Ever since the Dreamcast brought online console gaming to the masses, one of the first things that gamers wanted to do was download new content for their games. Microsoft identified this when launching their Live service, with early games such as Splinter Cell offering new levels, which set a precedent for the current generation offering a plethora of content, from multiplayer maps to demos and even standalone games such as Gran Turismo Concept HD. Downloadable content (DLC) is going to be a feature that grows in prominence in the years to follow, so what can we possibly expect to come in the near future?
One of the most exciting prospects presented by DLC is the ability to download and play retro games, demonstrated strongly by the Wii’s Virtual Console and the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA). Nintendo obviously has the biggest advantage in this field, with its gaming dynasty stretching back to the NES and with hundreds of possible games to re-release. These older games from the 8 and 16-bit generation of gaming can easily be emulated on today’s consoles, but the problem comes when we look at games that came after.
Games from consoles such as the N64 or Dreamcast take far more processing power to emulate, and encounter more problems with more advanced graphics handling. This is shown with the PS3, where most of the titles from the 7,000-odd PS1 and PS2 back-catalogue work, but many of these encounter at least some problems. There is a solution to this however, and this is to port over the most popular of the classic games. With more and more independent games studios appearing as a result of XBLA, there are more willing hands that could potentially take the old code and transfer it over to something the new consoles will understand. We’ve already seen this with the Tomb Raider Anniversary collection and the popular PSP game Lumines, the latter proving profitable for both Microsoft and its developers. Naturally the availability of these retro games is going to grow in line with the demand shown by the number of downloads they receive, but I think that if features such as Virtual Console are successful then we’re going to see plenty more retro games appearing in the future for download across the platforms.
Another ubiquitous feature of this generation is the media centre concept. Well, except for the Wii—but it’s competing in a different market so we’ll forget about that for the moment. Both the PS3 and 360 have the ability to play music and movies from their hard drives and can also receive streamed data from external devices. Now currently you can only download game and movie trailers for both systems, but it is definitely a possibility that we could see Sony or Microsoft launching their own music and movie stores providing commercial content. Microsoft seem to have already shown their hand with this, releasing the 360 Elite, a console with an extra 100Gb of HDD space which looks perfectly designed for downloading a few HD feature films and storing plenty of music. They could also easily feature some sort of Zune functionality, with purchased tracks syncing to the Zune HDD. Likewise Sony already have excellent ties with the music and film/TV industry and would be equally well placed to provide such a service that could work with their own selection of digital media players.
One clear advantage of using the consoles for these media centre functions, allowing users to download commercial content onto their consoles, is that they are controlled environments. Whereas on a PC it requires a heavy-handed approach with DRM (Digital Rights Management) to protect the valuable content, on a console it just isn’t needed. Content that’s downloaded onto a PS3 for example, is pretty much stuck there—it can’t be copied (without considerable effort) to another PS3 and Sony would only need to block an unauthorised external source (such as a PC) accessing the content to protect it. This removes the cross-compatibility issues with DRM-protected content and other devices that PC users experience, and could also lead to cheaper content being available on the protected console environment. Obviously this is less of an issue if the Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple) idea of DRM-less media catching on, but so far most companies have been reluctant to do so.
Something else that could prove very interesting would be user-created content. The best example of this was with Far Cry: Instincts, which let gamers share their creations made with the frankly awesome map creator. Microsoft recently released a development kit (XNA Game Studio Express) for making XBLA games and it wouldn’t be too far an abstraction to think about gamers being able to make maps and mods for full retail games too. Whereas this wouldn’t be something that would work for all games, popular online games such as Halo 3 and Gears of War would benefit from hugely increased longevity with the availability of mods and user-created maps.
This would require some investment on behalf of the publishers to make the right tools available for gamers to easily create high-quality content. But as with on the PC with Battlefield: 1942 and Half-Life, modifications to the original game format can significantly increase a game’s longevity and often make the game more attractive to new gamers than the original, unmodified version of the game. The future of this really depends on how well Microsoft’s gamble with releasing a development kit to masses turns out, a positive outcome would encourage other companies to follow suit.
Getting slightly more fanciful, a future could be envisaged where Downloadable Content replaced the optical media we all know and use for our games, music and movies currently. Your console of choice would act as a portal for accessing this entire selection of media, which could be downloaded onto some giant HDD for use at your disposal. Imagine being able to browse through a list of games for example, looking at preview videos or playing a demo to help make up your mind, not only would you benefit from a far better shopping experience, you’d also get your game instantly. No more waiting by the door for the postman, or sitting outside your local games store on release day.
It’s doubtful that retailers would be particularly happy with this sort of setup however, which effectively would remove them from contention. Although to create some sort of healthy competition, we could see various DLC shops being accessible from your console—all offering their own deals and pricing structures. There could also be some sort of system of trading in media for store credit, or swapping media between other users. As the content is all stored as data on a HDD it would be a safe way of allowing users to conduct transactions between each other.
Downloadable content is something that is going to grow and evolve as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo get to grips with DLC and become more adventurous with the services they offer. All we can really guarantee isthat the future in store for gamers is looking incredible, and that DLC plays a major part in that future.