The era of DLCs is coming to an end
Last week, Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma revealed that "Tears of the Kingdom" will not be receiving any downloadable content (DLC). This, in itself, is s...
Last week, Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma revealed that "Tears of the Kingdom" will not be receiving any downloadable content (DLC). This, in itself, is somewhat disappointing and also signifies a broader trend: the era of games being supported by extensive DLCs appears to be drawing to a close.
That may seem dramatic, but let's take a closer look at some evidence. By examining how developers have treated expansions in the past and how they are currently handling them, I believe we can draw some conclusions about the direction in which the industry is evolving.
The previous Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, received two expansion packs. The upcoming expansion, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, releasing this month, is the first and only expansion that the 2020 RPG by CD Projekt Red will receive, as the company is now transitioning to developing a sequel in a new engine. In comparison, the previous open-world RPG by CDPR, The Witcher 3, also received two expansion packs.
If we want to understand why the industry's approach to DLC has changed, these two games serve as a good case study. The Witcher 3 was released in May 2015, and by the end of May 2016, both the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions had been released. In the meantime, Cyberpunk 2077 was released in December 2020, and its first expansion will land on the digital shelves of stores in September 2023, nearly three years later. This game had a troubled development and release, but the prolongation of development cycles is influencing the entire industry.
Similarly, The Last of Us Part 2 also did not receive any DLCs, marking a change compared to its predecessor, which was supplemented with the short yet remarkable expansion, Left Behind. Instead, Naughty Dog decided to transform the originally planned multiplayer mode of the game into a standalone release. However, three years after the release of TLOU2, there is no sign of this multiplayer game. Naughty Dog has showcased concept art but no actual gameplay footage. Some reports even suggest that the future of the game is uncertain.
Cyberpunk and The Last of Us point to a part of the problem faced by DLCs in the current era of gaming: games now take an eternity to be developed. While Naughty Dog continued the Uncharted series with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy in the following year after Uncharted 4, a similar development today would likely take significantly longer. There was much discussion when the Assassin's Creed series took a two-year hiatus between Syndicate (2015) and Origins (2017), but the series is now even in a longer pause between Valhalla (2020) and Mirage (2023) without much fanfare (despite the game being marketed as shorter than previous installments).
That has simply become our expectation now. There are studios that still release a game every year or every few years, such as Insomniac and FromSoftware, but most studios require three to five years. Given these lengthy development cycles, investing time in developing a DLC may not seem worthwhile, as single-player expansions typically do not sell particularly well. Players often move on quickly to the next game, and unlike multiplayer games that receive regular updates, players are not engaged on a daily basis.
It's a pity because developers often say that they truly understand how to make a game only shortly before its completion. Historically, DLC has been an opportunity to showcase the skills that were developed during the struggle to finish the main game. When DLC disappears, these skills also wither away.