DLC vs. Core Game Development

When you start Arma 3 today, five years from its release, you’ll find several singleplayer campaigns in the list. There’s the vanilla one, East Wind, and the Apex Protocol introduced in the expansion. There are also several mini-campaigns added in recent DLCs, all of them released in past several months. If you play all of them, you may notice that production value of the DLC scenarios somewhat improved over the content from the major releases. If you were to do the same with Arma 2, you could spot the same trend, with the DLCs offering more solid experience than the vanilla content (although none of them would get even close to Arma 3 standards).

This may sound like a natural progression, caused by devs learning new skills and processes getting fine-tuned over time. And while it’s an important part of the picture, it can’t be the sole explanation. After all, they’re not always the same people, and it’s often the exact same processes. Despite the recent introduction of 3D editor, designing scenarios haven’t changed much over the years. There are objects to place, waypoints to plan, scripts to write; doesn’t matter whether you’re creating the flagship campaign or simple community scenario. No, there’s more to it, and it’s not limited only to playable content.

The reason why post-release additions can achieve higher quality is because they are developed on stable, mature platform. Core development, meanwhile, is about building that platform, in far less hospitable conditions.

This may seem self-evident, but it’s easy to forget about it, especially when the game spent far more time in its post-release growth than in the initial development phase (which, in fact, is the game development in traditional sense). Let’s take a look at it in a greater detail.

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The base game and the major expansion are massive projects, worked on across all disciplines. Which means they are also unfinished across all disciplines until the very last moment. The engine keeps crashing, configuration errors pops up left and right, features are unbalanced, assets incomplete. Data change every day, sometimes every hour. The awesome and fun mission you were making last week? It’s probably riddled with errors now, if you can start it at all.

Internally, we call this phenomena rotting, a name as apt as it is repulsive. Playable content is particularly susceptible to it, because it’s the the end station of creative process, which combines products of all other departments, be it models, maps or features. If any of them has a problem, it becomes its problem too. When fewer things are changing under your hands, rotting is rare. That’s why DLC developments is a breeze in comparison – designers get to spend more time actually designing and less time maintaining.

For example, when we started the development of Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead, there were complications which resulted in Takistan, the new terrain, being devoid of any objects for several months. Try making a town raid scenario when no town exists yet. Back then I even wrote random town generator script to let us taste urban combat with new buildings (nowadays we are just better at greyboxing). Meanwhile, most DLC campaigns take place on finished maps, so designers don’t need to wait for anything and can start working straight away.

Speaking of finished assets, a vast library of soldiers, vehicles, buildings or props already exists for DLC prototyping. Only the newly added ones are missing, and they can be usually substituted with existing stuff until they’re ready. This makes it easier to actually show all new DLC assets in the campaign, while large releases mostly struggle with it. Another example: for most of Apex development, the new unique VTOL planes were missing both models and configuration, making them unusable in scenarios. That’s why in the end, they stand idly as decorations in the Apex Protocol campaign.

Design process itself can rely on established structures. While vanilla campaigns have to teach the player how to control all game’s features, essentially serving as tutorials, post-release content is less restricted. We can safely assume players are already familiar with the controls and don’t need any explanation, although some optional hints to refresh their memory are welcome.

Let’s also not forget about the narrative foundations. DLC storylines usually extend previously established universe, offering different angles to events from the main campaign. It doesn’t need to lengthily explain factions and motivations, instead focusing on its unique plot. It’s a bit similar to Marvel Cinematic Universe – everyone knows Iron Man, there’s no need to introduce him every single time he makes an appearance.

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Arma 3 sandbox offers a wide range of options. You can be an infantryman, a sniper, a tank commander, an helicopter pilot, even a game master. Upon release, it’s expected from campaign to guide you through as many roles possible, but it’s quite a challenge for designers to combine all required features in logical order without sacrificing story too much. That’s why we often end up playing as guerrillas or special forces; these are the only roles which allow for such broad gameplay while still making sense.

If the major releases have to define the game, the minor ones are free to deviate. They focus on a clear theme, letting you experience specific role in-depth. Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one. Arma 3 Tanks campaign is about commanding a tank. Arma 3 Laws of War is about long-term effects of war. Arma 2 Eagle Wing is about nuclear apocalypse. They all highlight particular topic, and don’t bother with everything else the game has to offer.

Such focus is also more rewarding for us developers. The base games are giants worked on by more than a hundred of devs. DLC teams, on the other hand, are usually quite compact, with only around ten or twenty people reserved full-time (or as little as two, as was the case with Zeus). Everyone knows what the goal is, and when finished, you can really feel that you contributed, that the DLC is “yours”. The production time is also shorter, so before you get fatigued by the project, you move on to another one.

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It’s astonishing how much Arma DLC development resembles modding. Both take established platform and extend some of its parts in well-rounded, isolated package. Neither can exist without that platform, regardless of how unique they are. But both also benefit from it, its foundations and experiences. True, official DLCs have an advantage of better resources and distribution, but even that is changing with the opportunity for third parties to publish DLCs in partnership with Bohemia.

No matter where the future is going to lead us, looking back at where we started makes me truly appreciate the herculean effort our mission designers had to pull off, to finalize vanilla campaign and showcases in so solid shape despite so complicated circumstances. They, and the rest of Arma 3 team, created truly splendid platform which made past five years possible.