Some games arrive out-of-the-box as truly masterpieces in their own right, some small few transcend even this status to become legendary as a result of the modding tools provided, and the gamers who are inspired to go even further. If there could be just three games from times past that are without doubt legendary in this respect then they would be; Operation Flashpoint from Bohemia Interactive Software, Morrowind from Bethesda Softworks, and Medieval: Total War from The Creative Assembly. All three have used this success to create enduring franchises, Armed Assault, The Elder Scrolls, and Total War series respectively, and all three have either recently released a game from the franchise, or are just about too, or expected to announce one shortly shortly, and more importantly all three of these franchises will make use of Downloadable Content, or DLC as it is known.
DLC creates a problem for developers like these however; how do you persuade your consumers to build up a tolerance to continual micro-payments when their attention is focussed on what the mod community is cooking up……… for free?
In some ways it does rather depend on what the developer hopes to achieve with its DLC, Bioware for example use a mix of free and paid DLC as an anti-piracy measure by allowing only game installs authorised by an authenticated online account access to this ‘essential’ extra content, but developers struggle daily with financial concerns and many see it purely as a mechanism for ensuring continued revenue between the extended troughs of games releases.
For most developers this isn’t a problem, the game is perhaps just a product they have been paid to push out by a publisher, or they provide only limited modding functionality anyway, but what do the likes Bohemia Interactive, Bethesda, or Creative Assembly do when they wish to generate substantial revenue from DLC from their franchises, but those franchises are built upon the enthusiasm and success of their modding community? After all, unless you are ID and thus rolling in money, then you still have to pitch your game idea to a publisher who are likely to look askance at allocating development resources to a revenue mechanism that will possibly be ignored in favour of free ‘stuff’.
Bethesda are a known quantity in this matter, they have been releasing DLC for years now and have commendably released a full set of modding tools for both Oblivion and Fallout 3. Their DLC is mostly of the paid variety, and presumably is a success given that they have continued to provide it, despite the fact that their modding tools allow the endless creation of totally new worlds. Perhaps this is because Bethesda have several advantages; the are a developer and a publisher, they are a multi-team studio with rolling projects and thus rolling revenue, they have two world famous IP’s in the name the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, and their games are published across the PC, the Xbox, and the PS3.
Creative Assembly are not quite such a well known quantity, in that their recent games (Empire & Napoleon) have been notably lacking in mod tools, but at the same time they profess to continuing to value their mod community, and promising that their ‘next’ game will be more moddable than ever. It is not just the tools that matter however, it is how open the game is to adjustment, with Medieval: Total War not only could you create new units and battle-maps (the micro), you could also create new campaign maps (the macro), which essentially meant you were creating a new setting with a new story, in essence a new game. The most that has arrived for Empire and its standalone expansion is a texture unpacker, so it is just about possible to create new models and reskin old ones, but it is no longer possible to create new campaign maps. Modding has been reduced to cosmetic detailing and gameplay tweaks via adjusting the .ini files. Is this because they are a studio working at the behest of their notoriously fat-handed publisher (Sega), with only one famous IP in the self-limiting genre of real-time-strategy, who appear unable to make the jump to cross platform development? Probably is the best answer at this point, the truth will out if the release of Shogun 2: Total War does not come with the ability to modify the campaign map, because the very limited scenario of medieval Japan cries out for more variety in a way the Empire: Total War did not.
The news that Bohemia will be experimenting with DLC in Arma2: Operation Arrowhead is interesting indeed, but seeing as this title uses exactly the same code-base as Arma2 we can be certain that modding will not be in any way inhibited. No, what will be telling is if Bohemia judge DLC to be a success and integrate it into the core sales strategy of Arma3, and what impact this has on the moddability of the Game. Bohemia are a small studio, who have only the one IP in the very limited genre of military-sims, and they release only on the PC, they would certainly be a candidate for publisher pressure to maximise the return on any DLC strategy. If in twelve months time we start to hear rumours from the dev-team that because of the new and more ‘advanced’ engine scripting will of necessity be ‘slightly’ less powerful then we should start to be suspicious, but for now this is merely conjecture and Bohemia has certainly earned the trust of its community. On the other hand, Bohemia make a lot of money from sales of their military training simulation VBS2 to various Armed Forces, and the modding community around game series is tapped to provide localised content for these various nations, so modding is also an indirect source of income rather than merely an impediment to DLC revenue.
So, is DLC going to be the death of serious modding on these famous franchises, and by extension in the wider PC games industry? Certainly modding in the wider industry is going to decline because the casual modding they allow at present is exactly the kind of customisation they would like to charge for, especially since these games tend to be cross-platform console releases, but the wider industry is not our concern. We will know in truth when the next games from Bethesda, Bohemia Interactive and Creative Assembly are released, all we can do for now is laud the good practice of the first two, and lament the short-sightedness of the latter.
One thing is clear, if a company feels the need to cripple its modding tools to make room for its paid content, it is really only making a depressing statement that it doubts its own ability to add value.