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Worlds Without End

What does the arrival of downloadable content mean for developers, publishers and retailers?

Which is more important, the world of Azeroth, or the warcraft players engage in when they get there? What matters most, the vice or the city? The answer to a daft question might be very important one for the industry as a whole.

With every successive generation of consoles, or iteration of PC technology, the cost of building and populating a game world gets greater. Players want their games to have size and scope, but also for each aspect of the game to be rendered in as realistic detail as possible. Both the breadth and depth of a game world come with a price tag.

Unfortunately for the games industry's collective wallets, two of the most popular genres of the moment - RPGs, especially the massively multiplayer kind, and free-roaming urban action games in the Grand Theft Auto mould - require a ton of both. Both genres are dependant on a sense of immersion, of being deeply embedded in a living, breathing world.

This means a lot of assets, and high quality rendering of each of these assets. The inevitable result is an arms race as to who can build the biggest, brightest epic, where players can travel for miles and still be over awed by leaves falling off a single tree. With this level of upfront cost, it doesn't make sense to completely reinvent and rebuild games as individual releases on a regular basis, especially when gamers can spend months exploring each title without requiring a new one.

Counting the cost

A difficult tension also exists beyond these expanding production costs and the need to keep game prices down. The movement of games out of specialist stores and to mass market prominence requires price tags palatable to mainstream consumers, and has also thrust games into the ruthless under-cutting of the competitive high street, while the second hand market has also tightened consumer expectations as to how high a game's price can acceptably be.

While a new generation of software can, to a certain extent, justify a raise in prices, when current generation prices are so low there's a limit as to how far software prices can rise in one generational leap without consumers choosing to stick with the wealth of cheap software on their current console and wait for next gen prices to drop.

The idea of a single, one-off payment at the till for titles with potential months of content may become a thing of the past, requiring a model whereby major titles have an afterlife that can justify further payments. With even consoles now hard drive equipped and widespread broadband adoption, any technical barriers to providing additional content for a popular title are being stripped away.

The question then is what new experiences could justify further payments? Are consumers interested in doing new things in an existing game world, doing the same game activities but in an expanded game world, or a combination of both?

World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer online games access a second revenue stream after the initial purchase, with monthly subscription fees required. In return, new content is periodically rolled out along with server maintenance and general patching of the existing game. Under this model, it makes no sense for an existing, very profitable game to be superseded by a new title or full sequel.

Opting for evolution rather than revolution, Blizzard's next step is not a sequel, but a major expansion, The Burning Crusade. Annual expansions to Azeroth are expected after this, growing the game rather than replacing it.

Micro management

Somewhere between the old world of single payment boxed games and the rolling subscriptions of entirely online titles, there exists the grey territory of online micro-payments for specific new content. So far, even with the simplified delivery of services like Xbox Live, these have yet to garner considerable enthusiasm, maybe because so many of the small doses of new content provided so far - for example, Oblivion's infamous new horse - have failed to provide anything that couldn't have been unlockable in the original title.

The announcement of extra âepisodes' for Grand Theft Auto 4 on 360, to be made available online within months of the game hitting shelves raises the possibility that, for those who wish it, the successor city or state to Liberty, Vice and San Andreas will continue to grow beyond the initial purchase.

Whether these extra episodes will predominantly reuse existing assets within new mission structures, or represent more substantial new content to feed into the main game, remains to be seen.

What is certain is that the 360-exclusivity of these episodes sends a message, that GTA4 will grow on 360, but stay static on PS3. A question remains as to whether that message will be received as a positive one, or simply an opportunity to gouge 360 users for extra payments beyond the price of the boxed game.

On PC, episodic delivery is moving beyond simple mods and maps, with Half Life 2's sequels coming out over the steam delivery service, a model set to be replicated on next generation consoles. More interesting, perhaps, is the re-use of the Half Life 2 game engine to create physics puzzler Portal. While engine re-use is nothing new, especially within the FPS genre, the use of a successful, retail-sold title as the basis for the online sale of a succession of new and different game experiences is.

This could be the future, with major titles acting as software platforms on which newer, smaller games or missions can be sold later.

The world of Azeroth may continue to expand incrementally without ever requiring a World of Warcraft 2. The next iteration of Rockstar's Table Tennis game could be a download playable within a Vice City games room, rather than a title in its own right. Providing new entertainments are available - and someone is willing to pay for them - these game worlds could continue to expand indefinitely.