Back in the good ol’ days, one could would walk into a store, find a game, purchase it, go home, and immediately get the full experience. However, today’s games receive all kinds of additions, patches and DLC (Downloadable Content) post-release. Gamers benefit from the continued support, but they also have to shell out repeatedly to receive a finished, polished product. Nearly all games offer the option to buy more content after release, but it seems like more and more it has become a necessity to purchase DLC or expansions to get the complete 4X gaming experience.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not anti-DLC. Game add-ons can be beneficial for both consumers and developers: consumers get more of a game we love, and developers make more money with decreased development costs. There are some games I enjoy so much that I buy DLC right away because I know it’ll be fantastic. I don’t mind supporting developers whose games I enjoy. But while the model of shipping DLC post-release can be a good thing, I feel like it has become a crutch upon which 4X developers are increasingly leaning. I would suggest, save perhaps free-to-play games, 4X gamers will spend more money post-release to get a game that is complete or, in extremely unfortunate cases, even playable.
Unique to 4X?
While I continue to be drawn back into 4X games, I also regularly find myself playing games from just about every genre. For instance, recent games I’ve played include the likes of Far Cry 4, Battlefield 4, Cities: Skylines, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. What I find interesting is out of these four, I have bought DLC for just one of them – a map pack for Battlefield 4. Sure there is DLC for Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it wasn’t as if spending the extra money would make the experience more complete or the games’ systems more developed. Let me very quickly review the post-launch content of a few games in genres much different than 4X, and then compare that to some of my favorite 4X games.
With Far Cry 4, Ubisoft offered a complete story and experience from start to finish for a one-time price. The DLC added some story missions, but it honestly would not redefine or elevate the game to the next level.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty self-explanatory for those of you who have even played a little of the game. 35 hours in and I have a lot more to do and enjoy. Again DLC has since added more story, quests, etc. Even though this DLC exists, it will probably take me so long to actually beat the game, I doubt I’ll ever need to consider purchasing more content.
Another recent example is Cities: Skylines, which just announced an expansion at Gamescom. While I can’t be certain yet, I most likely will purchase it simply because the game already has a lot to offer . I’ve gotten a full experience for the money I paid initially, so I have no reason to assume their upcoming expansion will shortchange players. The game felt complete at launch; it wasn’t as if it lacked key tools or features that allowed players to effectively run their cities, and Colossal Order has already released free improvements with far-reaching effects such as the ability to construct tunnels.
Now let’s compare that to a few 4X games that I hold in high regard: Civilization V, Age of Wonders 3, Galactic Civilizations 3, and XCOM. Civ V has been out for some time, and honestly all I can remember about the vanilla game was that I was very disappointed because of the poor state of the AI and the plethora of exploits. Yes, I realize that isn’t much in regards to constructive criticism, but after spending maybe 10 hours or so with the game, I gave it up until the Gods and Kings expansion arrived. Civ V today is thankfully a totally different flavor than Civ V vanilla was and is still probably my favorite 4X game. I have even found myself repeatedly telling friends interested in the Civilization series to buy more than just the vanilla version in order to really enjoy the game. The catch, however, is I coughed up $120 total for the base game and its two expansions before the experience became actually enjoyable. To me, that is a little too high a price to pay for a complete product. Now, it’s true that the total cost of getting into Civ V today is $49.99 for the base game and pretty much all the content they’ve released since launch, but it has been several years since the game was released.
Age of Wonders 3, a game that I reviewed, was perhaps even worse than Civ V at launch, in some regards. Unit imbalance created serious problems in the late game, and the game lacked anything that resembled diplomacy in any real way. In a war-centric game, this is a major problem. To be blunt, if Steam had offered refunds at that time, I would have returned the game. I don’t make that statement lightly, but in the same breath I should mention that as the game stands today, it is one of my favorites of the past few years. With the addition of some tweaks, but more importantly some expansions, AoW3 not only feels and plays completely different, it provides a satisfying and refined experience. The game’s two expansions (Golden Realms and Eternal Lords) have added a host of features including: 3 new races, 1 new class, a race reputation system, overhauled diplomacy – or, if we are being honest, diplomacy was finally introduced – and a host of other goodies. I am still enjoying the game, but again, I had to purchase the vanilla version plus two expansions. Thankfully the overall price was a little cheaper, but it still cost just under $75. Patience rewards those who wait and today someone could snag everything for $59.99 when not on sale – not a light sum but certainly reasonable.
