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Doing DLC Right

Posted on March 14, 2013 AT 06:35pm

Earlier this week, the follow-up DLC for Dead Space 3 was released.  In spite of finishing the game, and thoroughly enjoying my experience, I am currently abstaining from downloading this new content.  My choice is not the result of the add-on looking unappealing, quite the contrary, it has more to do with the content within the pack.  There’s a disturbing trend amongst DLC that some games have been releasing where the add-on contains story beats within the main plot of the game.  While the argument can be made that without the extra development time that DLC allows for, these extra bits wouldn’t even exist, if it comes out one month after release, then it was clearly planned from the beginning and should be a part of the main game.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant on all forms of DLC.  There is a very good way of implementing extra content that lets me return to the game universe in a meaningful way without infringing upon the main plot.  With this in mind, I’d like to take a second to recognize some of the games that have done an exemplary job of creating quality add-ons.

Bioshock 2 | Minerva’s Den

You’ve finished playing BioShock 2, but you’re hankering for some more Little Sister protecting action.  Even though the main story is done, jumping into Minerva’s Den is no problem at all, because it’s a completely separate tale.  Taking on the role of a different Big Daddy, Subject Sigma, the add-on takes you into a previously unexplored section of Rapture: Minerva’s Den.  Setting up this piece of DLC this way quickly solves a few potential problems by giving you a separate setting and character.  Sigma plays the same as Delta, so if you’ve played the game, there’s little need to adjust, but the progression of your abilities is still there and also self-contained within the add-on.  The new setting does a fantastic job of feeling like a whole new section of the game without making you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t play it.  Couple that with a well-written story arc that contained just within this piece and you’ve got the perfect balance of continuity and difference.  The real telling thing about this particular piece of DLC is, while the main game is required to play it, you could potentially jump straight into Minerva’s Den and play it as though it was a standalone title.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West | Pigsy’s Perfect 10

Even if you weren’t thrilled with the ending for this game, Ninja Theory gave you a really good reason to come back for more with Pigsy’s Perfect 10.  This add-on puts you in the shoes of Pigsy, one of the supporting characters of the game, and let’s you have a little more fun in the same universe from a different perspective.  My favorite thing about Ninja Theory is their ability to create and develop the characters in their worlds and tell some great stories with them.  Once again, this story does not infringe whatsoever on the main storyline of the game and stands well enough alone.  As well, it puts you in control of a very different character and therefore offers some variety from a gameplay perspective, while still existing within the same universe.  You might at this point be noticing a pattern in the ways each of these pieces of DLC are set up, so the question becomes if it can be done with the main characters in the middle of the primary story.

Mass Effect 2 | Lair of the Shadow Broker

So far, the DLC I’ve mentioned works so well because it exists completely separately from the main game.  Different characters and settings make a game that could exist on its own, but it can still be done gracefully with the same characters.  Lair of the Shadow Broker creates a story that needs context that only the main game can provide.  It’s also played with the same team you’ve been traveling with throughout the entire game.  What makes it an effective piece of DLC is the fact that it takes you out of the main story and creates an adventure that exists separate from the main plot of the game.  The arc of this story actually starts in the main game without the DLC, but is not critical for the resolution of the primary plot.  This gives you a bit more of exactly what you were playing before, same characters and controls, without making you feel like you were charged extra for something that should have been included.

If a piece of add-on content has critical information relating to the resolution of the main story, it feels a bit icky to me.  Imagine going to see a movie that, at the end, leaves something hanging.  You are then prompted to return to theaters one month later for a 30 minute presentation that has the “real” ending.  Would you come back and pay more to see the end of that movie?  I’m fine with content being episodic, but  if you’re going to do that then present it that way from the start.  Otherwise, if you present your game as the full package then either include this extra ending for free or learn from the games above and create something that can exist alongside it without making people feel like they’re paying more money for something they already bought.

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