Civilization 6 – Season Pass First Thoughts

This week Firaxis has announced that it will be offering the New Frontier DLC Pack for Civilization VI.  It’s the latest addition to a trend in gaming DLC’s that have been slowly creeping across the industry.  Is this pack really worth the $40 they are asking you to pay for this DLC?  How does it stack up across other similar offers in the industry?

I’m going to start by commenting on my dislike of packages like these.  They effectively amount to purchasing a promise rather than actual content.  In fact, very rarely do season passes create a positive situation for anyone involved, fans and developers alike.  They are often a sign that games are not doing so well, which in itself is something to be concerned about.

Four well-known season passes over the past decade. L.A. Noire’s initial popularity would eventually lead to AAA games releasing season passes, 90% of which would receive mixed to negative reviews from fans.

What is a Season Pass?

These are types of DLC’s where you pay in advance for content that is expected to be released over a certain period of time, usually 12 months.  It is effectively a AAA game’s version of an indie kickstarter campaign where the development team has already outlined a tentative schedule for content it can create in the future.  These types of decisions commonly occur when one of two things happen:

  1. The Design Team feels under-appreciated and wants a chance to prove their worth against a development team which is usually viewed as the bread and butter of the IT organization
  2. The company has a budget situation and needs a project to be pre-funded in order to get exec approval, such as moving the development team to a new project or runs low on cash.

Occasionally, these programs work and act as a catalyst to re-starting an otherwise dead game.  However, more often the deck is stacked against the content creators.  This can set up a death spiral which can lead to even worse consequences in the future.  As a developer myself, I can tell you this never-ending cycle of frustration brought on by desperate executive decisions makes me thoroughly dislike this type of development, despite being an advocate for them in my early career.

Challenges Ahead

Telltale’s cancellation of Minecraft Story Mode after two seasons showcases the risk of purchasing incomplete content.

First, this approach commits your development team to a timeline.  That means if something game breaking happens in the 11th hour, the update still goes into production with an immediate bug fix released soon after.  That’s why you will probably see Firaxis tout their commitment to continually support but not update the game for the foreseeable future (EDIT: they just did).  They have to do this, otherwise this model doesn’t work and the PR fallout will be enormous.  Companies have gone under for less.

Second, this always ends poorly for the fans.  Announcing your intended releases in advance will start a slew of fan theories about what the content will include.  Debates on stats, possible artistic influences, and even comparisons to other games will lead everyone to form an opinion.  It’s not possible for the game creator to meet everyone’s expectation, in fact they probably had an undisclosed direction planned before the announcement that had no fan input.  Thus, when the updates occur the negative feedback becomes a wave of bad reviews.

Third, the content always looks light on paper.  A $40 price tag looks like the price of a fully fledged game, especially when you compare it against the inevitable sales that will occur over the next twelve months making it look even worse.  When the team ultimately comes against an impossible deadline, they will release a half-based product which will only compound the “I paid $40 for this?!” problem.

The Bright Side

There is hope though.  Firaxis is not EA, at least not yet anyway.  They have a history of producing quality games and have pulled themselves from tougher situations.  If they can deliver on their promises without abandoning their community, there is hope that this approach will work.

However, it doesn’t look like that will be the case.  Sure, the gaming media will praise this development, and their own reddit channel is glowing with excitement.  But underneath it, the fans are not happy.  I am personally one of them.  A quick review of community activity for Civ VI in the past few years, compared to previous renditions, there is an alarming signal that Firaxis may have forgotten what made their series so popular.

What happens in this case is the indie market takes over.  The best example of the past decade was probably Sim City’s demise and replacement by City Skylines as the premier city building game.  Where Civ handedly beat out all competition over the past 20 years there are some strong players emerging that will threaten their monopoly on the grand strategy market.  If fans reject this new approach to content delivery, we could see a rapid shift in the market.  This won’t be good news for Firaxis, but it will be very good news for everyone else.

Concluding Thoughts

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I believe this is a bad sign for Firaxis.  Changing up a tried and true model tells me something is up.  Adopting an approach that even EA has started to abandon is a sign of desperation.  I remember when I was a young developer, having my project cancelled due to poor outlook, providing pre-funded approach was how I kept it alive.  It worked for me, but in hindsight it was a bad option that I’m surprised management accepted.  But it was done completely out of desperation.

Released just before Atari sold Cryptic Studios, the STO season pass fell short of it’s original promise by the new developers. As soon as the last content was uploaded, the team stopped development and offered it as a DLC instead, making few to no changes since. Screenshot is from 2018 and looks the same as the day it was completed.

Here’s my theory.  This will get rave reviews for now.  But after six months when no new revenue is being generated, the team working on the DLC’s will be forced to rush the content in advance so the majority of them can be designated to another revenue generating assignment.  The rushed code will gather dust until their scheduled release dates, fans will complain that Firaxis isn’t listening to them, and no one except a couple of support folks will hear them complain.  Finally, the management team will decide if they are going to continue to support this or suggest people move on to Civ VII.

Thus, I won’t be buying this, at least not now.  As soon as the season pass is fully released content is available the price will drop to a more respectable price for a DLC.  Then I will be tempted to consider it.  Until then, I consider this nothing more than vaporware with a kick starter request attached to it.

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