By JimboSlice 17 March 2015
This is my first article writing for this blog, so let me preface it with a few of my personal biases, just so we’re clear. I love strategy games, of all sorts. Turn-based, 4X, RTS, anything that makes you think strategically or tactically and manage armies or fleets, I geek out for. I’m also a history buff (it’s my undergraduate minor), so anything that can approach historical realism in games gets me going. So, for anyone familiar with the series, it should come as no surprise that I am a fanboy for the Total War games. That being said, I think the most recent entry into the series, Total War: Attila, makes for an excellent case study on one of the most controversial topics in gaming today… downloadable content, or DLC.
A little background for those who may be entirely unfamiliar with the series (if you are and just want to get to the DLC discussion, go ahead and skip this paragraph).
The Total War games are published by UK-based The Creative Assembly, CA for short, and developed by SEGA. The series itself will have its fifteenth birthday in June of this year, celebrating the 2000 release of Shogun: Total War. Aside from the awesome setting in feudal Japan, one of the features that made the game special was its combination of both turn-based strategic gameplay on a campaign map (managing towns, taxes, and running an empire) and real-time tactical management on a battle map (deploying and maneuvering your particular armies and units in battle against your foes), allowing players to enjoy both major genres of strategy game in one single title. The game was largely successful and built a solid foundation of reputation and capital with which CA could further expand the series. They followed that success with the 2002 release of Medieval: Total War, set in the European Middle Ages, which was also critically well-received and a major commercial success (it took the number one spot in British video game sales on its release). 2004 saw the release of Rome: Total War (my personal entry to the series, and one of my favorite computer games to this day) on a new and improved engine; 2006 gave Medieval a sequel. Another engine improvement allowed Empire: Total War, released 2009, to have a host of new features, including a campaign map that allowed a truly global empire, with theaters in Europe, the Americas, and India. 2010 saw Napoleon: Total War, in many ways the spiritual successor and pseudo-sequel to Empire. In 2011, CA seemingly arbitrarily decided to switch the “Total War” part of their games to the front of the name and released Total War: Shogun 2, a vastly visually and mechanically improved version of their original success.
Then 2013 brought Total War: Rome 2, which has been… let’s just say “controversial at best.” As it stands now, after 16 patches and a year and half of bug fixes, the game is excellent and I highly recommend it; as it was released (and arguably, any time before patch 15), it was nearly unplayable. Poor unit balancing, bad path-finding, and numerous smaller glitches (units clipping through the ground, suicidal AI behavior, an incomprehensibly arcane political system… it goes on). That being said, the game itself was also the most ambitious of the series, and featured many technically challenging innovations to the series. It also featured many strange and inexplicable exclusions of things Total War players had grown accustomed to, such as a family tree for your ruling faction. Additionally, Rome 2 featured the most DLC of any Total War title (four campaign expansion packs, four culture packs which increased the number of playable factions – did NOT add them to the game, but improved their unit roster and “unlocked” them, and three additional content packs – one of which was the “blood & gore” graphics setting, which had been excluded from the base game to allow its sale in high-censorship countries such as Germany) which infuriated gamers who felt as if they were being charged twice for features and settings which should have been available in the base game… and that is what I want to talk about today.
The latest game in the series, Total War: Attila, launched 17 February 2015, one month ago. As of the time of this writing, there have been three DLC packs announced already for unlocking additional factions: the game contains 56 separate factions, but only 10 are playable… unless you want to shell out $8 for three more factions at a time. One of those DLC’s was a Day-One DLC, that is, it was entirely developed and ready for sale at the same time as the base game (or available for free, if you pre-ordered Attila), and this practice in particular has some gamers outraged. In their eyes, CA has made a wonderful game, and then chopped it up into pieces and is selling it to us bit by bit so they can line the seven-car garage of their third mansion with golden yachts. They see this as the downfall of our great gaming civilization, now that the greedy corporate developers have sold out and don’t care about the average gamer. Indeed, it seems that the selling of DLC is a sign that soon, all games will be pay-to-win and force us to pay multiple times for features of a game that should already be ours. All you have to do is take a brief glance at the comment section on any of CA’s trailers for Attila and its DLC’s on Youtube (I said BRIEF… don’t risk your health by staying there too long… it is a dark place) to get a feel for how the most vocal members of the internet feel about this.
And they’re absolutely wrong.
Trust me, I wanted to hate CA as much as anyone after the disaster that was Rome 2‘s launch (I was one of those idiots who pre-ordered the game and even pre-installed it, only to have to wait for a day and half anyway for server support and immediate bug fixes just so it could run), but after playing Attila for bit, I stand here humbly eating my words and loving every bite. Attila as a game is fantastic; it’s fulfilled my wildest dreams for what Rome 2 should have been, and then some. It’s the best launch I’ve seen for a game like this in… years, at least. It’s even more ambitious than Rome 2, featuring such leaps forward as dynamic battlefield fire (so my flaming arrows can set the woods around a city on fire, and I can watch it spread and destroy an entire town while I cackle like King Aerys Targaryen… okay, maybe I got carried away, but it’s cool to watch flames realistically spread and damage structures, men, and morale), progressive sieges (so the longer my men sit around outside an enemy castle, the more damage they do to the walls and fortifications automatically before battle even begins, so three years into the siege of Rome, the walls of the city are realistically war-torn), and the return of old favorites like the faction family tree and a character level-up system that is much more reminiscent of Shogun 2 than Rome 2. In essence, CA took all the feedback they got from the year and a half or so of players ripping on Rome 2 and they managed to create a game which combines all the best parts of Rome 2 and Shogun 2.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not, there’s always room for improvements on any game, and if perfection is your standard you will always be disappointed. Is it playable? Absolutely. More than that, it’s fun. I’ve watched videos of professional players who do tournament battles or campaign let’s plays, and on a good computer, the game is phenomenally gorgeous. I have a laptop that runs it on potato graphics settings. But the fact of the matter is that it runs, and it actually runs quite well, despite my cheap shitty hardware. CA released a game that is stable, largely bug-free, and tremendously fun, and they optimized it so it is capable of being run on a high-end system or a cheap, non-gaming rig. And at release, it cost $44.99. Most AAA games come out at $60, that’s a standard price that has been set on the console market; it varies a bit more with PC games, some go higher, many a bit lower, but on the whole $45 is a very reasonable price for a major title at release. The only reason CA was able to release the game at that price point in the condition that it is in… is because of DLC.
