Video games are no longer a one-off purchase.

Long gone are the days when you’d run down to the local store after school to pick up a copy of the latest game, run home, chuck it in the console, and play it ’til you fell asleep on the couch. Now, you’ve usually got to wait for a ‘day one patch’ to download, and then you’re permanently connected to the net during your experience.

If there’s a problem with the game, where once it was ‘too bad’, now the devs can push out patches that’ll fix anything. Multiplayer servers are constantly under maintenance, and new maps, weapons and other content is being dropped all the time; some of it paid, some of it free.

The paid variety is usually larger, more substantial drops of content, sometimes even fully-fledged DLC packs. For example, last year saw the release of Horizon Zero Dawn in March. The developer, Guerrilla Games, followed this with The Frozen Wilds DLC in November, an extensive expansion that delivers tens of hours of fresh gameplay.

But is this DLC premeditated, or is it a new idea that is think-tanked by the dev team as a good – and profitable – fit post-release? In the case of Ghost Recon devs Ubisoft, it’s standard practice to plan in advance.

“DLC content is planned way ahead of the main game’s launch”, Benjamin Dumaz, content director on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands’ Fallen Ghosts and Narco Road DLC releases tells us. “Production usually starts at least one year before. We see DLC as a way to propose something fresh, something that will renew the players’ interest, and we invest a lot of resources in designing and building content that will be worth its price, both in terms of quality and quantity.”

For Narco Road and Fallen Ghosts, Dumaz says the two packs were designed and built at Ubisoft Montpellier. “We worked closely with the team from the lead studio in Paris in order to make sure we remained consistent with the game’s promises, through frequent workshops and internal reviews. We had great discussions with Sam Strachman, narrative director from the main game, to be able to capture this feeling of authenticity for the missions while creating new and different characters. We also worked closely with the open world team to place the new locations and mission settings in the best places possible in order to be authentic and consistent with the main game world.”

Ubisoft’s Dumaz also notes that community feedback is key to the development of DLC. “We use many sources for feedback – and, of course, community feedback is a great source of inspiration. Many adjustments are made along the way, both in terms of content and features.”

If you ask a different company – say World of Warcraft and Overwatch developers, Blizzard – they’d be inclined to agree.

“There is a maxim in the industry that game development is the art of fitting 10 pounds of great ideas into a five pound bag,” offers Travis Day, senior producer at Blizzard Entertainment. “Suffice to say, there’s no shortage of ideas. The process of determining what goes ‘in the bag’ begins way in advance, which can mean months or years, depending on the scope of the idea. It’s a very organic process.”

He goes on to elaborate on how everything actually comes together. “Once an idea is greenlit and actual implementation begins, we go through a tremendous amount of iteration throughout the development process. This high level of iteration and refinement, from the initial idea to the final delivered feature or piece of content, is one of the hallmarks of [Blizzard’s] creative process and something we strongly believe is important to delivering epic entertainment experiences.”

Day emphasises that there are a number of different elements and teams that come into play when beginning to create the content.

“At the highest level, the World of Warcraft dev team is comprised of five departments: Art, Design, Engineering, Audio, and Production. All our sub teams fall into one of those major categories. Our partner teams within Blizzard Entertainment are also essential to the creation of any expansion pack or patch and help make World of Warcraft possible.

“Expansions are a large undertaking involving all of the World of Warcraft development team, and our partner teams across Blizzard,” he continues. “While not all of them may be directly creating new content for every update, we use patches as an opportunity to fix bugs across all departments and generally polish existing content as well.”

Much in the same vein, feedback is equally important to Blizzard. Day specifically mentions the use of the PTR – public test realm – as a means of testing content and interpreting feedback. “Our team is quite large. We are not only passionate developers, but also gamers, so we get feedback both internally and externally that we take into consideration.”

For games thick with lore that have been in existence for years, creating new content can occasionally mean bringing back old voice talent for new lines. Is that challenging to facilitate?
“It certainly can be!” Day tells us there are many factors that can affect an actor’s ability to perform as their character. “Throughout the history of WoW, we’ve recorded thousands of characters in 11 different languages, so there is a lot of voice talent who have been involved with the project. Sometimes they’ve left the industry and moved to a remote location; sometimes their voice has changed as they’ve gotten older. There are also a variety of normal human factors that can impact their ability to reprise their roles.

“In the event that it isn’t feasible to get an actor back to the booth, we go through every effort to recast the role with someone who can closely match the voice and capture the spirit of the character.”

You may well be wondering if there’s a point during development that the devs decide there’s just too much for extra downloadable content, and decide to create a fully-fledged release?

“In my opinion, the role of DLC is not to create a brand new game – it is to propose something fresh in the main game’s broader setting,“ says Ubisoft’s Dumaz. “However, our approach for Ghost Recon Wildlands has been to try something new for both our DLCs, to explore the main game’s large possibilities.

“With Narco Road we went into uncharted territory and used the main game’s systems and fantasy to build something around the fantasy of ’90s action movies. We think that Narco Road works well as a standalone, and Fallen Ghosts is the perfect mirror to that. It is based on Ghost Recon’s traditional values of tactics, choice and constant danger. So even if we feel that both our DLCs work on their own, our plan has always been to build this triangle: the main game is the larger experience, with all its diversity, and both DLCs are focused experiences on the game’s very large spectrum of play styles.”

The big question – when is it decided if this will be free content (a la games like Overwatch) or large drops of paid ‘expansions’ (the model for WoW)? Ubisoft reveals it’s a complicated approach, and one the company does not tackle lightly.

“The post-launch strategy can be very complex and is generally defined two years before the release of the game. It’s a production discussion with many people including artists, content specialists and business people.”

When, though, do you decide enough is enough, and move on to the next project?

“We have a variety of internal milestones to measure progress on content and features,“ offers Day. “When we reach those, our teams – or certain sub-teams – are generally considered ‘done’ with their work. That said, our iterative process and commitment to quality means that there are often additional tweaks, bug fixes and polishing happening right up until the day we go live.”