I miss the days of expansion packs. Of course there are still some being released, but for the most part the big £15 addition has been replaced by small updates or expensive but short DLC. How can I spend seven or eight quid on three or four hours of adventure when something like the Shivering Isles pack for Oblivion added so much more at such better value; not just a new, big-ish quest to deal with, but an entirely original, unique, custom-built world entirely different in tone and feel from the original game?
What’s brought this mini-rant on is the release of the Legacy DLC for Dragon Age II which, as is unfortunately to be expected from Bioware add-ons these days, has received criticism for not providing enough bang for the buck. Whereas before I jumped at the opportunity to buy new content for my favourite RPGs, now I’m driven away by the asking price. Moreso than that, however, I’m increasingly pushed away by the nature of the content itself..
If DLC prices dropped, then there could be parity between the value of old-style expansions and of smaller content boosts that we see today; perhaps, to throw out an arbitrary figure, at about a pound an hour (not taking into account further playthroughs). That still wouldn’t make a difference to me, though. I’m a story person, as any regular reader of this blog will probably have picked up on, so if I’m going to pay out for content I don’t want it to be half-hearted or unimportant in the context of the whole game. Increasingly, however, that’s exactly what DLC is: small, additional quests that, when installed, become buried beneath the original content. Legacy provides a new mission about a Grey Warden prison, which can be completed at any point during the game. If it was in any way important in terms of the characters or their story, it would have been in from the start.
By contrast, one of my favourite expansion packs, Mask of the Betrayer for Neverwinter Nights 2, provided a continuation of your character’s story; a shorter one, but a continuation nonetheless (and a brilliant one at that, far outstripping the original narrative). It’s always risky to compare any form of cultural media to another, but in the context of storytelling I think this one works. Buying most DLC is like buying an additional chapter for a book, be it one in the middle of things or a brief epilogue. It might be brilliantly exciting, but in the end, it was either un-thought of or deemed unnecessary to the original artistic vision and can thus only have a limited impact on the rest of the tale. By contrast, a good expansion pack, with more scope and more development time behind it, is like a sequel in its own right; something that has an identity all of its own rather than being swallowed up by the rest of the story. I know which one I’d rather buy.
It seems to me that DLC is released to bring players back to the gameplay alone, to let them find some new areas to enjoy the mechanics behind a game – but expansion packs bring you back not just to the gameplay, but to the whole fictional world as well.