A Few Tracks More: Mario Kart and DLC

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We may still love Nintendo, but they are responsible for this…

In many ways, Nintendo stands alone – the publisher/developer/console manufacturer is home to gaming’s most recognizable characters, to the most innovative hardware (even if it doesn’t always succeed) and home to what may be the largest and most devoted fanbase in the entire industry. It’s a topic author Nick Olsen discussed in his essay Nintendo and Endless Loyalty, which spilled over into a lengthy conversation on how, exactly, Nintendo has been able to not only stay relevant, but produce high-quality games for three decades.

What’s surprising about Nintendo’s longevity is how, in the face of many public missteps, the company has seemingly been able to march forward, undeterred, with this sense that, in the long run, they have the right plan, the right ideas, and that everything will be alright. Granted, every company makes its share of mistakes, but over the last ten years Nintendo has continuously made mistakes in one crucial category – online gaming. The online component of the Wii was, to be polite, disastrous – while the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 pushed online gaming to the forefront, the Wii was content to sit that round out, and as a result, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are now light years ahead of the WiiU, a console still struggling to find its identity.

Part of the online gaming revolution has been the emergence of downloadable content (DLC) – content which can be used to extend the life of a game, or patch up bugs that would otherwise cripple a game. With DLC being so closely linked to online gaming, it should come as no surprise that Nintendo also stumbled in this area. When a potentially game-breaking bug was discovered in Metroid: Other M, Nintendo solved the issue in perhaps the most Nintendo-like way – by asking gamers to mail them their save file so they could repair it for them, at which point the file would be mailed back. And no, I do not mean email Nintendo the file – the instructions specified that gamers were to copy their save to an SD card, at which point they were to place said SD card in an envelope and send it through the mail directly to Nintendo. This approach was a stark reminder that Nintendo, for all they do right, was so far behind in so many other areas.

As I dove into the world of WiiU gaming, my expectations for the online portion were, understandably, incredibly low. So imagine my surprise when Nintendo announced DLC for one their flagship franchises, Mario Kart 8. At first, the DLC was exactly what I suspected – a free download of a Mercedes-themed kart, which came across more as shameless advertising than any real value to the customer. But just as I was ready to fully dismiss them, Nintendo dropped not one, but two pieces of DLC that, when combined, increased the content in the game by 50 percent, and all for a mere $13. Sixteen new tracks, a slew of new characters and karts, even a new mode – 200 cc, the fastest mode yet in a Mario Kart game. Nintendo, through the use of DLC, took a great game and made it a must-own, possibly the best racing game not only of the Mario Kart franchise, but the best arcade-style racing game in years.

How did Nintendo, of all companies, release one of the best pieces of DLC? It’s easy to simply point at the price tag, which is a strong argument, but there is more to it than that (after all, developers are rarely able to dictate the price of DLC as that is often left up to the publisher). Nintendo illustrated a few of the finer points of DLC, ones that other developers need to pay attention to.

More is More

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In the early days of DLC on consoles, this was considered enough content to warrant roughly $4.

The majority of announced DLC is immediately judged on one key metric – the amount of content it will offer. It’s what every publisher and developer defaults to when discussing their next round of paid content – it will add X amount of hours into the game, it will expand storylines, add new characters (the Dragonborn DLC for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim hits all of these notes). Developers know that all DLC should add something to their games, but where most struggle is determining how much new content should be added. At its most infamous, there are examples such as the Horse Armor DLC from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which add nothing of substance to the game; on the other end of the spectrum are the story-based DLCs from Borderlands 2, each of which offered new locations, characters and a new story.

While this may seem like an easy concept to grasp, many developers still release DLC that underwhelms in the content department. Coincidentally, Nintendo is just as guilty of this – their DLC for New Super Mario Bros. U promised to add new levels and challenge to the game. But in the end, the DLC was nothing more than shortened versions of the same levels from the original game, with more enemies thrown in (and a much more difficult to control Luigi as the star). While it certainly was more challenging, the amount of content in the DLC was lacking (as made evident by the fact that Nintendo later started offering the DLC for free to new WiiU owners).

