The 4X DLC Crutch: An eXposition

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.

DA:I has cheap, fun, and totally optional DLC.
DA:I has cheap, fun, and totally optional DLC.

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.

Answer: five dollars at a time, apparently.
Answer: five dollars at a time, apparently.

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.

This expansion pack pleases me.
This expansion pack pleases me.

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's just the DLC content!
That’s just the DLC content!

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.

OK, granted - it could be worse.
OK, granted – it could be worse.

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.

Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising Prices….er, Tide.
Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising Prices….er, Tide.

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?

Really makes you reconsider how dangerous “space squirrels” could be.
Really makes you reconsider how dangerous “space squirrels” could be.

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.

It didn’t cost bags of gold to get the improvements in Golden Realms…
It didn’t cost bags of gold to get the improvements in Golden Realms…

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.

14 thoughts on “The 4X DLC Crutch: An eXposition

  1. Great read!

    As a related topic, check out this amazing testimonial from a F2P dev over at Touch Arcade:

    It’s pretty amazing what’s going on behind the scenes in the F2P world, which overlaps conceptually with a lot of the DLC craze.

    To the main topic – I just want base games to be released in a state that feels complete and well executed in regards to what is provided. I liked AoW3 quite a bit at launch, but as you said there were aspects of the game (e.g. alignment) that were half-baked and only really done well after the expansions. Maybe they would’ve been better off just removing alignment entirely from the base game and have it be a feature addition down the road (expansion). Just an example …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How do you define “complete” though? Isn’t that an individual thing? And even if the player base could somehow agree, would the customer’s “complete” necessarily fit within the scope of the developer’s vision?


  2. I’d disagree with the Civ5 comparison. The ‘dlc’ did not make Civ5 better. the expansions did. Any more than most people thought Civ4:BTS is the ‘best’ version which would have cost you $100-ish too to get there from the base game and the 2 expansions. No one said Civ4 wasn’t ‘complete’ until BTS.


    1. I think this may be an issue with the use of terms. Kearon talks about both smaller releases (like the GalCiv III map editor) and big content pushes (like the Gods & Kings or Eternal Lords), and his thoughts on the different approaches. So the article’s topic is any piece of post-release content, both traditional small DLCs and full expansions. Even if it doesn’t explicitly state that.

      Now how you parse those two out – that’s another eXposition right there. ;)


  3. Also its not fair to compare the DLC model for Train Simulator as well. That market works in an entirely different way due to licensing costs for the routes and trains themselves. Heck some trains are not purchasable in the USA because the licensing isn’t available.

    There’s also no expectation that you’d buy all the DLC either. Its a niche market and thus they have to charge more because you’re not going to sell 100,000 copies of your individual DLC package to recoup your costs.

    The same goes for MS Fight Sim X. There is even more ‘DLC’ available for FSX than you can shake a stick at if you look at the pre-steam market. But they’re all very expensive due to the audience and the niche market. There’s no expectation that you’d buy ‘all’ of them. Most ethusiasts would only buy the planes they really liked. Or routes they wanted to fly.


  4. Strictly speaking, was it the expansions that rounded out AOW? Or was it the patches that were released alongside the expansions?

    You get a whole lot of the AOW updates without buying the expansions. But I forget exactly where the line is drawn. I believe it’s sufficient to make the game compatible online between DLC and non DLC accounts, meaning that it’s not the expansions that are at issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patrick, when I first joined up with explorminate I went back and did a review of vanilla AOW3, yes patches fixed many issues but the inclusion of newer races/class/items/diplomacy in later expansions later on really helped (at least in my opinion). We also gave the Eternal Lords expansion a higher rating than the base game. I guess I am unaware of everything someone who just has the base version of AOW3 gets compared to someone who has bought all the DLC.


  5. I have many things to say and I’ll spread them out in multiple posts.

    “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.”

    First different game genres have different challenges and focus on different elements. Games like Call of Duty focus more on the online aspect, and the single player is rather short.

    Second you should also take into account development budgets. I tried looking for some numbers, but I couldn’t find any. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition costed more to make than all 4X games listed in the article combined.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d like to post some things from the game industry perspective.

    This article and this Youtube video have some interesting things from Brad Wardell on DLC.

    “before DLC took off, you laid off lots of people”

    “In the old days there was just nothing we could do. We could either make a Fallen Enchantress 2, which, while the game did well, it didn’t do well enough to justify that—especially since the choice was either between working on Fallen Enchantress or working on Galactic Civilizations 3, it was a no brainer. The team was going to work on GalCiv 3.”

    “So, what we came up with was: if we could release DLC that would generate enough money…we could do free updates to the game itself. Because users on the forums would constantly list off things they wanted in the base game, and we were happy to put those in but those engineering hours have to be paid for. And so we funded that through DLC.”


