In-Depth: The ABCs of Xbox 360 DLC
The role of DLC in the current generation of console games is hard to ignore, something made all the more obvious by the hard data that Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business and the Xbox 360 content management team brought to the company's recent Gamefest event.
Games with paid downloadable content sell, on average, $21 million more at retail, provided the DLC hits within a so-called 30-day "sweet spot," according to Microsoft's IEB manager Kevin Salcedo.
Salcedo joined Tad Fleshman of Xbox 360's content management team at Gamefest to advise developers on how to maximize the opportunities in DLC.
"Right now we have over 12 million users in over 26 countries, with $240 million in transactions revenue so far, with $180 million in the last 12 months alone," said Salcedo of the Xbox 360's marketplace.
According to Salcedo, titles given DLC "legs" enjoy longer periods of time in the customer's hands. "On average, titles that have downloadable content on XBL marketplace have seen a 16 percent [longer] period of people holding onto that title, which keeps them from selling to secondhand stores," he said.
Paying Attention To Process
Adhering to the verification standards is essential to getting started on that long tail, said Fleshman. "When you submit your title to certification, you want to make sure that you follow the process of submitting DLC with your title. It doesn't have to be complete or feature-ready... but it allows verification your title is ready for DLC."
As concerns Xbox Live Marketplace, Fleshman advised developers to familiarize themselves with the toolset required to get DLC propagated online, and working with a game demo is a good place to start.
Salcedo agreed, "It's great if you can think about DLC from day one, or at least as early as you can in the development cycle, so there are no hiccups."
Factoring in the global release plan is also key, Salcedo continued. "As long as you have an understanding of what you'd like to do, having that in your DLC plan will help you right away."
Avoid unnecessary Title Updates, he said. Developers get one free, so it's best to wait at least 30 days for consumer feedback before making use of it.
Salcedo described some of the terms used in getting DLC onto the 360 marketplace. "SPA" is one such term, standing for 'status, presence, achievements'. SPA updates can be done in via downloadable content, while a title update (commonly known as 'a patch') forces a SPA update.
SPA also updates every time a team releases a pack, DLC or title update. "That title update, whether or not you add or change anything to your SPA, will force all of the changes you've made so far to their gamer profile," noted Xbox 360 team manager Fleshman. "Only the users who download DLC will get new updates in between title updates."
Salcedo noted that content testing is an important element in the process of making DLC available to your players. He began by clarifying the service Microsoft offers: "Content isn't tested by Microsoft. It's verified."
"The main reason for that is because Cert's job is not to test your content. It's there to protect the content, protect our users and protect the service we provide. There's no functional testing ever done on DLC submissions. The most that will ever be done is to make sure that content complies with the [Technical Certification Requirements]."
To that end, there are two types of content submissions. The first is 'sample content.' There are very few realistic requirements for allowing this onto the service. Essentially, according to Salcedo, it's "Okay if it's not functional, and if it's not feature rich. It just needs to be consumed by the title and not crash."
A common scenario, said Salcedo, is having final DLC that you have to progress through a certain point in your gameplay. "If you're going to be submitting it as sample content, when that sample content is downloaded, you could be level 1 as opposed to level 20," he said. The other type of submission is fully completed content.
Salcedo warned that it's important to differentiate between the shipped product and what the user subsequently downloads. "Content should behave in a way, when it's on the system, that makes it identifiable from content that ships on the disc."
Even though the download might be instantaneous for users, he explained, they need to be able to instantaneously find DLC that they've accessed via Marketplace.
He also noted the importance of gracefully handling missing downloadble content. "Typically... if the DLC is not present, the game can continue without that, as long as you inform the player why they might not have access."
"There should be no dependencies on existing DLC," the IEB manager admonished. "Even with episodic content, you should be able to play episode five without episode four present -- even if you played episode four before."
The Submission Process
The Xbox 360 team's Fleshman stepped in to continue the discussion on the submissions process, noting key items developers should have ready for the timeliness of the process.
"First, you want to make sure you have your paid downloadable content release strategy in place," he said. "In order to complete your offer, it's going to help to have an idea of the types of content you want to release, the release cadence you want, if you have multiple types of content, and where you want to release it."
Fleshman noted the importance of good descriptors when releasing content to the marketplace: "We don't offer default descriptions for in-game content. We can't possibly anticipate the great ideas you'll have for your DLC," he said.
The description, then, should describe specifically what the new content is - "This is what the user will be looking at on Marketplace when making a purchasing decision. If it includes new achievements, make sure you absolutely get this in the description."
Fleshman offered a few other pieces of useful DLC advice, such as paid multiplayer content. "Let's say that, for your multiplayer title, you want to include six new characters for the game and release them as DLC. What we need is to get the bits onto the other players' boxes so they can see and interact with them but not use them."
The goal should be to put the game's best foot forward with that content, he summarized. By making the content visible to non-paying players, it inspires them to go out and download the additional content themselves.
Fleshman also said he hopes developers will take advantage of the ability to feature DLC within the game's user interface. "A great basic way to get the content in front of your user immediately is to use the ShowMarketplaceUI function, and show the user the content from within the game."
"A much better way to do that would be to call that blade and have this great new content be the only thing on the blade," he added.
Wrapping up the event, Salcedo looked ahead to the future of downloadable content in new markets. "Think globally! Think about where the title is shipping - not just where it's shipping initially. Even if you don't have a publishing group in another region, keep those regions in mind."