The Year of the DLC?

So my last informal ‘Year of the…’ post didn’t turn out so accurate, and this one could either herald a brave new frontier for gaming as retail goes down the toilet or turn out to be a damp squib that people aren’t really interested in, but I’m pretty confident that 2009 will, either way, be a big year for downloadable content.

Fable II has just had its first DLC package, Knothole Island, and I happily bought it because I was itching to play more of the game. The same thing is likely to happen later this month when Fallout 3 receives its first downloadable quest line, Operation Anchorage, and again with the other two to come in February and March, Left 4 Dead has more campaigns on the way, and of course GTA IV’s much-ballyhooed expansion, The Lost and Damned, is planned for next month.

It’s a big line-up for a traditionally slow period, cunningly placed to keep players from trading in last year’s games, and although map packs have been a fixture of this generation since the 360 launch, with the silly money being thrown around for exclusive DLC at the moment, could this be when the idea of DLC fulfils its promise?

I know that the very concept is anathema to some people, suspicious of DLC being cut from the main game to extort another few quid out of the already-stretched buyers, and it’s easy to sympathise in these days of six-hour games that can somehow manage to receive an expansion within weeks of launch.┬áIt’s known that all first-party Microsoft titles are planned with DLC from the very first design document, for example, and we’ve all seen examples of mispriced or misjudged DLC over the last few years. Nobody wants to see content lopped out to charge you again – except the guys in suits, you have to assume – but I still hope that there’s a non-evil future in DLC.

It was supposed to be episodic gaming that was going to be the next big thing, but as unpredictable development has shown developers that that’s harder than it sounds – when you’ve had to make the full thing in advance to meet a regular schedule, you might as well release it in one go – this looks like it could be the development that picks up from there. Post-release DLC falls somewhere between episodic gaming and the expansion packs of old, filling the gap between sequels while encouraging people to hold on to their games and go back to them occasionally to see what’s new.

I’m not talking about downloadable costumes – or Horse Armour – or paying for in-game money or any of that nonsense; I think there’s a place for that and I’m sure some people enjoy it, but I’m talking about the meaty, downloadable quest lines that add a few hours of gameplay to a game that I love for a fiver. There’s nothing wrong with that… is there?

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