Downloadable content is, conceptually, a blessing. Even after the game has been put on store shelves and gamers have explored every single one of its nooks and crannies, developers can still deliver brand new levels, items or challenges. It has the power to augment a title’s value to unsurmountable lengths, creating software that – instead of getting old – gets fresher every time something is added to its catalog of DLC.
However, in reality, those things have a price for companies. After all, a developer that could have been working on a new game has to spend his working hours thinking of new ways to please customers who have already acquired a product. Naturally, that cost is passed over to players, who have to pay extra cash to play something on which companies need to spend a few more bucks. It is simple math, and on paper it is a very fair deal: those who want to get more than they acquired for the game’s initial price tag have to dispose of some money.
While extra content is universally applauded, the minute it gets priced marks the point on which a barrage of comments accuse companies of being merciless money-hungry tyrants. Case in point, the recent announcement that the upcoming Mario Golf: World Tour will have courses that can only be downloaded if players pay for them, which caused many of those who were anticipating the game to accuse Nintendo of ripping players off.
Games, like any project, have a limited budget and the content that gets put into a title is always limited by whether or not there is enough cash left to cover it. It does not take the knowledge of an insider to claim that Mario Kart courses, Zelda dungeons, Super Mario Galaxy stages, and Metroid bosses have been left out of the final version of the game because time and money had just run out, and the game needed to be put out there so that the company could start collecting the laurels of its hard work.
Nowadays, that upper limit budgets have is undoubtedly looser. Extra ideas that would have otherwise not made it can materialize due to the fact companies can now allocate extra money on projects and expect good returns over it because of paid downloadable content. In other words, if gamers are paying extra cash for features that would have been non-existent in a world without DLC, then they are most certainly not being ripped off.
Still, players’ complaints are not all that unreasonable. Companies do like money, and the world is – sadly – crowded with unscrupulous people that are not ashamed to take advantage of others in order to make some more money. Hence, to us outside the process of gaming development, there is one huge dilemma surrounding DLC: it is just impossible to know whether a certain piece of downloadable content is really an extra, or something that was originally part of the full game that got removed just for the sake of squeezing extra coins out of our wallets.
Gaming development is a dark box to gamers, and in the full knowledge that businessmen – like any other kind of human being – can be bad, we have naturally come to suspect every additional bit of gaming goodness for which we are charged after we paid for the full game. It is a problem to which there is no fast fix, for it relies on something extremely abstract: the relation of trust between a company – a faceless entity – and its fans.
Though by no means quick, that solution is certainly achievable. The one way through which companies can make players start looking at DLC with more positive eyes – even if the negative comments will never cease to exist – is to consistently deliver games that are exploding with gameplay hours. In that sense, the issue of paying more money for extra content can be positive to gamers since companies will have to make sure their titles feel like really full packages from the very start, potentially increasing the value of the average game.
Staying on the Nintendo side of things, one stellar example of a game that reaches such balance is Fire Emblem: Awakening. Its downloadable content is gigantic, featuring new missions and units that are linked to unlockable classes, skills and items. Awakening has, literally, a full game’s worth of DLC. However, its single-player campaign is so lengthy, its features so configurable, and its production values so exquisite that its very well-priced load of pay-to-play content is a very pleasant sight once the end of the game is reached. It is like finding a treasure chest full of gems when the loot seemed to be all taken.
The bar against which World Tour must be measured is, obviously, its predecessors. Both the original Mario Golf and the Gamecube’s Toadstool Tour had six courses to be enjoyed, and the Gameboy Advance game had five, which were complemented by a strong and high-value RPG mode on which players could slowly build up their characters. If World Tour can deliver a number of courses equal or above six and pack a strong RPG gameplay, then its extra content will undoubtedly be seen with very positive eyes by media and fans alike, as the game would be bound to get a very good reception.
Nintendo does not have a strong tradition of placing DLC in its games, but it can use Mario Golf: World Tour to keep improving its credentials on this field. In turn, that might – one day – back up the inclusion of downloadable elements on even bigger games such as Mario platformers, Mario Kart, Star Fox, or F-Zero.
In spite of the understandable negative reactions that happen at first, everything might turn out to be very positive. After all, who in the world would not love a Mario Kart title that gets updated with new packs of courses every two months or a Star Fox title that receives new thrilling space missions on a weekly basis?