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Trends That Defined A Console Generation

Our month of features celebrating the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii is halfway done. If you have not seen our lists of the best Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii games, then spend some time deciding if we hit the mark or lost our minds. If you don’t agree with us, maybe you’ll find one of 35 developers who you align with more closely.

Today, we’re looking at how the last generation changed the landscape of video gaming for better and for worse. These trends have altered the course of the industry.

DLC Is Here To Stay
The single largest change for console gaming in the last generation was the way in which developers approached their products. Prior to last generation (with a few first-party exceptions), what was shipped on the disc was the final word on a game. Bugs and glitches (even those that could break a game) were untouchable once media was pressed, packaged, and shipped.

The ability to update games, something that wasn’t fully understood by consumers when first announced, revealed itself to be a double-edged sword. Like all tools, gamers found that this one could be used for both good and evil.

Playing Dress Up
One of the earliest pieces of Xbox 360 downloadable content was the now-infamous Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Horse Armor. The $2.50 add-on, which blends cosmetic glitz with increased armor for your mount, is the punchline to many jokes, but it’s Bethesda that is laughing. 

When I sat on a PAX East panel with Bethesda vice president Pete Hines, he intimated that the inexpensive item (what we’d now call a “microtransaction”) has been wildly successful. Anyone who plays League of Legends can attest to the allure of purely aesthetic customization items. 

The idea for new skins and decorations isn’t new. Games have offered up hidden costumes and cosmetic items for ages, but they used to be unlockable via progress or cheat codes. Now, players are often asked to open their wallets to pretty up their in-game avatars. Unfortunately, this opened up some avenues for abuse.

(Note: We originally attributed the Horse Armor as the very first piece of Xbox 360 content on April 3, 2006. It appears that Kameo beat it out with Winter Warrior skins on November 11, 2005. We apologize for the error.)

On-Disc DLC
Seeing the success of cosmetic items, Capcom decided to get crafty about its delivery of skins for its games. Content for Street Fighter X Tekken, Resident Evil 6, and other games was shipped on the disc but locked away behind a paywall.

This resulted in outcry from gamers who felt they were entitled to completed content that was located on the media they had purchased. Some even went so far as to hack the game to release the locked the content, for which Capcom was charging $20 (via extremely small downloads for unlock keys), all of it already on the disc and complete.

Day One DLC
Only one other DLC-related element is loathed by the masses as much as locked on-disc content: day one DLC. This largely stems from a misunderstanding about development timelines and an assumption that the content is completely finished when the game is done (and therefore should be included for free).

In many cases, DLC is started by a team of people who have completed their jobs on the core game. This enables developers and publishers to keep staff working (and employed) when they’d otherwise be waiting for the next full project.

The public relations pressure around significant, walled-off content releasing alongside games has mounted. BioWare, which had an additional character tied to DLC for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 has said it won’t be continuing the practice with this fall’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Because of the PR challenges, we’ve seen many in the industry push out their first DLC content away from the day the game releases. It’s becoming more common to see drops at 30, 45, and 60 days (or even more protracted if the game has enough sales momentum). 

The combination of knowing the content arc (and having some of that work done) with a later release cycle has enabled a trend that has grown since the second half of last generation. Enter: the season pass.

Buy Now, Play Later
Back in 2011, Rockstar/Take-Two and NetherRealm/Warner Bros. had the brilliant idea to let people know early that more content for L.A. Noire and Mortal Kombat would be coming. The former got a “Rockstar Pass” filled with two suits for Cole Phelps, four new cases (rolled out one at a time), and 20 collectibles that unlock another suit.

Mortal Kombat’s offering was similar. Four characters were revealed and distributed over time, along with new costumes for existing characters. Both Take-Two and Warner Bros. found success, and other publishers took notice.

Season passes are a huge win for publishers, because they generate guaranteed revenue up front. Gamers are enticed with discounts that are especially critical when season passes disappear with the final content drop (as Sony did with The Last of Us).

The season pass model has some significant drawbacks, which have hopefully served as cautionary tales (and motivation to improve practices). For instance, BioShock Infinite’s season pass took a while to get off the ground. The first release, the underwhelming Clash in the Clouds (essentially Horde Mode), came out three full months after the game’s March 2013 release. The first story-based add-on, Burial at Sea: Episode 1, wasn’t made available for nearly seven and half months. That’s a long time to sit on collected revenue. 

Season passes don’t even necessarily cover the entirety of released DLC. Parsing out which content is included, which is standalone (typically cosmetic and weapon items), and which straddles both categories is confusing. Some publishers have found the way around this, though.

For Batman: Arkham Origins, Warner Bros. spelled out in advance what players would get. The publisher promised costumes, one story add-on, and one new piece of challenge mode content. A graphic helped make things even clearer, dispelling any confusion.

The season pass isn’t going away, and it’s only getting more expensive. It’s conceivable that add-on content at this discounted bundle rate will double the cost of the base game, as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Forza have all had $50 add-on packages for some time.

DLC Replaces Cheat Codes
1986: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A

2006: EA suggests you pay $10 for in-game currency in The Godfather

2009: Capcom sells bundles of five Street Fighter IV costumers for $3.99 each

2011: Gotham City Impostors launches with more than $200 of in-game customization items

Back in the day, you could punch in a button code and fill your in-game bank account, unlock characters and costumes, and speed your way through a game’s more challenging parts with upgraded weaponry. In the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era, cheat codes became a rarity.

Instead, publishers realized they could sell you the things you used to get for free. Cheat code sections in magazines (or full books of tricks and tips) used to be your price of entry. Now, players are willing to spend hard money for soft bonuses.

We wish we could say that this was inevitable, but it wasn’t. People fell for it, paid the money, and are now reaping what they sowed. This practice might be tweaked from time to time, but expect that you’ll be asked to pay for bonuses like in-game currency until the end of time.

Online Passes (R.I.P.)
Celebrate, gamers, for you have slain the dragon. Well, one of them. Back in 2010, EA introduced “Project $10.” You probably know it better as “the dreaded online pass.”

The intent was to monetize copies of games acquired via second-hand means (read: used). In order to play online (or access bonus content), players who didn’t purchase new copies would have to pony up $10 for an online pass in order to get online.

As the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era began to sunset last year. EA terminated the program (because of consumer feedback, according to now former vice president of corporate communications Jeff Brown). Ubisoft followed suit after we reported that some of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’s single-player content was locked behind the paywall.

Read on as we look at important system features from last generation.

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