Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tale of the Tape: Battle of Forli vs. Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, Final Verdict

INAUGURAL TALE OF THE TAPE WINNER: The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned

Ready for some heavy-duty pontificating? Told you I would get there. Here we go!

To recap, Dr. Ned is superior in nearly every way to Battle of Forli, but mostly because it:
  • Provides significant variety in environments, enemies, and objectives without radically altering the core gameplay mechanics
  • Adds substantial additional content (maps, new enemy types, mini-narratives) to the game world
  • Has a tone consistent with, but not overly reliant on, the ethos of the core game
  • Is modular, meaning it can be completed on its own as a sort of miniature version of the core game and/or slotted into the core game's narrative without feeling like a "deleted scene"
I think what disappointed me most about Battle of Forli was not its lack of size or variety, but that it felt like a baldly cynical move on Ubisoft's part.

In Assassin's Creed II, the narrative progresses the player through a series of numbered "DNA Sequences," two of which are "missing" in the core game. The DLC, naturally, fills in these gaps, which exist not at the very end of the sequence, but near the conclusion. This might seem like a trivial distinction - Battle of Forli and the other DLC episode, Bonfire of the Vanities, are sequences 12 and 13 of 14 - but I think the placement of these episodes in the overall narrative is important.

There are a few possible reasons why the episodes weren't simply tacked on to the end of the main narrative, all of which make sense:
  • The narrative is one of the strengths of ACII, and it deserved a satisfying conclusion; tacking on episodes afterward might feel, well, tacky. Doing so also would require some convoluted story machinations to maintain continuity.
  • Placing the missing sequences before the final sequence, especially visually, where they're shown on the pause screen, subliminally reinforces to the player that his/her ACII experience is not "complete" until s/he has purchased the DLC. It's a lot easier, psychologically, to ignore an "epilogue" than a "missing chapter."
  • These episodes were originally part of the core game's narrative, but like deleted scenes in a movie, were cut due to time, story, or technology constraints. (This scenario seems unlikely; these days, planning for DLC occurs at the start of the development cycle. If they were cut, it was because it had been the plan from the beginning to cut them.)
Okay, so why does this tactic still feel cynical? After all, it's what we'd expect from DLC - a bite-size chunk of gameplay that isn't essential to the core game experience, but adds more of what players love. It's exactly what is advertised.

It's cynical because ACII is the first console single-player game, to my knowledge, that openly makes you think you don't have the complete story with your retail disc alone.

The bottom line is there's no value-add proposition in Battle of Forli. You get nothing other than the new quests and chunk of story. That's okay, of course - it is what it is, and it's priced appropriately. That said, it still feels like a cheap move. I'm not averse to paying for additional content. I'm averse to being made to feel I'm being punished if I don't pay for additional content.

There's a big difference between the thinking behind ACII's DLC plans and those of other recent AAA examples. Both Broken Steel for Fallout 3 and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx for Borderlands add new narrative while also changing a core mechanic of the game - raising the level cap, in these cases. In this sense there's a value-add that goes beyond "more of the same game we love." This helps justify the higher price tag ($10-15) and deflate some of the natural skepticism consumers have come to expect about DLC.

The Cerberus Network content for Mass Effect 2 and The Stone Prisoner for Dragon Age: Origins add new characters that can be helpful in your main quest, but are not made to feel essential to the main narrative. These two DLC packs are equally obvious in their purpose - to get consumers to buy the games new, thus reducing EA's losses from the used games market. The key difference is that this strategy rewards consumers for the desired behavior rather than making a punitive implication for not doing the desired behavior (i.e., you could not buy the DLC, but look at these two gaping holes in the DNA sequence).

Might seem like semantics, but it's a critical distinction from a psychological point of view. We may not consciously realize we're being influenced in this way, but I think the underlying implications nevertheless go a long way in shaping consumers' feelings toward the developers and publishers. More to come on this topic in a future post.

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