Downloadable content (DLC) has recently become one of the most useful tools in game development and the player experience. Sometimes for free, other times for a fee, DLC is here to stay. But where exactly is it going to go, and how might it be used?
My earliest experience with DLC was patching. Patching was (and still is) big in MMORPGs to help work out the kinks in the system. Due to the scope of the games and their open-ended design, it was very difficult to work out every statistical imbalance or clipping error that would crop up in the overall product. To address this, patching was included in virtually every MMORPG from Ultima Online and onwards.
In some cases, patching has saved games. Anarchy Online was nearly a stillborn project due to numerous bugs, but with some very hard work on the part of the developers, it became a thriving community.
DLC, as understood today, takes on a scope much broader than mere "patching," because its purpose is to add to the game, not merely address errors. Games like Mass Effect and FF Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King have DLC components which expand the storyline, add new weapons and characters, or simply offer new costumes. Nominally priced, DLC's had a pretty good run of things.
The issue, however, is how DLC will be used in the future. My Life as a King is an example of a game where not only is the product itself downloaded, but then there is an additional charge for relatively meaningless items. Things like costume changes prey on the collector/consumer mentality and milk them for all they're worth. While there are items of note, such as the dungeon pack that adds 11 new areas to buffer content, the majority of MLAAK's buyable content is aesthetic at best.
My personal impetus is that DLC in RPGs should be used to expand storylines, or offer more plot-related content. Mass Effect is a good example of this, where an entire chunk of additional plot was added to the game for a nominal fee of 400 MS points ($5.00). This kind of application of DLC is not only preferable to any other where roleplaying games are concerned, but can be truly revolutionary for some games.
Consider that in a series like Suikoden or a title like Skies of Arcadia, there are dozens upon dozens of characters that get little or no fleshing out in the main story. DLC packs could address this and grant a longer life to the titles themselves. Another idea is that sequels could be released in a relatively short timeframe as DLC, rather than making a new game from the ground up.
In the heyday of the Dreamcast, a short-lived series by Capcom called El Dorado Gate attempted a monthly release schedule, adding episodic content with each new installment. The series ran about seven episodes before quietly fading away, and was never released in North America. Part of the problem was that buying a new game every month on disc was monetarily taxing. The other part was that the games felt incomplete; it was as though there was never enough content to warrant the pricetag.
Imagine if El Dorado Gate had been released as a relatively full game, main story intact, and then expanded its content via DLC? While not possible in the era of the Dreamcast, it certainly would be now, with every console having a decently sized hard drive or similar storage device and broadband capabilities.
There is a world of possibilities with DLC and RPGs. While North American developers have begun to really utilize its properties, Japanese studios are still a bit behind. I can only really think of MLAAK and Lost Odyssey as notable titles with DLC, and both of those came out months ago. The sheer scope of how large a game could be with additionally downloadable content is staggering. BioWare has done it right with Mass Effect; now it's time for other developers to step up, wouldn't you agree?- Mark P. Tjan