to two fully-developed expansions for the base game, the first of which will launch in October – which fans like myself will be happy to pay for, given the regard that the developer has already shown to its loyal customers.

A beautiful, fun, and memorable game would have been enough. CD Projekt Red went the extra mile, and proved that there is still a ton of money to be made if you treat your fans with respect. Other developers will be playing catch-up for years in an attempt to emulate this “player-first” approach to extra content, and all that those of us sitting in front of the screen will have to do is reap the rewards.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism. 

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