Games have always been subject to iteration, whether it’s in the form of a humble update, a long-awaited sequel, or a lavish franchise. But now, rather than representing a finished product even temporarily, games are likely to be immediately followed by downloadable content (DLC) even in between major expansions, so that games don’t ever quite stop developing.
This has always been true of MMOs that were designed to be the only game you would ever need. Hardcore players consistently raced through expansion content so quickly in popular games that major updates in between were necessary.
Lord of the Rings Online, which reached peak subscriptions in 2010 and has since slipped into maintenance mode, nonetheless recently announced progress on their nineteenth update as they continue building out the game’s narrative content. LOTRO has always been the closest MMO cousin to an actual book in its Tolkien fannishness, so it’s not surprising that they have released their game in volumes and chapters.
But what’s new is seeing that kind of assiduous between-expansion servicing offered in other genres of games that have traditionally been less dynamic.
Destiny, Bungie’s online first-person shooter game, has embraced the season model for updates like The Taken King and Rise of Iron, and their paid “expansion pass” is interchangeably called a “season pass.”
And while Destiny plausibly has enough roleplay elements to their story missions to make the update model particularly attractive to their fanbase, many fans have been frustrated by the hefty pricetags involved.
Other studios are a little more conscious in using the concept of DLC. The narrative-heavy point-and-click adventure The Dream Machine is currently in production of the sixth paid DLC chapter of their game (the “base game” consists of chapters one and two). The visual design of the game is a meticulously constructed clay and cardboard landscape that demonstrates the “bijoux” game effect of certain very small, very beautiful and economical indie productions.
When studios embrace the use of seasons or chapters as a metaphor for the ongoing development of a game, they count on the idea that players who may drift away between updates will often come back for more in the same way that fans of Netflix shows may wait eighteen months to receive another large chunk of content. You don’t stop loving Orange Is the New Black in the meantime, but you aren’t necessarily interacting with it every day either.
And so the season/chapter model has proved to be most effective for games with a very strong narrative focus, games that always leave you wanting a more, whether they’re RPGs like the The Witcher 3, whose second and final expansion Blood and Wine was released in May, visual novels, or quirky story adventures.
Song of Seven, a third-person adventure game from Enlightened Games, released the first chapter, “Overture,” in a planned five-chapter cycle in May 2016 after a successful Kickstarter. The game is tailored to a narrative, short-story style experience, and the initial sequence can be easily completed in three or four hours.
But it’s a generous three or four hours that manages to feel more precisely satisfying than many more bloated games precisely because of its tight focus on story. It’s like playing through that one richly storied questline in your favorite RPG, the one you stayed up all night to finish, with minimal filler surrounding that core experience.
Like the 2-D puzzle-platformer adventure Inside, Song of Seven is tightly on rails, but so densely worked around the prescribed paths that the game feels more spacious than it actually is and the final product feels like a much more expansive (and expensive) project than many truly open worlds given less developmental scrutiny.
It’s narratively laid out as both an internally satisfying story arc and an introduction to the mechanics and world of the game so that the protagonists are set up to enter a larger world of adventure in subsequent chapters.
But the model of iterative and ongoing storytelling, done well, makes for richly developed narrative (just as really good television can create complex storylines that would be impossible to condense into a single movie).
Financially, the trend towards “seasonification” in DLC represents a shift towards games trying to function a little less like discrete products and a little more like ongoing services or subscriptions that players expect to pay for in an ongoing way. That’s a delicate line for publishers to walk because much of the financial dominance the video game industry enjoys in overall entertainment sales reflects the fact that unlike music, movies, television, or books, there is no “bundling” subscription service that offers access to premium games in return for a subscription fee.
For now, bursts of content usually come priced discretely, but it’s interesting to see how the streaming model of entertainment is influencing not only how we receive our games, but even what kinds of games we will receive and how long we have to wait for a new “season” of our favorite to release.