The Morality of Downloadable Content

Chef: Fred Rogers

Everyone knows Mr. Rogers, and for a good reason. He was the creator, host, and main actor of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and is actually responsible for keeping PBS from being taken off the air at one point. His contributions to educating younger generations stemmed from a set of guidelines he believed in: Create a sense of worth and a sense of trust, spark curiosity, look and listen carefully, encourage play, and allow for moments of solitude.

He was also best friends with Big Bird.

But as important a topic as Fred Rogers and his impact on how to approach teaching children is, John Liou did a much better job approaching how those rules can apply to video games. For my article, there’s another discussions to be had. Fred Rogers taught morally-sound lessons on his show, but morality doesn’t stop at teaching, nor does it stop at designers trying to elicit precise responses from their audience. It goes all the way to the top of the ladder. The business side of the game industry, no matter the platform, has its own entirely different set of moral guidelines, and they’re the ones I’m going to be talking about today.

Once upon a time, I wrote another article playing Devil’s Advocate to an arguably consumer-unfriendly move on Electronic Arts’ part. There, I discussed the same topics I’ll be covering today: EA, downloadable content (DLC for short), and how there are both “good” and “evil” ways to go about working on and releasing DLC. It’s a few years old, but still relevant, and as it’s not a terribly long read, I recommend giving it a quick look just to get up to speed.

Now, downloadable content gets a variety of responses depending on who you ask. But those reactions rely heavily on the type of experiences those people have had with DLC. When it’s used correctly, the results can be incredible!

Take, for instance, the updates Yacht Club Games has given their universally-praised release, Shovel Knight: two entirely new stories to play through with a third already in development, a Body Swap mode to mix and match the genders, sprites, and pronouns of every main character, and local co-op so a pair of friends can play together — all of this completely free to everyone who bought the original game before this massive update. And I do mean “everyone”, because the updates are available on every platform Shovel Knight has been released on.

This is the most extreme case of a “morally good” use for downloadable content, when players receive new content at no expense to them for loyalty or for being an early adapter. But Shovel Knight is the product of an independent development team, and when most people talk about downloadable content, they’re thinking of the kind offered by big industry names — the kind you have to pay for. So for a better example of this, I’ll finally be talking about Electronic Arts and how they use DLC.

Despite all of the criticisms Mass Effect 3 got after its release, one of its extra content is a perfect example of what paid DLC should be. The expansion in question is called “Citadel”. It adds absolutely nothing to the overarching story Mass Effect 3 is trying to tell — if anything, it detracts from the urgent tone the rest of the game has been building up because of how ridiculous and cliché most of the new missions are. Players can go through the main game completely unaware of this campaign’s existence, and that is exactly how companies should use paid DLC: to throw little extra somethings into the game and let player experience be more because of it, instead of less for not buying it. That said, the folks at EA have made exactly the opposite choices in some of their other games.

We don’t even have to leave BioWare, the creators of Mass Effect, because the way they use DLC in their ever-expanding Dragon Age series has left it teetering between morally “good” and “evil” for years now. For players to accurately follow these games’ story progression, they would have to buy five different chunks of DLC: three for the first game, one for the second installment, and as for the third, just put a pin in it for now, because we’ll get to that in a bit.

The world of Dragon Age is an interesting one to discuss, as it’s now so huge it needs entire novels, comics, and even a feature-length film to explain the histories of main characters and establish new locations. This sort of thing is fine as long as they don’t become required just to understand major points of the game. But unfortunately, for this series, that’s not often the case. In the very first game, Dragon Age: Origins, players are given the option of paying for multiple new quests, one of which ties up a loose end from Origins, with the plot and central character of it becoming a major element in the third sequel. The biggest of these, both in content and price tag, is an expansion pack called “Awakenings”, where, once again, major plot points and characters are introduced, not in the main game, but in extra downloads that require the player spend more money just to access. In this case, the characters in question actually set the second game’s finale in motion— and speaking of the second game, its first DLC pack is where the third game’s antagonist is introduced! So what we now have is a ragged, tangled spool of story thread that leaves a player with more questions than answers if they’ve only played the main games.

But the importance of these additions is debatable; they can technically be called “supplementary”, as a particularly diligent player will pick up off-hand dialogue snips that summarize those paid campaigns. However, there’s one unquestionably “evil” thing companies can use DLC for: making the game fully incomplete without that content. And here is where we pull the pin out of Dragon Age’s third installment, because EA’s marketing decisions for its release were truly indefensible.

I briefly covered this in my older article, but I’ll say it again here: Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third game in the series, released on nearly every major console in 2014 — on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but also on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. What initially seemed like a company giving the older systems and their owners one last hurrah was exposed for the cash grab that it was just a year after the game’s release. The final piece of downloadable content for Inquisition’s single player campaign is called “Trespasser,” and it has not exactly been in fans’ good graces for a very good reason: “Trespasser,” and every patch or update created after it, is not available to owners of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions in any capacity. And this wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for a few things: main characters live or die depending on choices made in the main game, and BioWare has stated this campaign is an epilogue, now leaving the game open-ended to everyone who doesn’t buy it. But once again, not everyone even has the option of buying “Trespasser.” What’s more, the decision to completely cut off support for the older consoles at this point is somewhat strange, considering several other packs of extra content were implemented on them just fine.

I acknowledged before that the old consoles’ version of the game is a lesser one and understand the trickiness of releasing DLC across multiple platforms, but that just begs the question of why EA (because that decision ultimately rested with them) even bothered to develop the game for older consoles at all, rather than focus on delivering the best possible experience for fans of the series. “Trespasser”’s release revealed that profit-fueled motive, and if keeping content from players in more ways than one, behind cost barriers and chopped support, isn’t an example of “evil” in DLC, I’m not sure what is.

It may seem odd trying to link Fred Rogers to all of this, but I’d like to believe Mr. Rogers would see value in video games. They give families talking points, with adults who grew up playing some of the earliest digital games now having children of their own who might want to join them in that hobby. But I don’t think he’d approve of the predatory nature some developers show towards their consumers where downloadable content is concerned, because it contradicts one of his tenets of teaching: building an atmosphere of trust. If players can’t trust the companies they’re buying from, the video game industry will be all the lesser for it.