Mass Effect 3 created waves this week for all the wrong reasons. While day one DLC has become par for course for a lot of AAA titles, fans are up in arms about this particular bit of content, as there is a significant case to be made about it being rather central to the story. Adding fuel to the fire is the content’s appearance in a leaked script for the game, suggesting that it was completed for the main game and simply pulled out at the last minute in a money grabbing manoeuvre.
A studio executive is not exactly willing to let teams who have finished their contribution simply twiddle their thumbs until the game is launched.
The main issue behind day 1 DLC is that all DLC has historically been distributed well after the launch of the game itself. In theory, the development team worked on the content after the game was done and dusted, as a way of keeping their audience engaged. This approach makes a lot of sense: after all, games take a significant amount of time and money to produce, to the point where things need to be culled in order for the title to actually ship. However, the argument against day 1 DLC is that if the content was able to be produced alongside the game itself, why is it not just combined in?
Unfortunately, without some direct industry experience, there’s no way to give a proper answer to this question, which seems to lead some of the more vocal of the gaming community to the worst case scenario response. While I certainly can’t verify the following scenario, it seems the most likely given what is known about the development process in general.
A studio would rather cut ‘less necessary’ content to pull their employee’s focus more on the critically important stuff.
At the peak of a game’s development, a major studio will have hundreds of people working on it. Depending on how the studio is organised, there will be separate teams who work on various components of the game and as a result, some teams will finish their work before others. For example, it’s highly likely that the team working on shaders will finish their work on a game before the level designers do.
It’s a well known fact that games development is an expensive task, regularly encroaching on the levels seen for major film productions. As such, a studio executive is not exactly willing to let teams who have finished their contribution simply twiddle their thumbs until the game is launched. Enter DLC.
DLC ensures that the entire studio is kept busy right up until the game launches. The fact that DLC can fit quite well into the main game is no mystery either: the best DLC is content that was culled somewhere in the development process in order to ensure that the game shipped on time. A studio would rather cut ‘less necessary’ content to pull their employee’s focus more on the critically important stuff: it’s simply good fortune that they’re able to revisit the content later on, and in some cases, actually complete it while the rest of the game is being finished.
As mentioned earlier, there’s no real way to verify this (short of some frank interviews with development teams), but there is logic to this process. While I don’t wish to assume things, I can imagine that this is the situation that BioWare faced during the production of Mass Effect 3. It’s highly likely that while the DLC may be an important tract of the story, it is not absolutely critical to Shepard’s main arc.
Allow me to state the obvious: DLC keeps game developers employed. We all know how it works: developers cost money, and publishers want to keep their money. Developers that aren’t generating profit are laid off by the publisher. It might seem harsh (and it probably is), but that’s the way the big publishers work. It’s certainly not a good thing, but that’s the state of affairs as it stands.
By creating DLC after they’ve finished the main game, developers keep their jobs. And, because development of DLC has a shorter life cycle than development of a full game, said DLC is usually ready to go before the game is released to retail. This is because of the delays involved with certification on console platforms, disk printing costs, submissions to ratings boards, and so on. Downloadable content may still need to do some of these steps as well, but the turnaround seems to be much less than on a full game.
This brings us, of course, to the problem. I am, as you’ve no doubt figured out, talking about the "Internet controversy" involving Mass Effect 3 and its day-one DLC. Why Mass Effect 3 is specifically targeted, I’m not quite sure – many other past titles have had day-one DLC and you barely hear so much as a peep from the Angry Internet Men.
Anyway, the issue here seems to be that the DLC in question contains game missions, new major characters, and potentially critical story plotlines. The Internet Brigade is on a rampage because they feel that they are missing out on this critical content if they don’t get this DLC, and they need to pay more if they don’t want to miss out. Essentially, they think that this extra content should have been included in the actual game, or at least offered for free as a patch on day one, instead of being paid DLC.
As much as I dislike the big publishers, I have to side with them on this one. Development of DLC isn’t free, and the only reason the developers can remain employed is because the DLC is expected to generate revenue. Giving it away for free is not a sound business decision. It was only a week or so ago that our good friend Tim Schafer said that simply patching a console game costs at least $40,000, and that money doesn’t come out of nowhere.
So I read an argument the other day that instead of releasing this DLC alongside the retail release, the publishers should delay the release of the DLC by a few weeks, to avoid the wrath of the Internet. So the answer to this problem is to purposefully delay the release of new content, simply to shut the complainers up? Well, that technique doesn’t seem to be working very well for Valve…
Fact is, without this day-one DLC, the game would not have any extra content. Instead, a bunch of game developers would be out of a job. If the DLC was delayed for a few weeks instead, people who actually want to pay for the DLC have to wait. If the DLC were released for free, the developers would probably start losing money due to the high costs of releasing updates on consoles. Whichever way you look at it, day-one DLC is the perfect way to solve all these issues.