Galactic Civilizations 3, another game that I reviewed and very much enjoyed, now has me waiting for some DLC or expansions. Let me rephrase that: it now has me waiting for substantial additions to fill the gaps in the gameplay. For $45 I got a good game but not a great one. After nearing the 150 hour mark, the holes, which I assume will be filled by future content, are as glaring as ever. Three pieces of DLC have been released: a map pack with a map editor tool, mega-events, and, most recently, the addition of the Snathi as a playable race. Each of these costs $5. They are all relatively small releases in terms of content, and I am irked by the fact that I have to pay to get the map editor. I am sure Stardock isn’t the first developer to charge for a map editor, but I can’t think of any others. Who knows how many expansions/DLC Stardock will release for GC3 before it’s complete? I can see myself paying the price of the base game a few times over before it is all said and done to get the total experience.
Finally, Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, which in my opinion is actually a pretty good example of how expansions should work. Sure it isn’t a true 4X game, but it’ll make you think as hard if not harder than any 4X game out there so I’ll include it. XCOM: Enemy Unknown originally released for $50 and later added Enemy Within for $30. Two “soldier” packs were added as well for $6.99, each of which added a mission and a soldier that you could recruit. While the base game was great, Enemy Within added new soldier classes, mechs, humans who were fighting against you, new critical resources to collect every mission, and a sweet base defense level along with a better narrated story. I’m not sure if just reading that list seems like a lot, but the expansion took an already great game and made it even better. The two mini-DLCs were nice but not crucial to the game.
So, let’s examine the $120 I spent to get Civilization V to a “complete” state – not because it is necessarily a bigger offender than the others, but because I feel it is a fair representation of many 4X games in terms of its post-launch releases. Honestly, I was a little horrified when I started looking at what the game was missing before its two expansions: Gods and Kings and Brave New World. I can’t even imagine playing Civ V without them (which is probably why I purchased them; go figure right?) Gods and Kings added 9 new Civs, 27 new units (about half of those were unique units added for the new Civs), Religion, Espionage, improved Diplomacy, 9 new wonders, and of course a reworked and improved AI. On top of that, Brave New World included a reworked and much less boring Cultural victory, 3 new ideologies for the late game, the World Congress, another 9 Civs, and a complete rework of the economy including trade routes.
That was a pretty fat paragraph, consisting primarily of aspects of the game that I see as key to my enjoyment of the title. Certain additions such as wonders or Civs are welcome and, while they give the player more to experience, I don’t view them as key in the same way as the inclusion of espionage or religion. Am I glad they were included? Of course! But espionage, religion, victory conditions, and ideologies are all pretty big systems. Also balancing changes – such as early siege units not costing iron and thus allowing you to actually produce them – fixed a number of very frustrating problems in vanilla Civ V. All of this adds to the experience and creates balanced, enjoyable gameplay which feels fleshed out in nearly every regard. While the game I now have and enjoy is one of the best I can play, it took time – and more importantly, money – to get it there. Essentially, the first $60 set a decent foundation; not a great one, but it was there. However, it took another $60 to finish the game in my view and to get it past a “I can play this pretty much bug-free” to a “I’m actually having fun” stage. Again I am left wondering why 4X games take more time and money to mature into a finished product than games from other genres.
Sidestepping for a moment, while $30 expansions are annoying, I do prefer them to being nickel and dimed as some developers are attempting. Train Simulator by Dovetail Games and its ilk take the DLC model to new heights. Just look at the graphic above. In comparison, Creative Assembly with their Total War franchises and Paradox Interactive’s Grand Strategy games aren’t so bad. I hope this almost microtransaction model of charging $5 for a single feature isn’t here to stay or else I might start waiting a year or more after release before playing even the best of games.
One perfect example of content that doesn’t make it into base 4X games all that often is espionage. It just doesn’t come standard. While some may argue it is an addition and rightfully included in subsequent expansions, for me at least, espionage completes diplomacy by making it more three-dimensional. Yet in spite of it being a major feature of any diplomatic system for any genre, it seldom comes standard.
Hopefully, these few examples illustrate the differences between post-launch content of 4X games versus those in other genres. Yes it wasn’t an exhaustive list of non-4X games, but I feel it is representative of other genres. I realize that some of you may see my attempts to compare these vastly different games as futile, or comparing apples to oranges. But while DLC structures are very different between successful first-person shooters and 4X games, comparing what a player gets with the purchase of the base game still makes sense across genres.
