D20: The problem with DLC – how do you release new story without ruining the old?

Skyrim vs Mass Effect

By on January 14, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I loved Mass Effect 3. I thought it was a great way to end a wonderful story and I spent as much time as possible savouring the final journey of Shepard and the crew of the Normandy, completing every side quest, every conversational strand and following every interpersonal relationship to its ultimate limit.

Likewise I loved Skyrim, albeit for other reasons. The story wasn’t particularly great but the sense of place was superb, with the rewards for exploration being constantly surprising and tangible. Over 180 or so hours I explored every inch of the world, investigating every cave, climbing every mountain and opening every door, portcullis and chest I came across.

The thing is, however, that I have had absolutely no impetus to play any of the DLC for either title, though admittedly for quite different reasons.

Mass Effect 3 was a self-contained ending for me, a culmination of Shepard’s epic fight against the Reapers and something of a eulogy for the series as a whole. The game was essentially made up of a series of vignettes of characters the player had met over the course of the first two games in which Shepard did right by someone from his or her life and said goodbye to that companion, wrapping up their story thread and allowing them to go on with their lives in some fashion. More than any other game in the series, Mass Effect 3 is self contained – it’s all about endings, and even though there is a post-script that I suppose is meant to leave the story a little open ended allowing for DLC, the story, at least to me, felt finite. Over. Finished.

I was initially excited to have the prospect of more Mass Effect 3 on the horizon, but the closer it came to the first batch of DLC being released the less interested I became. In some ways the idea of new stories being slipped into the canon after it had been finished felt a little off, even a little disrespectful. It began to feel to me like (and I usually hate how casually this term is thrown about) a clumsy retcon of the story to fit in some extra chapters/money.

A lot of this comes from the fact that I played the game as soon as it was released, and so had very much finished everything the game had to offer before the first batch of DLC even dropped. If I hadn’t finished the game before the DLC was released I would almost certainly feel different, but that brings me neatly to Skyrim.

The narrative of Skyrim is no great shakes, so additions to the story have no real impact on its effectiveness. The joy of the modern Elder Scrolls games for me is in exploring the world and discovering the new. The problem I have with the Skyrim expansions isn’t so much the content — although I personally have absolutely no interest in building and furnishing an in-game house — but rather with the system into which they integrate. It’s easy to level in Skyrim, to gain extra skills and abilities, strength in combat and the tools required to survive.

It may not have been a problem for everyone — as a matter of fact I’m sure I’m in the minority — but the time I spent exploring the world of Skyrim levelled my character an extraordinary amount, to the point at which all of the combat content seemed trivial. I didn’t set out to game the system, but by sheer dint of the actual mechanics that was the end result, I was playing such an extremely powerful character that it actually removed much of the fun from the game.

My problems seem to boil down to two things; context and timing. In the case of Mass Effect 3 I feel that the context of the DLC is off, that it’s shoe-horning content back into a story that has already finished and thereby somehow lessening the experience, much in the way Walter Hill weakened his masterpiece The Warriors when he cut in some terrible comic book style scene transitions for the BD special edition, or, as a more contemporary example, the publishing of the Before Watchmen prequel comics. In the case of Skyrim it feels like a case of bad timing, as the more time you spend in the main game the less interesting the DLC becomes.

Is there a middle ground? I’m not sure. Borderlands 2 has done pretty well so far with their two DLC drops so far (and the third on the way this week), with a mixture of funny, expansive content and some great narrative choices, all released with impeccable timing, coming fairly soon after release and at regular intervals to ensure continued interest. But there are problems there as well. The lack of a level cap raise in any of the expansions so far makes the content, no matter how entertaining, feel somewhat like filler due to the lack of any actual character progress being made.

Is it possible to balance timing, context and content with DLC, or am I just being overly picky?

9 comments (Leave your own)

I can kinda agree about the ME3 add-ons, although the additional stuff that i have played came mostly with the CE… ME2 on the other hand, all of the DLC adds to the experience of the game, having played through the first time shortly after release, i then awaited all of the dlc to drop before replaying it and, my god, fantastic. having said that, bioware DLC is pretty hit and miss, some great, others poorly executed, but they have stuck by it.

I enjoy DLC, i think it still has a ways to come but.


You summary of the ME3 ending resonates closely with my own opinion of the ME3 ending, I never understood all the raging that went on.


for skyrim, even when you are pretty powerful player, the highest difficulty setting does balance it. I’d start on a middle difficult, and as i leveled up i’d increase the difficulty.

But yeah i did the same thing, i have 185 hours clocked, my second play though and i still haven’t finished the main quest, but my character is insanely powerful.

i like that though, means all my exploring and side quests payed off. I’ll smash through the main quest now :p


I’d agree with most of that. The Arrival and Shadowbroker DLC for ME2 were definitely exceptions, as they did a pretty good job of tying into the ME3 plot.

But generally, DLC coming out just as you finish the vanilla game just doesn’t work for me. Especially a game like Skyrim that’s already greedily eaten so many of my man hours.

Daniel Wilks: …much in the way Walter Hill weakened his masterpiece The Warriors when he cut in some terrible comic book style scene transitions for the BD special edition…

What is this thing? I’ve never heard of this special edition. But if it’s as horrible as the Dune or Donnie Darko director’s cut, I’ll happily remain ignorant of it.

Darth Teddy Bear

I agree with the article, but I have another take on DLC, it stops me from buying a game out of the gate.

Maybe it is because I am old school having gamed from 1986 with the Atari ST and a game was a game complete and a add on added a lot and I see DLC as being a way to diddle the customer.

I probably am in the minority but until I see all the DLC and the patches that come as expansion packs included in a GOTY version I will not buy.


I beleive that all DLC should add to an experience and not try to mess around with a storyline too much unless it beneficially adds more depth to a universe/lore. Bioware did a good job with Dragon age DLC in that it had some great new areas to re-explore or go to a new place and get some background lore on characters. It is DLC that is added purely for the sake of profit such as weapon packs (Saints row 3 for example) that makes me facepalm at DLC.


DLC is very genre/game dependant. For instance DLC which adds cars/tracks/series to things like Shift 2 or Forza or GT5 is almost perfectly acceptable. I say almost as most of the time they charge too much for it, however it doesn’t break the game or immersion in it and actually works to improve the game, though in Multiplayer it’s a bit of a negative as it can cause issues, though there are ways to deal with that.

Games which have a linear story that release DLC which basically requires a replay or play from an earlier save break the immersion immensely. For these having expansion packs or fully developed additions rather than DLC would suit better as long as they continue or parallel the main storyline. To force a player to replay or revert is not a good answer.


I think how well DLC works depends on how well it slots into the original game. Where you have an oppurtunity to get some bonus items of something that might help you along your way. As opposed to just another random mission where you just need to go kill some dudes in some random location and all your get may be some xp and a statistic saying you have completed that mission.


I enjoy DLC that is completely different to the core game. Leliana’s Song was one of my favourites because it was interesting to play as a favoured character at another time period.

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