Even the best downloadable content must navigate pitfalls.
How should it handle a game’s narrative? Can a DLC continue the main story, or only present side content? Should necessary story beats be locked behind DLC?
When I started Mass Effect 3 on launch, I thought I was prepared. The jump from the first to the second game was smooth; I’d done just about everything in both, so I was ready. It’s time to pick up from the ending of the last game and take the fight to the Reapers.
But that didn’t happen.
Mass Effect 3 opens with Commander Shepard on trial–clearly for a crime they didn’t commit. I denied it. I stood firm in my innocence. If I wasn’t involved, it didn’t happen. The game was bizarrely insistent about a plot point I had never seen. They never gave me enough details; I started to lose my patience as the game refused to expand on this inciting incident. How was Shepard framed, and why?
I didn’t care about console DLC in the days where horse armor was the worst we could imagine, so my Xbox 360 remained offline. I felt that Mass Effect 2 selling companions and missions as DLC was anti-consumer, but I imagined if they could be removed from the main game, they ultimately didn’t matter. When “Arrival” released 13 months later, I had stopped paying attention.
It was a long time before I learned the truth: Commander Sheppard did it without me, in a DLC I hadn’t heard about. The game demanded I be in the loop for a story event that was never properly summarized.
As bad as that is, what Mass Effect 3 did itself was worse. EA locked the Prothean companion, Javik, behind DLC. Do you want to properly follow the plot? If you played at launch and didn’t shell out–you missed important information that helped clear up some of the gaps in the story.
If players are likely to miss out on anything beyond the base game, what can you do?
First, summarize what players missed. Second, do not sell content necessary for understanding the base game separately. These are non-negotiable.
But there is another option as well: advance the characters and world in expansions, but not the overall plot.
Lost Judgment‘s DLC campaign The Kaito Files tells a complete, standalone story. The focus shifts to the protagonist’s Yakuza-turned-PI partner. The story told is deeply meaningful to him. If all goes well, it will have a profound effect on him in future games. But if a player skipped it, they didn’t miss anything affecting the main protagonist, his detective business, or most of the rest of the cast. Players will be able to smoothly step into Judgment 3.
Borderlands has consistently taken this approach, and their DLC campaigns are regularly considered among the best in the medium–and often better than the base game they’re attached to. The central story of alien vaults and the interstellar corporations who want them are put to the side in favor of focused stories that highlight a smaller set of characters. Most of the fan-favorite characters like Mad Moxxi or Tiny Tina have had the majority of their development and time to shine in these side stories.
What do you think? Should DLC have central story beats? Let us know in the comments below or head over to our Discord channel to join the conversation.
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