Ever since Bethesda threw Oblivion's infamous Horse Armour at us for £1.50, downloadable content has been a disappointment. A few new maps, costume packs that would once have been in-game unlockables, paid-for cheats... Yes, there's a market for it, and no, we have no problem if you want to make Dan Hibiki fight in a hula skirt. But DLC can be better.
The cheats and costumes and map packs have come to define the market, but DLC is a chance to take a great game and build on it without the pressure of a full sequel, or the kind of development costs that can bankrupt a studio if it fails. It's a place where everyone can play a little, experiment, break the rules of the game and have some fun.
Oblivion's Horse Armour was an infamous mistake, but Bethesda's follow-ups weren't much more inspired. There were new homes for your characters to live in, a short quest for Mehrunes' Razor, and the beefy but dull Knights Of The Nine expansion. Around the same time, Ubisoft started experimenting with DLC pricing, banging out a handful of Ghost Recon maps for £10. It was the wild west - lawless and crazy, with no real rules for what players expected from DLC - but at least it was interesting. Soon after, developers learned what made the most money for the least effort - maps, cheats and costumes.
Nobody's released an expansion quite like Oblivion's Shivering Isles since 2007. It was a full 20-hour quest set in the world of madness and mirth, and an experiment that became a huge success - exactly what DLC should be.
THE QUEST CONTINUES
But did Bethesda's ambitious approach pay off with the kind of cash a studio needs to keep being creative? It's notable that Bethesda's next game - Fallout 3 - skipped the nickel-and-dime Horse Armour and New House DLC in favour of five brand new, story-driven experiences that ranged from an arcade-action trip to Canada to a redneck rampage in Maryland's swamps.
New Vegas was even more ambitious. The six packs added up to one story, told in episodic fashion. Episodic gaming never worked out for Valve but it did for Obsidian, and it let them tell a story that ran from B-movie madness through to a more subdued, philosophical finale. "The New Vegas DLCs were a unique opportunity to do short stories in the Fallout universe," explains New Vegas producer Chris Avellone, "and a rare opportunity to know, for certain, you're going to be able to do a series of adventures with a clear ending."
This is the kind of thinking that gives us DLC worth caring about. It's rule-breaking stuff that uses the game you bought as a launchpad for something so brave and so surprising you never knew you wanted it until you saw it downloadable for eight quid.