Game Column: Critereon’s DLC Paradise

Horse armor.

Those two words conjure images of everything that is wrong with downloadable content more than almost any others. Paying for items that no one needs or wants, new costumes, codes which could have been had on last-gen consoles for the price of a magazine or access to the Internet and items which are already on the disc have become all too commonplace on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. All of this comes when the promise of meaningful content and slowing the sequel machines down so games could become platforms rather than disposable numbers in a series have hardly come to pass. One game, perhaps more than any other, has both lived up to that promise while capturing the gaming audience. That game is Burnout Paradise.

As the gaming magazine called the Arm Chair Empire has made very clear, very early on this generation, it seemed that the powers that be in the gaming industry greatly underestimated the appeal of downloadable games and DLC add-ons so bargains were there for the taking. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved cost a mere $5 and was amongst the handful of games that people would mention as must-haves for the Xbox 360 in the first 5-6 months after its release. The game became the first legitimate success on current gen online systems and would greatly help usher in many other companies trying their hands at downloadable games and DLC for their existing games.

And so the feeling out process began between game companies and the gaming public and would really escalate in 2006. In April of that year, Bethesda released its first piece of DLC for their game of the year contender The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The Horse Armor was just that, armor for your horse. At $2.50, a couple of pixels and polygons to give your horse a makeover. This did not go over well with gamers. Many understood the concept that extra items for games meant extra work for developers and should be compensated but the fact that gamers were getting nearly nothing for their money only served to outrage gamers rather than make them want to spend their money.

In October of 2006, another test of gamers’ patience was unleashed upon them, this time in the form of XBLA title Lumines Live. Rather than being sold in one complete bundle, the game was divided into small pieces which would fit under Microsoft’s then-low but still archaic size cap as well as give gamers a choice as to which pieces they would want and make use of but, with a starting price of 1200 MS Points ($15) for the base package, the price of adding together all the available content for the game began to go high enough to drive away many XBL members from purchasing the game altogether.

Since those early days, game companies and gamers have certainly come to a silent compromise as companies have tried to get more and more out of gamers and the audience letting their pleasure or dissatisfaction be known with their wallets and whether or not they open them for any particular piece of content. Still, the idea of having constant, meaningful DLC for games and turning them into platforms to be added upon and improved over time, not due to problems arising in the first place but developers being creative and gamers making it known what they want, with quality content has still not come to pass. Some games, like Rock Band and LittleBigPlanet, have come close but, with their seemingly nonstop weekly deluge upon the marketplace, with so much DLC available for both, and not much sticking out above the rest, that which is available seems to just become noise to many gamers and, over time, not paid attention to with the fervor it once had been.

Criterion Games has been able to conquer this problem and give gamers enough DLC to keep their attention while not flooding the market with so much that it seems as if each piece is not handled with care or they’re all being used to simply nickel and dime them. Burnout Paradise has been available since February 2008. Over the course of a year, the game was supported with three large downloadable packs which fixed issues gamers had with the game, added more online events and motorcycles to the mix of cars already in the game. All of this added a lot of fresh content for long time players and enticed new ones, all the while keeping discs in gamers’ hands rather than being sold, ignored or traded-in at a local multinational gaming store. The best part of all that content: it was free.

All of this free content lead to gamers and critics heaping more and more praise upon the title and its sales continuing long after most titles more than a year old would have long ended. Then the news finally was made known that premium DLC, that which would have to be actually purchased, would be available throughout 2009. A proclamation that a game company would be gearing up to charge for all sorts of DLC would usually not be accompanied with such excitement by gamers but this was Burnout Paradise. The game that had given to gamers for a year and only gotten better and now was the opportunity for those gamers to give back to those developers that had treated them so well for so long.

The first two DLC packs, the Party Pack and the Legendary Cars pack, have been released and you would be hard pressed to find a group of people more thrilled to give their money to a company this side of an Apple Store. The fact that Criterion had supported the game so well and, a year later, rather than coming out with Burnout Paradise 2, the same game, which still runs and looks great, is a platform that is being added upon throughout the year. With two more car packs, two more content packs and excitement for the DLC not diminishing at all, it seems that Criterion has done exactly what the promise of downloadable content for current gen games was originally envisioned as. They have taken there game and turned it into a conduit through which tons of content can be played through and, by virtue of having sold so well for so long, chances can now be taken with, such as bringing back cops who will chase gamers through Paradise CIty in a mode not seen in the franchise for some time.

While Burnout Paradise may be the exception, I hope that this game becomes the rule as to how games can become the platforms for expansion and risk taking that they were promised to be when this generation of consoles started. Rather than charging a gamer $60 each and every year and forcing them to disregard a product they still enjoy, and is by no means outdated, why not improve, expand and innovate upon that base. This would not only make games feel like more of an investment but would probably save companies money in a time when we hear of game development costs skyrocketing into the millions for average titles and the tens of millions for triple A blockbusters.

All I know is that while new racers may hit the market this year, I will be taking my Jansen 88 Special and hovering over to Big Surf Island while being chased by a fleet of police cruisers. All things that were not possible in February of 2008 but are possible with the same disc in the tray. Thanks, Criterion, for the DLC Paradise you have built and continue to support.