The Future of Downloadable Content

-Shawn Trautman

Before you run away, know that this is not a rant or debate on the merits of Downloadable Content (or DLC), the ethics of “day one” or “on disc” DLC, or anything like that (though we can totally have that conversation later if you want - let me know in the comments).  For purposes of this post, I’m assuming DLC is a good thing that people want.

I say “assume” because I’ve never bought or played any DLC.  If you’ve been paying attention to our reviews, you may have noticed that I am a “last-gen gamer,” and I do not own the current, HD consoles.  This means I have a huge list of wanted games that are either entirely download-only or have significant post-release DLC that drastically changes the game.  And this makes me nervous.

Why?  I just bought Halo 2.  That game is universally loved, and regularly ranks as one of the best original Xbox games of all time.  But for most people, the reason they loved it, and the biggest aspect that sticks in their minds about the game was playing it with other people over Xbox Live.  And those people would probably argue that if I want to truly experience the full game that everyone loved, I need to hop on Xbox Live.  There’s just one problem - the servers for this game were shut down on April 15, 2010.  Because Microsoft is either unable or unwilling to host those original servers, that portion of the game - considered by many to be essential to the experience - is now gone forever.

Ultimately, this is not a huge deal for me, as I know Halo 2 has a good single player campaign, and I never play multiplayer anyway.  But there are implications here for current-gen games, both those that have DLC content, and those that are available only for download.  There are a number of highly-acclaimed, download-only games that are near the top of my to-play list (Limbo, Flower, Braid, Outland), as well as some games (such as The Force Unleashed) whose DLC is not merely window dressing, but rather significant, plot-altering content.  A small handful of the latter games will be released as “collector’s editions” with the additional content, but most will not.  So the obvious question is this: will this content be there when I’m ready for it?  Or will some of these games simply be lost?

It may sound ridiculous at first to think that serious DLC chapters or even entire games could simply be lost to the ravages of time, but consider the example of Halo 2.  At one time, this was the biggest, most profitable game Microsoft ever made.  It was intensely popular, and to those playing it, it probably seemed like nothing would ever come close to it.  But time and technology moved forward, gamers moved on, and Microsoft no longer saw the upside in maintaining servers for the few stragglers that remained, myself included.  What is to stop these companies from making the same business decision five years from now, when I am just getting started on the current generation, but everyone else has long moved on to the next?  Why would Sony or Microsoft continue to host DLC packs for games they don’t even sell anymore?  Why would they continue to use up server space for games that everyone has bought already?

I worry about the future of an industry that is so eager to pursue the latest technology, and so quick to abandon the old, that they lose sight of the permanence once afforded by standalone consoles and retail games.  I worry not just for myself, but for others like me, who can’t afford the latest tech until it is no longer the latest.  When it is our turn to play these games that the industry has left behind, will they be there waiting for us?  Or will the oppressive forward momentum of the videogame industry have crushed them underfoot, leaving only mangled, unrecognizable relics of the digital past?

So, what do you think?  Are you worried about the state of digital content, or do you believe the industry will come up with a viable method for preservation?