The general public likes to have a villain to hate. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the games industry, where said villain -- so far as public perception goes, anyway -- tends to flip-flop back and forth between big publishers like Activision, EA and, less frequently, Ubisoft.
Activision's most frequently cited sin is the relentless, annual milking of its lucrative franchises -- most notably Call of Duty. But I'd argue that Activision is actually handling the often-controversial subjects of downloadable content, post-launch support and "games as a service" pretty well -- a lot better than some other publishers.
Activision and Treyarch announced the fourth and final DLC pack for last year's Call of Duty Black Ops II today. Appropriately dubbed Apocalypse, the package will be available on XBox Live for 1,200 Microsoft Points (or free to Season Pass holders) from August 27, with other versions to follow afterwards. It includes four new multiplayer maps and a "Dieselpunk-stylized World War I-era" Zombies mode called Origins that features, among other things, "an unprecedented 1,000-foot tall robot abomination." It also includes music by Avenged Sevenfold and art by comic illustrator and painter Alex Ross.
The reason I point to Activision's Call of Duty teams as examples of How to Do It Right is because they strike a good balance between several difficult-to-manage factors: the need to keep the game fresh and relevant over time right up until the next installment releases; the need to do so in a manner that is fair to everyone; and the need to do so in a manner that is not obtrusive or actively inconvenient to people. In these regards, Activision and the Call of Duty teams succeed admirably.
On the first note, each Call of Duty downloadable content pack is a substantial offering. Four multiplayer maps might not sound like a huge amount on paper, but hardcore Call of Duty players are dedicated sorts -- they will happily play the same maps over and over, discovering the best hiding spots to cause maximum carnage; working out the routes less experienced players are likely to take; determining the most efficient means of accomplishing objectives in modes that demand more than simple killing. Each map takes time to learn. Four maps adds some variety while not requiring an overwhelming amount of work to acclimatize to the new environments.
Alongside that, each installment of the Zombies mode that became a surprisingly popular offshoot back in Call of Duty: World at War is a solid experience in its own right -- often with its own story hooks, celebrity cameos and voice actors, unique enemies and maps. While not as in-depth an experience as a full-on co-op zombie game such as Left 4 Dead, it's still a surprisingly substantial addition to each of these content packs, helping make each of them better value for money.
Regarding keeping it fair for everyone, map packs are technically optional -- if you just want to play Call of Duty online, there's no obligation to purchase the extra content, though you'll often find a flurry of activity on the newest maps in particular immediately after they launch. 1,200 Microsoft Points is less than the price of a brand new retail game, too -- sure, it'd be even nicer if the extra maps were a free download, but this brings things on to our next point: keeping the game relevant (both to its audience and to Activision) while not being obtrusive or actively inconvenient to people.
It's this latter point that a lot of today's publishers seem to miss -- EA in particular being a prime offender. Downloadable "booster packs" for multiplayer modes (Mass Effect 3) and the option to purchase in-game currency or resources with real money (Dead Space 3) are things gamers are begrudgingly coming to accept (or at least acknowledge) thanks to the growth of mobile, social and free-to-play games, where they're widespread practices. While potentially profitable for the publisher, this sort of thing is not consumer-friendly. In most cases, they don't give you anything tangible or worthwhile for your money -- they're simply unlocking content that's already in the game, with the game itself balanced to subtly nudge you in the direction of paying to avoid the inconvenience of grinding -- "fun pain," as it's sometimes called.
Compare that to a map pack, which adds actual, visible new content to the game and has a noticeable impact on the experience as a whole, and there's a clear difference. Compare the relative infrequency with which Activision releases new map packs for Call of Duty with the fact that much of EA's DLC is of a disposable, consumable nature that could potentially see you paying for the same thing perpetually -- or at least for as long as the game maintains your interest -- and there's another clear difference. If Activision's regular, predictable release of 1,200 Microsoft Point map packs every few months means we don't have to deal with "Click Here to Buy Guns" or consumable items, I'll take the map packs.
Activision isn't the only company doing this kind of thing well -- Gearbox's DLC for Borderlands was excellent, for example, and likewise for the sequel for the most part; similarly, if you ignore the "pay for cheat modes" nonsense Saints Row The Third offered, there was also some substantial -- and completely optional -- content on offer there, too. There was no feeling of obligation; no feeling that you were being forced into buying something; no feeling that the base game was "missing" something -- just the option to expand your experience if you saw fit.
That, so far as I'm concerned, is Doing It Right when it comes to DLC, and while I still occasionally pine for the days when you just bought a game and were done with it, if we must have additional content offered to us after release, I'd much rather it take this more consumer-friendly approach of substantial, optional expansions than nickel and diming us with consumable items and purchasable in-game currency. How about you?
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