One of the big features of this generation has been the dawn of significant paid DLC. Gone are the days of Horse Armour and in have come full expansions to games, offering up new levels and new content to the player. Obviously adding new content to an existing game is nothing new, with Sid Meier’s Civilisation series being a pioneer of offering a selection of new features and enhancements in expansion packs that build upon the original game. What has made the adoption of expansions more prominent in this generation has been the rise of online gaming, and with it, the ability for publishers to deliver patches and new content to the player routinely.
But this easy content delivery system has had its flaws, and has tarnished the reputation of numerous previously faultless series. Dome games are now released in a semi-beta state, with patching work begun as soon as the game goes off to be printed. While it allows an earlier release, early adopters essentially become beta testers, reporting bugs which will be fixed a few weeks down the line. To make matters worse, some developers are releasing games literally half finished, essentially demanding that you buy the DLC at inflated prices to complete the game. Ultimately it makes business sense but the net result is an angry and alienated player. And now Nintendo are joining in.
One of the advantages of the Wii and DS not having any significant form of downloadable content delivery for existing titles has been that games need to be completed before they can be released on the system. Releasing a half finished game will leave it as a half finished game forever, as will expecting the fans that have paid good money to buy your game to beta test it for you. The result has been that games have taken longer to be released, but generally the quality has been higher. It’s a mantra that Nintendo have always lived by, shown no more strongly than in the ever delayed Zelda series, and it’s one that has created some of the most polished and complete games ever created.
But Wii U and the 3DS will change all that. Announced last week, Nintendo are introducing the Nintendo Network, which on the face of it, will at a minimum bring Nintendo up to date with PSN and XBL; although chances are that what we have heard so far is the tip of a very enjoyable and exciting iceberg of online goodness. One of the big announcements though was Nintendo’s commitment to bringing DLC to the systems, something which has so far only been available for the Rock Band series on Wii. It’s a big step for a company which has never tried it before, and it could have far reaching consequences.
It should be stressed that Nintendo have said that they will only allow DLC when it is justifiable, and won’t let it be used as a repairing tool for broken games. It’s a strong statement of intent from Nintendo, and we have to believe that they will stick by that, especially as it would appear they will be handling the delivery of it, in many ways drawing parallels from Valve’s Steam service. While they may not be able to entirely control third party content, it is at least comforting to know that Nintendo are determined to keep their releases as grade A titles, and not potential grade A titles needing refinement.
So what can we expect then? Satoru Iwata has already come out and said that one of the examples they have proposed already for DLC is in delivering new levels for Mario games to keep the game fresh. It should be noted that he said to keep the game fresh, rather than to artificially extend the experience. It would appear that Nintendo are aiming more at extending the lifespan of games for those dedicated enough to want to play the game even more rather than just offering more levels in a lazy attempt to boost their bank balance.
So far so good then, but what else can we expect from Nintendo? Withholding content is something that doesn’t feel very Nintendo-like, and that’s a big problem in the DLC arena. Take for example the DLC for Mass Effect 2, Lair of the Shadow Broker. The DLC was a late addition to the game as part of the bridging material between ME2 and its sequel, and forms a crucial part of the series narrative. The delivery of the DLC is cleverly done so as to avoid any content being actively unavailable to the player in that while it is part of the larger narrative, it has absolutely no effect on the main game or the progression of the series. This is an approach Nintendo could adopt.
We’re simply not going to see areas of games barred off that would enhance the game further without payment, so a model like BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 DLC would be ideal as it not only gives more to the player but it also doesn’t demand a purchase. The Metroid series would be a fantastic series to implement this with, as additional DLC could come in the form of a distress call from a new planet. As long as the planet featured substantial exploration, there is no reason why this couldn’t be a DLC release a few months after we’ve all finished the main plot. I know I’m hungry for more Metroid Prime anyway…
But what about Nintendo’s other big series, The Legend of Zelda? How could DLC work with that? The easy solution is to introduce post-game plot extensions, but considering that Zelda games are largely standalone experiences it seems contrived to then turn to the player and say that actually there is more to the game than what you currently have. The solution then must come from somewhere else, and for that, Nintendo need look no further than Four Swords.
The original release of Four Swords came as an expansion to a re-released A Link to the Past and introduced an all-new adventure, albeit a shorter one, that used the engine of ALttP. While I’m not suggesting that every Zelda game needs a DLC four-player expansion, that would be madness, the idea of introducing smaller side-stories might not be such a bad idea. And there’s plenty of room for expansion here. There are a lot of small plot gaps in the series that the true Zelda fans want filled which may not constitute a full game (Link’s quest into the Lost Woods post-Majora’s Mask for example) and there are stories to be told about the other inhabitants of Hyrule. Valve’s Half-Life had a novel approach of providing different takes on an existing story, so why not use that in the Zelda series? The story of Zelda and Impa in Skyward Sword was a shorter but just as interesting one as Link’s, so for an additional fee, Nintendo could let us experience it. It maintains the focus on Link in the main game, yet provides more information for those of us who want it if we’re willing to pay just a bit more.
But no matter what Nintendo decide to do, DLC is a dangerous area. The game itself needs to be polished to perfection and then, and only then, should DLC be thought about. Nintendo need to avoid trivial DLCs such as new characters in Mario Kart and Smash Bros as they eventually lead to an elitist culture around the game for those that have them, and they also need to avoid just adding new levels or tracks for the sake of it. DLC needs a purpose, and it needs to be warranted. Giving a new world to a Mario game for true fans is a worthy DLC, as are sidequests which don’t impact the main story. But DLCs which just add trivial or meaningless items to games need to be avoided, and it needs to be a lesson Nintendo have learnt right from the outset.