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The free DLC model: The future of competitive games


This past weekend, Blizzard unveiled Overwatch’s next hero: Moira. Blizzard confirmed that this new support hero will be releasing soon.

Moira will be one of the multiple new heroes that have been added into Overwatch since launch. Even though the game released almost 18 months ago, Blizzard still keeps the game fresh by continually delivering free updates and downloadable content (DLC). The DLC offerings for Overwatch mainly add new characters and stages. However, the more significant DLC releases that add new characters are spaced out between each other. Beyond keeping the game feel fresh, the addition of new DLC characters requires players to reassess how they play the game. Thus, the addition of new characters via free DLC keeps players on their toes. They also encourage players to learn new characters and/or how to play against them.

Street Fighter V uses the free update and DLC model to much success. Menat is one of many characters that have been added post-launch. Image: Shoryuken.

This approach to DLC isn’t exclusive to Overwatch. The practice of free DLC over time has been done with other games, such as the likes of Splatoon and Splatoon 2, ARMS, and Street Fighter V. All of these games use free DLC character and stage releases over time as a means of keeping players coming back to the game. If a Street Fighter V player dropped the game, they may want to come back when they hear about a new character being added.

All of these games have received ranging extents of praise for using the free update model. While the model concerns some, others find it to be a positive thing. I ultimately think that the free update model is great for competitive games. Could we see more games adopt this approach to releasing additional content? Let’s talk about it.

The Worries caused by weak launches

I think the greatest concern of the free update model is that it may serve as an excuse for weak launches. The launch of Street Fighter V is likely the best example of this. The game featured only 16 characters, with few modes available outside of standard matches. Many believe that Capcom was only able to get away with releasing a $60 game with such a little amount of content because they promised to add free updates and DLC throughout the game’s life. Almost two years after release, Street Fighter V has received various new characters, stages, and modes. Many believe the updates to the game have made Street Fighter V finally be worth its $60 price tag.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that Street Fighter V is one of the worst launches for a competitive fighting game. Moreover, I understand why the game’s approach to free updates and DLC has worried many people. The thing about Street Fighter V is that it sets a dangerous precedent – a precedent that developers can quickly release a game and develop it afterward.

ARMS is another example of this, though to a lesser extent. The game launched in June with ten characters, and has added two additional characters as of writing. However, ARMS and Street Fighter V are quite different cases. The issue people had with ARMS was a lack of additional modes, making the gameplay start to feel stale to some. Street Fighter V, unlike ARMS, has previous iterations to work off of. The exclusion of additional modes and lack of character roster at launch made Street Fighter V feel like a product of laziness. Most people in opposition to the free update and DLC model voice don’t want launches of competitive games to feel lazy.

While the model possibly allowing developers to offer mediocre experiences at launch is an understandable concern, I think the pros of the model certainly outweigh the cons.

Why the free DLC model works

While there are some concerning factors, I feel that the free update and DLC model is beneficial for competitive gaming. With the case of Moira being added into Overwatch, the greater community of the game will be reignited, in a sense. Tons of, if not, all players will be trying out Moira, and learning how to properly use her and how to play against her. It preserves the experience of playing the game for the first time. The first time anyone plays a game, a lot of the fun and competitive nature comes from learning about the nuances of each character. In the case of Overwatch, learning the game comes with learning how to play as each hero, and learning which heroes are best for countering the other team’s heroes. Having a new character added to the roster shakes up how one approaches how they play the game.

When Ana got added into Overwatch, it certainly reinvigorated and strengthened the game’s community. Image: PlayOverwatch

In addition, the new content gives the community something to talk about. This naturally causes more and more people to hear about the game and can go on to pull in new players and viewers. The new content being added for free is a key part of this. If Overwatch’s new characters were paid DLC, I think the response we would see from the game’s community wouldn’t be as bombastic. I have no doubt that people would still be excited, but part of paid DLC is that it splits the userbase. Making new characters and other content free to download keeps the community – competitive or otherwise – from becoming segmented.

If the player base isn’t segmented, then neither will the viewer base. Free updates and DLC are great in that they keep the game as all-inclusive as possible. No player or viewer gets prohibited from playing or watching a certain character because of a paywall for a certain character or mode. In addition, it keeps things exciting for the casual esports viewer as well. New characters or modes can go on to make an indifferent viewer into an invested one. New content keeps things interesting not only for the players, but for viewers as well.

The future of free dlc and updates

Free DLC and updates are part of what makes esports so fascinating and entertaining. Unlike traditional sports, esports can constantly throw in new components to existing games which can make the community for that game become even larger. These additions can create a greater player base and viewer base.

For years competitive games, including Smash 4, have used paid DLC. Could this model be on its way out? Image: Gematsu

I don’t think this model will be going anywhere soon. The games that have employed this model of free updates have only benefited from the model. The metagames for Overwatch, Street Fighter V, and even ARMS have only become more complex and entertaining for players and viewers thanks to the addition of new, free content. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this model become incorporated into more and more competitive games throughout the next few years. The games that have used the free DLC and update model have all flourished because of it. Therefore, it isn’t difficult to see future games wanting to do the same.

Agree or disagree about the future of free DLC and updates? Feel free to join in on the conversation. We’d love to hear your thoughts!


Featured image courtesy of Polygon.

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