You may have seen some of the ad blitz for this weekend's launch of "Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare," a zombie-themed downloadable content (DLC) pack that builds on top of Rockstar's hit western genre game released earlier this year.
Adding to the lifespan of a game through DLC isn't a new thing by any stretch of the imagination -- games like "Dragon Age," "Mass Effect," and "The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" have been releasing plenty of paid DLC to get another crack at the same audience without an entirely new title launch. But "Undead Nightmare" feels a little different from what came before. It takes the familiar characters, setting, and engine of "Red Dead" and twists them into an entirely new genre. Its release calls into question, for example, the model of DLC as necessarily an addendum to the previous game's storyline. Indeed, Rockstar's already tried something similar with the DLC additions to "Grand Theft Auto IV," each of which introduces an entirely new main character, a new storyline, and new game mechanics.
As game developers and publishers look more and more to digital distribution as a way to bypass current brick-and-mortar game sellers -- in part to cut down on game reselling, a major loss to their bottom line -- we could be witnessing the beginning of a new model of game development. In the future, when you drop $60-$70 on a new game, you might just be buying the game engine and the background art, with the knowledge that the developers will be releasing content packs that provide entirely new, self-contained game experiences that build off the original title.
For many triple-A console titles, there's an enormous missed opportunity for developers to tell new stories within the context of the game they've already created -- many players are longing for more of the same, and don't especially want to wait 12 to 18 months for a new installment of a franchise with slightly polished graphics to get it.
For some hard-core PC gamers, this niche is already filled by the mod community -- if you own "Half-Life" or "Half Life 2," for example, there are dozens of games you can play for low or even no cost, all based on the same game engine, all created by fans. The console system has taken some control out of the hands of the fans, but the demand for game content based upon established titles still exists, and with DLC becoming more and more popular with gamers, console developers would be foolish not to embrace it wholeheartedly.