I'm posting this specific blog entry due to an article that came out today, about Bethesda defending day-one DLC. I've noticed that there's much of confusion about what exactly goes on in the final stages of a game's development. As a developer, I'd like to clear away some of the smoke and mirrors.
There are a few major sections and events that occur during the end of the development cycle that I'm going to cover. The main events are:
Branching, Submission, and Release.
The end of the development cycle starts with a special "stopping point" called branching. At some point, you have to decide "ok, this is all the content we're going to release with". It's because if they kept adding in more content, then they'd never finish the game. The branch essentially is a duplicate of everything they have so far, and is put in it's own development line, separated from the main development line that is normally considered the "trunk" within the companies I've worked with.
Between Branching and Submission:
So the branched version goes through debugging and polish, while the main development trunk gets newer and newer content being put in. The reason why, is because adding content will normally break the game and cause more bugs. So while the branched version gets more and more stable, the main development line is getting newer bugs from all the added content. Bug-fixes normally are focused on the branched version, but are many times also put into the main development line.
Once the branching occurs, that's when QA is put into "crunch" mode, and all the horror stories of late nights and long hours comes into play. QA works their butts off breaking the game in every way imaginable, and engineers work with them to help figure out, and create fixes for all the bugs that are found. Although this QA cycle goes on throughout the entire development process, "crunch" time is where it is absolutely the most important. This is the "polish" that people talk about.
However, most artists, animators, designers, and some scripters and engineers, aren't sitting around twiddling their thumbs while crunch time is going on. They don't get paid for waiting. Instead, they are working on all the content and features that didn't make it into the game before the branching occurred, and are committing them into the main development trunk.
Submission is when a game is compiled together, and given to various different companies for the approval needed to release. These companies will normally include the publisher, and the companies in charge for whatever platform it will be released on (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Steam, ect...). These companies then need to review the game's contents and features and ensure that they are acceptable and do not break any rules and guidelines they have. Those guidelines are called TRC (Technical Requirement Checklist), and are different for each company.
Already on-disc DLC controversy:
When the game is submitted, the developers can put the assets and parts of the development trunk onto the disc, but just locked away somewhere. This is one of the great disconnects people have, when they hear about "DLC already on the disc". In most cases, these parts of the game are "mostly" done, but were not so during the development branching. Because these pieces are from the trunk, and not the branch, they cannot be part of the game for release. This is because whenever you add content to a game, it's bound to break something. Because these pieces can cause problems due to not being fully tested within the branch, they are put on the disc separately, ready and waiting so that once all the polish and bugs are cleaned out, an update can occur to incorporate those bug-fixes and "unlock" the DLC. Believe it or not, that tiny little update that you download to unlock DLC content actually contains all those bug-fixes and polish, and are (NORMALLY) not just a code telling the system to "release" the DLC to you.
That being said, there are some clear examples of this not being the case, and that is where the confusion has come in lately. The biggest offender being Capcom's Street Fighter X Tekken, where hackers uncovered that all the DLC characters were complete and ready by the time of submission, and already had a great amount of obvious polish and work put into them. I want to note that I do not agree with this business style and refuse to defend it.
Between Submission and Release. The controversy of the day-one patch:
Crunch time continues even after Submission, to ensure that there are absolutely no major issues that break functionality of the game. In the old days, companies would have to pull a submission, and re-submit with the fix if they found a huge problem. This would not only delay the game from being released on-time, but also cost the company literally millions of dollars (for a AAA title). Nowadays, most companies opt out of re-submitting, and instead include a day-one patch with the fixes.
Yes, this sometimes frustrates gamers, but the amount of money it costs to make a submission for a game to go into physical production is an astounding amount. The money is upfront to the company that produces the mastered discs, and the date has to be reserved MONTHS ahead of time. If you have to change or cancel your order for the discs, you lose your deposit. Not only is that incredibly expensive, but then you have to get a "rushed" job, meaning cutting in line of other companies so that your game isn't delayed for too long. This is talking about millions of dollars for missing a submission deadline, or having to change it. That is why, for the developers, the day-one patch is such an important tool for them.
Release and post-release DLC:
We're not done yet! So now we've released the game. We may have a day-one patch, and/or some day-one DLC, depending on how well things went. Once those are released, it's time to finish up all the other content that hasn't been finished, or possibly even plan to produce more DLC content. These decisions come not from the developers, but the producers. If the producers decide that they want more content and DLC, they'll pay the developers to keep rolling. However, this extra content after-the-fact isn't cheap! The producers have to take a good look into deciding to contract more DLCs or not. Sometimes, DLC content is in the original contract and has already been paid for. Sometimes, DLC content is decided very late into the production cycle, though the producers may have had a general idea in mind before then.
However it gets decided, these after-the-fact man-hours cost money, and only a small portion of the fan-base will actually be purchasing the DLC. This is why DLC costs seem outrageous sometimes. It's trying to make these DLCs worth making to the company. However, this brings us to the vice of DLC.
The Dark-Side of DLC:
So here we are. The one thing that I'm sure you're all thinking about. This is the part of DLC that you want to hear about to validate your outrage.
DLC in concept is a great idea. It's that little extra boost to a game that is optional, and the people who like the game will have some fun extras to play around with. But then there's another concept about DLC that game companies don't like to talk about. That is: The money.
So we know where day-one DLC comes from. It originally was part of the development cycle, that couldn't be implemented before branching, but finished before release. So, if it was originally designed to be a part of the game, and took no more "after-the-fact" man-hours to create, and was in the budget in the first place... then why charge the player?
Answer: Because they can absolutely get away with it.
So we know about how there are a bunch of man-hours put forth for most DLC... but what about all those re-skins, re-colors, and micro-transactions in AAA games?
Answer: That is almost all profit. The amount of time to create re-colors, re-skins, and incorporate micro-transactions is all about creating the least amount of content and spending the least amount of man-hours while charging a price that enough users will begrudgingly accept.
I know that sounds awful. And I'm not going to defend it, because I personally don't agree with that business model. I'll let those in the industry that agree with that business model to defend it.
Woohoo! We're done with the game! Time to cross our fingers and hope the public likes the game and that we don't go out of business! We had better start planning the next game, or else we're out of a job! If you made it this far, then I hope you guys learned something! Please leave me a comment or question, and I'll do my best to get back to you!
Until next time!