Hooked on DLC?

Nobody doesn't like a gift that keeps on giving — especially not gamers, whose passion often cash-straps them with only slightly more ruthless efficiency than a Bernie Madoff—fronted investment.

That's why Burnout Paradise, the most recent entry in Electronic Arts' long-running drive-and-crash series, has become one of the most gamer-friendly titles of the last few years. The game itself was released way back in January of last year, but the hours of 150 mph open-world takedown love didn't stop there — not by a long shot. In July 2008, Criterion, the game's developer, released downloadable content over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network that added a bunch of online modes to the game. A few months later, they ponied up a DLC pack that dropped motorcycles into the driving mix.

And all of it was free.

Well, at first, anyway. As part of the master plan, Criterion followed up the freebies a few weeks ago with the first of several DLC packs with a price to come. Last week, gamers could pay a few bucks to get versions of K.I.T.T., the General Lee and the DeLorean that Marty McFly drove in the Back to the Future flicks.

Over the course of the last few months DLC, of both the free and for-a-fee variety, has become not only a novelty in the console world, but also an expected extra. Titles that ship without an announcement that DLC is forthcoming are likely courting some serious fanboy ire. Three of the biggest console titles from 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV, Fable 2 and Fallout 3, have all checked in with pay DLC of varying degree and quality in the first two months of the year. DLC for other triple-A titles, like Ubisoft's Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider: Underworld, is on the way, as are further expansions to Fallout 3 and new content for Microsoft's Halo Wars.

This kind of add-on addictiveness used to be the exclusive province of PC gamers. A team-based shooter like Counter-Strike, so tame and basic by today's standards, became a legend based solely on the user-developer mods and additional content home-brewers cooked up and distributed to keep it interesting. Some of it was free, and some of it was even good enough to get snapped up by publishers, packaged and sold in stores.

But now the shoe's on the other foot: Even as expansion packs and bonus content to PC games have all but evaporated, DLC micro-transactions on the console side are booming like never before. So what gives? Why the sudden attack of Run DLC, Console Edition?

Part of it is because Sony's PlayStation Network finally joined Xbox Live as a stable download platform, and consoles now come equipped with hard drives that can manage a library of 700-megabyte DLC downloads. But more than a few experts have suggested that Criterion and EA's unexpected initial largesse with Burnout Paradise was a not-so-subtle attempt to keep gamers from dropping their used copies into the blue-polo-wearing arms of their nearest GameStop employee (after unlocking all the achievements, naturally).

Developers have been kvetching for years that game resale outlets are robbing them of potential revenue, and as such are only slightly less evil than Dick Cheney, Alex Rodriguez and Rod Blagojevich combined. GameStop execs, meanwhile, have been only too happy to see their sizable resale figures — a whopping $8.8 billion in 2008 — prominently cited in discussions and articles about the economic health of the games industry.

For developers, DLC has quickly come to represent a bulwark against losing future game dollars not just to game resellers, but also to the inevitable next big game. Getting even a few thousand gamers to pony up a measly five- or ten-spot for an additional mission pack is certainly a far more attractive option than watching your game's retail sales tail quickly into oblivion after the first few weeks of release; especially if it only takes your development team a couple of months to crank it out. Starting with the free stuff, as games like Burnout Paradise and Sony's LittleBigPlanet have done, is just a clever way to sink the hooks in deeper — and maybe instill a sense of loyalty and obligation in a group that doesn't always come naturally by it.

OK, so they gave me the motorcycles and the Chinese New Year Sackboy costume for free. I guess the least I can do is cough up a fiver for the Back to the Future DeLorean and the Kratos togs, right?

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