Between regular game patches, the rise of online multiplayer gaming, and a focus on digital downloads, current generation consoles practically demand a working Internet connection. That being the case, publishers have spotted an opportunity to offer additional game content, for a price of course, to those eager to squeeze a little extra playtime from their most beloved titles. But following the recent announcement that Battlefield 3 will launch with the 'Back to Karkand' expansion pack, a wave of discontent spread amongst fans, stretching as far as our very own comment thread. Why aren't developers providing us with the content we deserve, and is it time for us to start calling the shots?
It wasn't simply the cynical cash-grabbing nature of Battlefield 3's DLC that irked gamers, it was the fact that preorders would include a number of weapons unavailable anywhere else. Would this give customers that had preordered their copies an unfair advantage in-game? EA insist that it won't, and with the ability to tweak the multiplayer to their heart's content even after the game has shipped, that could well be true. Nonetheless, making these weapons available to everyone, be it on the disc or with a post-release DLC pack would perhaps have been a more strategically sound manoeuvre. But I digress.
DLC is intended to extend the life of any given title, and as gamers, we're relatively open to the concept. We've finished Shepard's latest intergalactic adventure and we're looking for a few cases to tide us over until the universe needs its hero back. We've hitched our steed in Beecher's Hope and kicked off our spurs for the last time in Red Dead Redemption, but we itch for just a little more Marston. We're happy for the developers to provide us with another few hours of entertainment in our chosen medium, and we'll pay for the privilege. The trouble is that so often, developers will churn out substandard content and watch us throw our hard-earned cash at it in the vain hope that we'll savour the extra time with our virtual counterparts. What we end up with is a two hour slog-a-thon that's about as much fun as giving gran a sponge-bath.
Sometimes developers do get it right, and when that happens, you can be sure it'll sell by the ton. You only have to glance at Activision's profits for their phenomenal Call of Duty franchise to see that map packs are responsible for a sizeable chunk of their income: profits that are constantly replenished as more and more gamers demand a wider selection of multiplayer arenas. So how have Activision decided to capitalise? With Call of Duty: Elite of course! The online service will, for an as-yet-unannounced monthly fee, provide players with stats, trackers, video-creation tools etc.
But the big question on everyone's lips is whether Elite will also provide paying customers with the kind of constant DLC that Black Ops had them splashing out for every couple of months. It would benefit both the players, who would receive regular additional content for one of online gaming's biggest draws, and it would ensure the success of Activision's untested model. It's my opinion that there is no way Activision can ask gamers to pay a subscription fee for Elite, and expect them to spend a tenner per map pack on top of that, but then I've been wrong in the past, and Activision have been oh-so-very greedy.
It seems this sort of 'online service', designed to run alongside your games and pioneered by Bungie with the release of Halo 3, is now drawing the attention of the industry as a whole. At this year's E3, EA announced that Battlefield 3 would ship with just such a service (named 'Battlelog') free of charge. Not much has been said about it since, but we can assume that it will be comparable to the free features contained in Elite. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's 'Autolog' feature was a huge draw following the game's release, seamlessly integrating competitive multiplayer functionality without the need for all of your friends to be hitting the road at the same time.
The danger is that each of these services could potentially come at a cost to gamers. Activision pushing the first console-based subscription model for a game may set a dangerous precedent when it comes to how much we spend on games. Sure, we could live without all of the extra features Elite offers us, but we know they're there, and sometimes that's enough to prise our wallets from our pockets and have us spending just "that little bit more" cash. Not only that, but if Elite does exceptionally well, what's to stop Activision selling map packs separately at all?
We all know that as technology moves forward, triple A titles become a bigger and bigger investment for developers. The knock-on effect of that however, is that gaming becomes a bigger investment for consumers, and DLC only serves to increase the expenditure on our part. Downloadable content on the whole is well below the standards we've come to expect from our industry, and with Elite broaching the horizon now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to let publishers know exactly what we think of the services they're offering. Vote with your wallets Dealspwners, and accept no substitute for quality.