By Raven10 4 Comments
So over the course of the past several years I've seen a lot of myths about game development start to go away. This is due to the increase in crowd funding and crowd sourcing through the likes of Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. For example, crazy beliefs about the costs of making a game have been replaced by more informed opinions as people try to understand the business side of things before they put money into a Kickstarter project. Meanwhile the practice of releasing games to the public very early in development has given players a better understanding of how a game evolves over the course of development. All of this is great. Gamers blame developers less for delays, and they can at least understand the reasoning behind why a publisher might either cancel a game or force it to release before it is ready when a developer goes over-budget.
One thing that continues to mystify gamers, though, is the practice of starting the process of making DLC before the core game is finished. There are generally two arguments behind why this practice is bad. First, gamers feel that developers should finish the main game before transferring resources over to DLC, and secondly they think that any DLC announced before a game is released should be ready at the same time as the core game and thus be included with it. Now I want to completely debunk the former theory and at least show why the latter may be wrong in specific cases.
I think the core of this issue comes from a misunderstanding of the development process. Gamers tend to think of a studio as a single entity. But a studio is just a company staffed by game makers of various sorts. Now here is the thing. Different developers have different jobs that need to be done at different points in development. A concept artist, for example, will do much of his or her work in pre-production and early production. Most of the concept art duties are done by the halfway point of development. For most major current gen games that means there is a year or more of development left before the game is done. For a game releasing in November, by E3 of that year (June), production should have largely wrapped up. Games need to be done by September to press the game to disc and ship it around the world. So there are only about three months between E3 and the day the disc needs to go to press. At that point about 70% of the staff has completed either the entirety or the vast majority of their work. Systems designers are likely still balancing things, programmers are squashing bugs and optimizing the code, and artists and level designers will need to fix any issues found during testing, but in the case of those last two fields there is a lot of down time as developers wait to see if there are any problems that need fixing. These two fields also happen to be the two fields required to make most DLC.
During these final couple months level designers and artists need things to do. Remember these people are still getting paid full time, and to keep them on as development winds down they need to be worthwhile. So if you think of game development as a bit like an assembly line, first concept artists are finished with their work. They can then start on drawing up DLC based on a plan set forth by the creative leads at the beginning of development. Then, as more and more art is finished for the core game, modelers and environment artists and so on can then make these new assets. Mind you at this point when they are beginning this process of making assets the core game is likely only three or four months away from being in the hands of gamers. Meanwhile level designers can start making maps or single player levels while the levels from the core game are tested and fine tuned. And systems programmers can begin programming any new systems, again, in between fixing existing problems. And once the game goes off to manufacturing there is still a couple months before the game actually comes out. At this point some developers can work on any patches that need doing, while the others can then work on any design needed for the DLC.
So as you can see, the actual development of the core game isn't hindered in any way by the creation of DLC. The way development works certain developers can be working on the DLC without impacting the development of the core game.
Now for the second, and I think more contentious issue, which is the release of DLC. Now I want to start by saying that if DLC is ready day one then it should be a free download for those who purchase the game. That is just consumer friendly business practices. Understand, though, that just because DLC is ready day one does not mean that it was ready in time for the disc to be pressed and shipped. Remember that is at least a two month long process while uploading some DLC on the Internet is a two hour process. Of course if the DLC is on the disc then that isn't true, but any DLC you have to actually download on day one almost certainly wasn't ready when the disc went to press. So that is why you might in certain cases be required to download content. Again, that content should be included for free with your purchase, but don't make the common mistake of saying that if it was ready to download day one then it should be on the disc, because that is definitely not always the case.
Now for DLC that isn't ready day one, well that obviously can't be included in the game. Now you could say that the game should then be delayed until that DLC is ready, but as I said several paragraphs back, at any point in time a developer needs a project in production and one in pre-production if they want to continue to employ all of their staff. DLC lets them do that before the release of a game when a sequel may not have been greenlit yet. To those who think that three or four months shouldn't be enough to make an entire DLC, you are right. That is why those artists and level designers start on the DLC several months before the core game is finished, and many others start work before the core game is released. Six to eight months is enough time to make most DLC, outside of maybe some very expansive single player content. And, again, as a developer finishes work on one piece of DLC he or she can move on to the next, or be transferred to the next full game the studio is working on. Not everyone is working on the same project at the same time.
So the overall point is that if DLC is not ready day one but is ready a month or two after day one that isn't some sort of conspiracy to steal your money. It is the nature of the development process. Now of course this isn't always the case. There is DLC on the disc that is ready day one and the publisher will still charge money for it. And there are publishers that have different studios work on DLC than those that work on the core game (Activision is famous for doing this with Call of Duty for example), but be aware that in most cases DLC is released as soon as possible.
Hopefully this helps shed some light on the process of making DLC. Enjoy!