The key, as Nintendo demonstrated in Mario Kart 8, is to offer so much new content that gamers don’t even think about the price tag – adding sixteen new tracks to the game (when there were thirty-two to start) was enough to get gamers to pay attention, and to make them feel like it is worth their time to invest in the new content. Had Nintendo released only a couple tracks at a time, a strategy that other racing titles employ (Forza 3 comes to mind), gamers wouldn’t have invested time into all of them, only the pieces of smaller DLC that they felt compelled to purchase. By releasing a substantial amount of content, players invested in all of it, instead of picking and choosing.

Stellar Integration

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The ability for gamers to pick and choose which DLC they want to play is a crucial component of Mario Kart 8’s success.

This also leads to another common problem with smaller pieces of DLC – they often fragment the player base. Only the most hardcore fans will purchase every piece of content, but if all of the content was grouped into two pieces of DLC, such as in Mario Kart 8, it increases the likelihood that everyone will have the content, avoiding situations that were common in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which a full lobby of gamers would get thrown into a new DLC map, only to see half the lobby be kicked out for not purchasing that map yet. It felt like punishment – either pay this additional fee on top of the game that was already purchased, or don’t play. Nintendo didn’t want their DLC to come across as punishment, so they grouped it together, and the result is a unified player base that feels invested in the new content.

But Nintendo also took additional steps to make sure their new content wouldn’t further fragment the player base – after all, players could still be holding out on purchasing the new DLC, but would still like to play the game online or with friends. Before joining a lobby online, players can filter out certain lobbies depending on whether or not they have any of the new DLC. It’s a fast and easy to use system, and it works because Nintendo bundled all of this new content into two packs, as opposed to numerous smaller ones. And even if players have purchased the new DLC, they can still opt to only join lobbies that pull from the original track list. This level of customization means that the player is put first above profits – while I’m sure Nintendo would love for everyone to buy the DLC, they don’t have to in order to keep enjoying the game.

Mixing the Old and the New

One of the aspects of DLC that often goes underappreciated by gamers is the balancing act of implementing new content while referencing older or original content. Not only does DLC need to offer a substantial amount of new content, but that content needs to integrate seamlessly into the game it is supplementing, and it also needs to offer something new. Developer Bungie learned this the hard way when they released their first piece of DLC for DestinyThe Dark Below. The first expansion offered nothing more than a few  story missions, none of which strayed far from the formula found in the original game, and the new content it did add in the form or armor and weapons invalidated that found in the original game, leaving players to wonder why they just bothered to pay twenty dollars to download something they essentially already paid for.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nintendo does a great job of mixing in the old with the new. I say that this shouldn’t come as a surprise because Nintendo is still able to stay afloat financially after decades in the industry by simply invoking nostalgia – a quick, throwaway reference to any of their older games is enough to get most gamers interested in whatever new product Nintendo is releasing. They wisely capitalized on this with the DLC in Mario Kart 8 – nearly half of the tracks were originally featured in previous Mario Kart games. At first that may seem like a negative, that they are simply recycling content (if anyone could get away with it, it would be Nintendo). But to view the content this way is to miss the major point – Nintendo didn’t simply reskin old tracks for nostalgia value – they added new value to these tracks.

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The SNES version of Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 8 is a prime example of how Nintendo is able to mix the old with the new, and somehow keep it fresh and exciting.

One of the new tracks from the DLC is a recreation of Rainbow Road from the original SNES version of Mario Kart. At first glance, it looks like a high-resolution version of the original track, but it quickly becomes apparent that Nintendo made alterations that took advantage of the new gameplay mechanics featured in Mario Kart 8. For instance, the giant Thwomps that can crush less-observant racers have returned, but this time when they slam onto the track they create shockwaves that, when timed right, can be used as jumps, which means players can boost off of them, increasing their speed and gaining an advantage over the competition. It’s a simple addition, but one that makes this track feel like a part of Mario Kart 8, and not a relic from the past. This balance of familiarity and new experiences allows Nintendo to save time and resources on development, but it also gives players something worth paying money to experience – a win-win for both. That frees Nintendo up to add in new characters, vehicles and new tracks, adding more value overall to the DLC.

An Unexpected Leader

These might seem like simple considerations to make when developing DLC, but even some of the best development studios mess these up from time to time. Yet somehow, the developer most behind the times in terms of online play has shown how DLC should be done. By including a substantial amount of content, integrating it into the original game flawlessly and offering a healthy mix of old and new content, Nintendo has turned Mario Kart 8 from a great game to a must-own. Let’s hope that others see these simple lessons and apply them, and that Nintendo returns the favor and innovates on their other online offerings as well.