Making a video game is a zero-sum process. By that I mean that, when a game is designed, there is a set release date and a finite number of hours between the beginning of production and that release date for the developers to maximize the potential for that game. Okay, yes, they can delay it and push the release back (*cough*Rockstar*GTA V for PC*cough*), but on the whole, publishers and developers hate postponing scheduled releases, because even they realize that routinely disappointing your consumer base is an idiotic sales plan. So that means a developer is under a great deal of pressure to make a good game; there will ALWAYS be more ideas than there are hours to implement them. Hence the zero-sum process: anything that the developer chooses to devote their time to is also a choice NOT to devote that time to all the other potential things they could do; the total sum of hours making this game will always be constant, however the distribution of hours on particular tasks is spread. Games with multiplayer features have shorter single player campaigns, games with a voiced protagonist have fewer dialogue options for the player and less narrative freedom, and so on. For a game like Total War: Attila, which features both single player and multiplayer content, one of the most important – and time-consuming – parts of the development process is unit balancing. Building a faction’s unit roster so that it is unique enough to merit them being a playable faction, with cool and powerful units that the player will want to use, but nothing so powerful it breaks the game and ruins the balancing act, manually fine-tuning the dozens of critical statistics which define the unit… all of this takes a tremendous amount of time.
If CA wanted to unlock all 56 factions available in Attila, they certainly could, as some angry gamers like to shout at their computer screens. But about 40 of them would be little more than pallet-swaps of the basic Germanic/Roman/Eastern/Steppe tribe factions with no unique or interesting features. And if CA spent the time and energy to make all of those factions unique and interesting and viable and balanced, the core game would lack many of the new and exciting features which players expect in a new release (this was the reason why Rome 2 abandoned the family tree; CA dedicated their development efforts elsewhere in the game). Rome 2 was the most pre-ordered game in CA’s history, exceeding Shogun 2‘s pre-order sales by a factor of six… and on release, it was poop and gamers (myself included) were rightfully pissed, but at the same time, it was also CA’s biggest commercial success, selling over 1 million copies in six months. On Steam, as of the time of writing, the base game Total War: Rome 2 costs $59.95. The combined cost of all DLC available for Rome 2 is $85.90. Looking at these numbers, it is easy for someone (particularly someone who cares very strongly about this series) to say CA is gouging the gaming community and they should be forced to give back all the money they stole from me, dammit! … Of course, a sane person would realize that those numbers also provided the necessary foundation for the success of Attila.
Truth be told, part of the problem here is the attitude of the gaming community in general. We, as a whole (maybe not you yourself personally, dear reader, but I know at least I still catch myself falling into this trap sometimes), are plagued with a sense of entitlement. We think we have a right to a complete product, which is true in a sense, but the notion of “complete” is a bit fuzzy when it comes to software. If a publisher released a game that had a traditional story – protagonist, antagonist, beginning, middle, end – and the game suddenly cut to end credits half an hour before the climax, the consumer would be rightfully angry and demand the rest of the story they were told they would get. But if a game comes out and it is complete and it functions the way it is supposed to, and then later the developer puts in additional time and effort to developing new content for that game, then it is absurd to suggest that I as a consumer shouldn’t have to pay for those many additional hours of labor just because I bought something they previously released. Total War: Attila is an example of the later type. The game is whole, visually attractive, it works as advertised on a wide range of machines, and complete. It could absolutely be improved (especially for multiplayer) with the addition of new units and factions, and with balancing adjustments to some current unit statistics, and CA appears willing to do that. They are charging extra for the option of additional factions because it takes them a tremendous amount of time and effort to enable that option to exist at all… and truth be told, it’s easy to see why the effort was not spent to make these DLC factions part of the base game: they’re all pretty similar to factions already in the game. The Day-One DLC pack included the Viking Forefathers factions, three new factions of axe-wielding badasses… who were all pretty similar to the Saxons (included in the base game), with minor adjustments. Players who only bought the base game didn’t miss out on much, and anyone who really wanted the option could choose how to spend their own money (remember, voting with your dollar is the best way to influence businesses, and game developers are still businesses… if you really disagree with a particular instance of DLC, don’t buy it). Playing Attila, it is obvious how much CA does care about the gaming community, looking at how well they took in all the feedback from their previous titles and synthesized that into a game that is the best in their series so far (in my humble opinion, at least).
If being charged money for DLC is the price that I as a gamer have to pay to see a solid, stable, entertaining release of a game at a price I can afford and settings I can run it on, I will happily pay that price…. or at least wait for the Summer Sale and buy it for 90% off.