DLC and Expansions …

So, last week, a question was answered on Shamus Young’s Diecast. The question was this:

Dear Diecast,

I have read Shamus’ columns regarding the EA, lootboxes, marketing and the state of the gaming industry in general. I found his takes to be collected and insightful in an realm that I think is often fraught with misunderstanding. What I would like to ask the diecast is whether they have paid much attention to Paradox Interactive games and their policy of neverending DLC.

As you likely know, Paradox publishes and develops Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Stellaris, and Hearts of Iron. As a simple example of their business policy, look at Crusader Kings II. CK2 was released in 2012 and as of this writing has just short of $300 worth of DLC and a new large expansion is planned to be release this coming week, nearly seven years since its original release. This seems like it creates a weird situation for buyers; if you’re buying the game today, you’re not going to want to buy all the DLC and you might feel like you’re being cheated having all these features locked behind paywalls (about half the characters are unplayable without two of the DLCs). That said, I bought CK2 at release and really enjoyed it and playing the game today without DLC is really a more expansive game than it was at release.

A cynic could say that Paradox should have released a “finished” game back in 2012, but I personally am always satisfied with their updates and am happy to pay for them to keep them coming (for CK2 and Stellaris, anyway). What’s your take on all this? Are there some perspectives I’m missing?


And there’s some discussion of this as well in the comments. I’m not going to address their answers. Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about how the things that Paradox is doing seem to be more like the old school term of “expansions” than the modern term of “DLC”, and that not acknowledging that difference is what is causing some of the cynical reaction that Mark references above.

In the old days, we didn’t have anything like DLC — because most people couldn’t reasonably download content for the most part — but instead games were expanded. The game would be released, it would get its initial sales, and then if things were going good enough a year or so later you might get a separate package released for sale that expanded the original game. It would add minor features, fix some bugs or annoyances or balance, and add some items that they thought would be cool. For RPGs, what you’d generally get is a new add-on quest or set of quests or adventure. For strategy games, you’d generally get new races, units and scenarios. But a couple of key things were always true about these. First, they would never be “Day 1” expansions; it would always take some time for an expansion to be produced. Second, they were never simply cosmetic changes; they always had to add something significant to the game because they had to be sold to customers physically.

DLC’s bad reputation, on the other hand, starts from the fact that those key things are not true. DLC can quite often be offered at release or very shortly afterwards, and also can often be nothing more than simple cosmetic changes that they could have released with the game itself. Sure, DLC can be cheaper than expansions, but it can also be less impressive than expansions as well. And while in general the base game had to be complete enough to play — as its popularity would have to justify releasing an expansion in the first place — out of the box, it is possible that a game could be made that isn’t complete without either Day 1 DLC or even later DLC, because of how easy DLC is to get and how much DLC is expected for any game. Sure, the base game always needs to be entertaining enough on its own to get people to be willing to purchase it, but you can leave significant features out that you know your players will want and promise that it will show up later in DLC. That didn’t work so well for expansions as players were not likely to be willing to wait that long.

So, from the above CK2 adding a new expansion seven years after it was released is definitely an expansion and not DLC, and no one can say that they should have provided it at launch because it’s both clearly too much work and is likely something that they didn’t really know anyone would want when the game was launched, with it only being after getting comments from real players or seeing how other expansions went that it seemed like a good idea. But lumping it in with DLC allows the question of whether or not it should have been release at launch. So we need to distinguish things that are expansions from the smaller things that many people think of when they hear the word “DLC”.

Now, on expansions themselves, again in general these are things that can make the base game better but aren’t actually required for it. We can see this play out in another field: board games. The board games Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica both had a large number of expansions. If you wanted to break into playing them and didn’t have any, you were or would actually be looking at spending much more money than you would currently spend on CK2. But while each of the expansions adding interesting mechanics, if all you bought was the base game you’d still not only get a complete game, but a pretty good sense of the experience that made the games popular in the first place. In fact, it is usually recommended that new players buy the base games and maybe one or two other expansions — Dunwich Horror is a big one that is recommended for Arkham Horror because it introduces injuries and madnesses which can improve the experience — to see if they like it first before making the monetary commitment to buying all the others (which I personally did not do for Arkham Horror, but then purchasing Kingsport is responsible for me actually liking the game in the first place so it worked out). And on top of that some players won’t want to get or want to play some expansions because they don’t like the mechanics. Pegasus and Kingsport are expansions that many players won’t play for Battlestar Galactica and Arkham Horror respectively, while I personally don’t care for Battlestar Galactica’s Exodus expansion very much and so try to avoid playing with it. The combination of the base game being playable — if, perhaps, too easy once players become experienced with it — and the expansions not appealing to everyone can limit the amount of investment someone has to make to play the game, at least until they know if it’s a game they’ll enjoy. Package sales can help with this as well.

I’ve never played CK2, but from what Mark said the base game is playable and enjoyable out of the box, so it seems to be doing that part right. The fact that half of the characters — whatever those are — are presumably in the game but not playable without extra DLC would be a bit worrying, as it would be including things in the base game that you need an expansion to really experience, which then puts pressure on you to buy at least those DLC, and makes it far less friendly to someone who wants to play a complete game without adding expansions. Good expansions add interesting things but aren’t things that you’d notice are missing while playing the base game if you haven’t already played the expansions. So it sounds like they’re on the right track, at least, and so shouldn’t be criticized just because today we call expanisons DLC. There’s a difference between at least the typical cases, and we need to recognize that so that we can encourage expansion behaviour while discouraging “Day 1 DLC” behaviour and things like lootboxes.

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