Downloadable content done right

Many gamers probably didn't notice, but Burnout Paradise came out this week for PC in the form of the Ultimate Box. Why should you care? Put simply, Burnout Paradise has become one of the best examples of downloadable content done right. I never imagined that I'd still be talking about the game over a year after its console release, but here we are.

Downloadable content is a tricky issue with both game publishers and developers. Some just don't want to touch the idea, while others have embraced it to the point of exploitation. Case in point: Namco, or as some gamers affectionately call it, Scamco. That firm will crank out any little piece of bonus content just to score a couple of extra bucks off of customers.

Now, I'm not arguing that all DLC should be free—far from it. But here's an example of Namco's despicable DLC habits: Beautiful Katamari was released for the Xbox 360 in late 2007, and almost immediately afterward, four bonus levels (priced at $2.50 each) went up on the Xbox Live Marketplace. It turns out that these pieces of bonus content were only 384KB in size, meaning the levels were already on the disc, and you were really only buying an unlock code for that extra content. To add insult to injury, one of Beautiful Katamari's achievements required purchasing these bonus stages. Essentially, Namco just decided to lock away the last few levels of the game and sell them to gamers who had already paid $60 for the title.

There have been countless other DLC flubs, from Oblivion's much publicized "horse armor" to premium characters in the Tiger Woods series, which people could use in online play as effective paid-for cheat codes. Those examples are all from several years ago, however, when publishers were still figuring out how to make DLC serve both their interests and those of customers. Since then, publishers like EA have cleaned up their acts and begun offering truly compelling downloadable content, both as free and so-called premium (purchased) content packs. After all, Burnout Paradise is an Electronic Arts title.

So, what makes Burnout Paradise's DLC worthy of praise? Criterion Games, with EA's support, has released several content updates over the last 13 months to help extend the life of this arcade racer. The first update brought bug fixes, but Criterion quickly started delivering additional multiplayer modes, challenges, and even a new class of vehicles—motorcycles. And all of it has been free. This week will see the largest update for the game yet, introducing several community-requested features and a built-in content browser for future DLC. This new browser can't come soon enough, either, because Burnout Paradise will soon receive several premium additions, including new vehicles and possibly the much desired pursuit mode.

Burnout Paradise isn't the first game to do DLC so well that it needs its own built-in store; the Rock Band series has become one of the most successful DLC vehicles of all time. By the latest official count, Harmonix and EA have sold more than 28 million songs through digital means, and considering songs cost $1.99 a pop, that's a sizable chunk of change. With hundreds of available songs and new additions coming every week, the game continues to stay relevant without quarterly installations like the Guitar Hero series.

Of course, PC gamers are accustomed to this sort of treatment—official and user-created additions have built upon PC games for decades now. Team Fortress 2 might be the best example of DLC support on the PC in recent history, since Valve has stayed committed to expanding TF2's gameplay free of charge from day one. Though the initial offering was arguably a bit on the light side, it came as part of The Orange Box, so it was tough to criticize for a shortage of maps. Since its release, the title has grown thanks to new gameplay modes, new maps, and additions to existing classes.

Updates for the Xbox 360 version of TF2 have yet to come, and though Valve would like to publish them for free, Microsoft won't allow it. Instead, Valve plans to publish new content packs for the Xbox 360 as inexpensively as possible, ensuring that Xbox 360 customers don't have to pay too much for the additions. Talk about rewarding your clientele. And of course, Valve's other popular multiplayer shooter, Left 4 Dead, had its first downloadable content pack announced today (we'll have to see if it's free for PC users).

Some of the holiday season's biggest hits will receive their own premium updates in the coming months, as well, with digital expansion packs due for both Ubisoft's Prince of Persia and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV. MMORPGs are equally privileged, with Mythic to launch the first "live-expansion" for Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning in the coming months. Now that companies like Valve and EA are leading the way and making DLC a viable alternative to a constant stream of sequels, the outlook for digital distribution looks better and better each day. What's your take on it? Would you rather buy one $60 sequel every year or dole out $5 a month to expand an already released game? I'm personally sold on the latter concept, as my Xbox Live account can attest.

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