  7. Since from the games listed I have more experience with Galactic Civilizations III I’ll focus on it. While I consider the base game to be rather rough around the edges the patches are improving it greatly and I think it is better than the base version of Galactic Civilizations II.

    Now let’s look at the DLC released:
    Map Pack – map editor, seven maps, and one scenario;
    Mega Events – a number of mega events, 5 at the beginning, it was updated with several more, some of these include new assets like the Dread Lords and Space Monsters, also some ships parts are added to the designer; And I’d like to mention that about 10 mega events were added to the base game with a patch.
    Revenge of the Snathi – new major civilization and everything it has can be used to make custom civilizations, including new ability, tech tree and ship style , mini-campaign, plus ship parts.

    Personally I think for $5 these are worth the cost, some might disagree, that’s their opinion.

    I ask of the author, and anybody else is free to answer, how much content should a $5 DLC have?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rhonin I’ll try to reply to your last few comments here:

      I totally understand developing a game like CoD is vastly different than a 4X both in development costs, audience, sales, etc. A lot of 4X games don’t have numerous cut scenes or the high graphical fidelity of something like Dragon Age or a FPS so I would hope the costs would be lower. I can see why some people might view this piece as an attempt to compare apples and oranges but I think its fair to address the question.

      Also I understand DLC is a big money maker for devs and I would agree that it has allowed studios to expand or even just stay open.

      As for how much is $5 DLC worth, I haven’t tried any of it yet I’ll be waiting on a sale but I personally prefer something more along the lines of what AOW3 has done. Around $15-20 for significant additions to the game across the board. I feel like that is the sweet spot. Charging $5 for a map editor or a single race seems high to me, the mega events seems the most intriguing to me depending on how much they play out. Again since I haven’t bought them, all they seem to do for those who haven’t bought the DLC is provide a “text” event that grants ideology points (or perhaps I haven’t had one but I’ve played about 8 hours in a single game since the latest patch so I think that is what they are).


      1. Stardock has stated that there will be both small DLC and expansions. DLC will be mostly new assets, while expansions will have new code, meaning gameplay mechanics.

        For me the Snathi place higher than Mega Events since I wanted more major civilizations, and I don’t really care for the map editor as I’m not into making my own stuff in games.

        As for mega events they vary, some may help you, some may really hurt you. They could also not happen in your area and affect an opponent.

        Here is a list and description of what each does:
        Base Game (as of 1.3 opt-in 2) [10]
        Anomalies: A lot of anomalies are spawned on the map.
        Breakthrough: A random technology is given to all factions.
        Distant Resources: Elerium and Antimatter are spawned on the map.
        Gold Rush: A smaller amount of anomalies are spawned on the map. (Triggers more often and earlier than Anomalies Mega Event)
        Land Rush: Several Dead Worlds are converted into Habitable Planets. (Class Range will be edited in/added when known)
        Paradise Worlds: Several Dead Worlds are converted into Class 25 planets. (Triggers later and is rarer than Land Rush)
        Pirate Colony: A Dead World is converted to a Class 6 planet and assigned as the Civ Capital for the Space Pirates faction.
        Relics: Precursor Relics are spawned on the map.
        Resource Glut: Random number of Asteroids, Dead Worlds and Gas Giants are converted into Durantium, Thulium, and Promethion respectively.
        Wormholes: Wormholes are spawned on the map.

        Mega Events DLC (as of 1.3 opt-in 2) [13]
        Assassination: The player is plunged into war with a random faction.
        Bank Robbery: The player is offered a set of choices involving Credits and Diplomacy.
        Brains Not Brawn: A new Minor Race, the BRAINY’AK, specializing in technology but with almost no military is discovered.
        Dreadlords: The Dreadlords have returned! OMG!1!. (The Dreadlords spawn on a random planet)
        Helping Hand: A choice between halving all Manufacturing for a set amount of time and receiving Research Points in return is offered to the player. Rewards and penalties vary.
        Life Support: A choice over sharing a breakthrough that doubles the range of all ships with other factions is offered.
        Ludicrious Speed: A choice involving boosting the speed of ships of only your own faction or of all factions is offered.
        Peacekeepers: The Peacekeepers arrive, attacking any and all factions that are currently at war.
        Pirate Outbreak: A new faction of pirates, tougher than normal, are spawned on the map.
        Renaissance: A choice involving research being increased to all players or a set amount of tech points to the player alone is given.
        Space Monsters: The Space Monster faction is spawned on the map.
        The Artifact: The faction in the game which is currently the weakest gets a cumulative increase to their Production Points every turn until the end of the game or they are eliminated.
        Wish Upon a Relic: A choice involving greatly increased Research and Manufacturing for the next 25 turns is given.



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