Why are we paying more?
On the surface, it may look as if we always pay more, but that is not necessarily the case. Steam has pretty big sales where those who are willing to wait can pick up even new games at steep discounts. The price gets even better, say, a year after release, although that isn’t really all that different than games on most platforms. Occasionally, I have seen the Humble Bundle offer 4X games as part of their promotion, which provides yet another avenue to obtain these games for cheap. I have personally tried to limit the 4X games that I buy new for this very reason. If I am going to end up shelling out for DLC and expansions, I might as well save some of that money upfront. Even the 4X games I play now were not nearly as great at launch as they are now post-release.
There are two reasons why I think we pay more – outside of sales – for the games we love. The first is that developers are incentivized to release DLC in some form. DLC takes only a fraction of the time and expertise required to make a base game. Again going back to the Civilization games. Firaxis adds religions and a few other things and charges half the price of the base game at a lot less than 50% of the work the original took. That is quite a good deal. The base game involved creating an entire engine, models, a new UI, programing AI, etc. For DLC, most of that stuff is already in place. The return is much higher for DLC than it is for a base game.
Second, gamers have become very accustomed to purchasing add-ons, DLC, and expansions; you name it, we buy it. It isn’t all bad, as I enjoy having patches and improvements come to games and not having to wait for the next entire installment, but it does mean the consumer ends up paying more. Since we are willing to do so, we become willing customers. Refusing to buy DLC in an attempt to “vote with your wallet” is futile when games such as Civ V have sold around 6 million lifetime units. We like games and developers need to make money, so the cycle of game releases and DLC will continue.
While it’s true that 4X games are really complicated, I feel that this complexity comes with game design that depends on further DLC or expansions being released down the road. Companies now have post-launch plans and have a pretty good idea of how and when they will add new features or improve existing ones. Unfortunately, I feel as if GalCiv 3 really suffers from this since the released game isn’t bad, yet the developers didn’t feel the need to push the envelope because hey, they know they’ll have me buying DLC for the next five years. That is what I truly believe is happening: these developers are not evil conniving businessmen operating in the shadows; they’re simply not pushed to deliver perhaps as much as they could because honestly, why should they?
Looking to the future.
At the end of the day, even after writing this, I am still left pondering that question: why does it seem that I am expected to buy into 4X games much more to get a complete game than in any other genre aside from perhaps free-to-play?
One suggestion I might offer is for developers and publishers to be more transparent with DLC or expansion plans. For example, season passes are quite common in other genres where players know upfront how many pieces of DLC to expect and have a rough idea of what they will offer. Otherwise charging $5 for a new race, like in GalCiv III’s recent Revenge of the Snathi DLC, seems like little more than a money grab. Brad Wardell from Stardock always had the dream to include the Snathi as a playable race. So, while that may have invalidated my initial supposition, the way something is received depends a lot on how it is presented.
As for expansions, I would personally feel more positive about them if the base game wasn’t so consistently poor. If we are being honest here, AOW 3 wasn’t that great until it received a year’s worth of support and expansions. In the same way, GalCiv 3 will probably end up being viewed positively as it gets more content, similar to how the perception of Civ V has shifted.
I don’t want to demonize 4X developers. I play and love their games. But at the same time, I don’t mind if this little article sparks some self-evaluation on both sides. I am not of the belief that 4X developers are trying to cheat us, and I recognize the fact that they craft truly complicated games. I also realize that deadlines need to be met in order to ship games and thus stay in business. Also with the depth of 4X games, additional layers of strategy can always be developed and implemented down the road in ways that other genres may not be able to replicate. Yet, perhaps, the ability to add more layers within the 4X genre is a double-edged sword.
At the end of the day, the issue comes down to the fact that getting a non-4X game to its full potential seems to cost less than getting a 4X game to the same state. I have played everything from small indie games all the way up to massive AAA titles. They all seem to come in a more complete state than the 4X titles I have examined here. I don’t believe the men and women developing games in our beloved 4X genre are any less capable than other studios. The struggles and obstacles they face are not all that different from those of any other game developers. So, what is the difference in the state of a non-4X and a 4X game? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I would suppose that it could be us: the passionate and captive audience. Maybe the developers need to think about that as well.
Really, the only thing I have actually concluded is that maybe I should wait to purchase DLC until a sale. (Don’t even get me started on pre-orders.) Not very illuminating, I understand, but hopefully this has made you stop and think for a moment about the current state of 4X games.