Design Theory: The Art of the DLC

A little over a month ago we discussed in brief what makes a good sequel. In brief: Taking risks and improving enough to justify making a new game. But what about DLC, which have become ubiquitous in the digital age? In many ways, DLC can be like mini-sequels, particularly with larger DLC usually termed as “expansions” like Oblivion’s Shivering Isles or Dragon Age: Origins and its Awakening expansion. There are a few key differences between DLC and a proper sequel that makes the philosophy of making either differ from the other.

Rather than attempting to fix the flaws of a complete game (though some DLC do do this indirectly, like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard DLC making werewolves more interesting even if you never touch any of the DLC content), DLC aims to improve the longevity of an existing one. In many ways this is harder, as a DLC by its nature (even large expansions) is going to have to be smaller, cheaper, and made in less time than a full game. While the development of any game has financial and temporal constraints, and cuts must be made, a DLC feels these constraints even harder.

To that end, every DLC needs to be clear what it’s about, what kind of content it wants to be. Generally this falls into one of three categories: Cosmetic DLC, Content DLC, or Story DLC.

The first is the simplest. Cosmetic DLCs are usually skins or recolors, anything that improves how the game looks in a certain capacity from unlockable costumes to full on graphical upgrades (like Skyrim‘s HD Texture Pack DLC or the improved hair physics for Geralt added to the Witcher 3‘s Enhanced Edition). These have become relatively less common over the years as different skins and cosmetic items become standard, but can still be seen as DLC particularly with Japanese publishers like Capcom and Konami.

Given how hard good looking hair is to pull off, I give real kudos to this DLC.

The second adds a bit more. This runs the gamut from extra weapons, to maps, to playable characters, things of that nature. Most commonly found in multiplayer games, particularly fighting games, this kind of DLC is primarily about giving new toys to players and new places for them to use them. This, I feel, is the most common kind (especially if you include Day 1 and pre-order DLC) and it’s easy to see why. Content DLC tends to provide the best bang for your buck in terms of player enjoyment, easier to develop than Story DLC but harder than Cosmetic and adding more meat to the game overall. Some of the best Content DLC can significantly change the game’s quality for the better (and ditto for the worst).

The third is fairly self-explanatory: It’s like Content DLC, but with narrative. The most in-depth kind of DLC and usually includes elements of both other types with an overarching narrative to justify the addition of the other new stuff. These are where the DC big enough to be termed expansions come in, and are usually what people refer to when they get hyped for DLC being announced for their favorite game. Like all other types of DLC these can be bad or good, but unlike the others this kind of DLC has the biggest risk and reward associated with it. Great Story DLC can elevate a game (like the expansions for Fallout: New Vegas), or it can disillusion its players (like Dark Souls 3‘s Ashes of Ariandel, for a mild example).

That last category is why it’s so important to focus what kind of DLC you want to make. If you want to make Content DLC and just release a cool new set of weapons, do that. Touting a DLC as a Story DLC is going to increase hype…and with that, increase expectations. I mentioned Ashes for a reason, because it’s basically a glorified treasure chest, the entire DLC practically existing to show off the cool new weapons and armor added by the DLC with a weak narrative (even by Dark Souls standards), uninspired level design, and less-than-perfect boss design. This is the biggest pitfall a lot of developers fall into when making DLC: Not managing expectations and properly conveying their focus. Nobody gets mad when a fighting game releases new characters (unless there’s something significantly wrong with them), but if they release a DLC and tout it as a
“New, story driven game mode with unlockable characters!” and half-ass the narrative portion, people will get mad, even if they technically received more content than they would have just from a  simple Content DLC.

Ashes would have been a hundred times better if they’d just cut this guy entirely. The Sister Friede boss fight’s flow is completely ruined by him.

After focus, the second major factor that should go into making a DLC is the value of the content. Not the price, but the answer to the question “Will this significantly increase player enjoyment, and is it significantly different from what already exists”? This applies to all three types of DLC. Derivative stories, lackluster or same-y content, or uninspired cosmetics don’t get people excited, and will be quickly forgotten. Worse, release of content that does not provide significant value will make people wary of other purchases from you in the future. In short: If the DLC is not interesting, do not make it.

These fairly simple rules are the core of any fondly remembered DLC. Shivering Isles knew exactly what it wanted to be, and what story it wanted to tell. Unlockable characters like Bayonetta and Ryu in Super Smash Bros. 4 played significantly differently from everyone else, and so are exciting. The Van Helsing skin in Overwatch was cool enough looking it made me want to play McCree more. All of these games figured out what they wanted to do and focused all their attention on making it the best…whatever they could.


It sounds simple, but it’s something many developers fail to do, particularly on the unnecessary story DLC front. Nobody remembers anything about the Captain Scarlett DLC for Borderlands 2 except there’s good loot in there for certain characters, because the story is forgettable and repetitive with what we’ve already seen in the base game and its prequel. The only reason I ever do the Dawnguard quests in Skyrim is because I either want to be a Vampire Lord (in which case I stop after the initial quest) or I want Auriel’s Bow (in which case I cry because I have to slog through the whole questline again) because the whole DLC is more interested in showing off how cool Vampire Lords and crossbows are than telling a good story.

They lack focus and significant value, and so they fail. As simple as that.

#Design Theory: The Art of the DLC