Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Feature: This Generation - Part IV

For the purposes of these features, "This Generation" refers to software found on the following hardware: Wii, DS/3DS, PSP, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Trends found on the PC platform will be addressed but because the demarcations between PC hardware iterations can be foggy, establishing what is of this generation is much more difficult to finalize. 
"This Generation" includes major trends or evolutionary notes that will, in this writer's opinion, be identified strongly with this generation of games and hardware for years to come.
The fourth item to hallmark this period of gaming: Episodic Games and DLC. 
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's first stab at downloadable content in 2006 was "horse armour" which spawned a thousand jokes and became the poster child for how not to do downloadable content. It seemed that developers were no longer content with developing a full-fledge expansion pack, standalone or otherwise. Now it was about the nickels and dimes. Or in the case of the horse armour, 200 MS Points (or $2.50).

Dead or Alive 5, costumes
The game industry has come a long way since 2006 when it comes to downloadable content (value, pricing, and so on). This generation of gaming consoles finally offered a stable platform for developers and publishers to leverage an installed based of gamers to sell more content to, like Guitar Hero (2005-2010) or Rock Band (2007-2012) with their plethora of track packs.

While there are arguments to be made that it wasn't -- some will say it's the "DLC" that actually already resides on the game disc -- Horse Armour seemed to be the low point for DLC (or at the very least a common touchstone). There are still costume packs for games (bikinis, classic "skins"), but a lot of what's now being made available are full-fledged story components.

Rockstar released multiple story add-ons for Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), Red Dead Redemption (2010), and LA Noire (2011), which were only available for purchase through online stores (i.e. digitally) but eventually made their way to retail, usually as part of a "Game of the Year" Edition. Much like the way Alan Wake (2010) provided with the release of the PC version in 2012, which included all the DLC content previously made available on Xbox 360.

Mass Effect 2 (2010) and 3 (2012) had multiple instances of new content available after launch. New cars for Forza Motorsport, Borderlands missions, Gears of War multiplayer maps, etc. These add-ons always seemed to be aimed squarely at the crowd already heavily invested in those franchises.

Batman: Arkham City had its fair share of DLC skins and
pre-order exclusives.

Less successful, but still an important development, was episodic gaming.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2
The starting point was supposed to be Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006). The wheels fell off that particular vehicle almost as soon as they started rolling. "Episode" conjures up ideas of regularly released instalments. Weekly, monthly, something regular. Episode 2 was released more than a year later in 2007. We're still waiting on the ephemeral Episode 3.

While Valve Software fumbled badly -- making up for it with their continued support, tinkering, and additional content for Team Fortress 2 (2007) -- the one real success story was Telltale Games.

Telltale Games released a series of games episodically throughout this generation: Sam & Max (multiple seasons), Monkey Island (2009), Jurassic Park (2011), Back to the Future (2010), and the latest, The Walking Dead (2012). Even if the number of success stories is low, Telltale proved it was possible. Not only possible, but actually viable, not only monetarily but a great vehicle to tell good stories and keep players engaged and coming back month after month to play the latest episode.

The Walking Dead in one of its quieter moments.
Downloadable content and episodic gaming isn't anything new -- Wikipedia cites examples from 1979! -- but this is the generation where it really gained momentum. With the storage capacities available on the current hardware, even with handhelds, and Internet speeds that can accommodate massive data transfers much more readily, there's no turning back. Expansion packs bought at retail will be the exception rather than the rule -- careful doses of DLC and episodes are now normal, even expected. And the seeds of microtransactions and "freemium" games have been sown thanks to DLC and episodic games; that field hasn't even been reaped yet.

It's just too bad that it's beginnings will be remembered with horse armour.

- Aaron Simmer