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DLC vs mods: what can Dawnguard offer that mods can't?

Skyrim’s first official piece of DLC, Dawnguard, is out today on Xbox but we'll have to wait until July 26th to play it. But whatever Bethesda do officially, they face stiff competition; from their own players. The Steam Workshop currently hosts nearly 2000 mods; while the Skyrim Nexus carries a staggering 13,000.

With all that, what exactly can Dawnguard offer that we can’t already get from the banquet of free morsels that have been laid on in front of us, to pick and choose between? 

The most immediate answer that might spring into mind is that of voice acting, or, more generally, production values. One man teams, or even the more ambitious mod projects that have multiple members, can’t even hope to match the might of a professional development studio. They can’t playtest in the same way, they can’t iterate and iterate until it’s all perfect. They can’t squash the bugs...err... They have day jobs, and can’t devote eight hours a day to making the content and tweaking the systems. 

Normally, I’d agree with you, but I’d like to draw your attention back up to that figure I pointed out in the first paragraph. Of those 2000, the vast majority of those will be terrible. But even if only ten percent are ace, then you've got 200 mods to pick from. 

The problem Bethesda faces are twofold. On the one hand they can’t do anything as cynical or lazy as Horse Armour again. Not only would they be derided for it, but it would be utterly pointless. The modders would replace it with something just as good in less than twenty four hours. In the case of horse armour, they already have.

There are a few important points to remember. The first is that, without a publisher or commercial interest, the modding teams don’t have to worry about focus testing or any sort of demographics. They can just make whatever they like, regardless of whether anyone is going to play it. It’s why you have glorious monstrosities like Crystalis, a player home that takes more than a little inspiration from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Or there’s modder ThirteenOranges, who’s been churning out full quest packs since the Creation Kit got released, with voiceover and everything.

Far more importantly is that mods aren’t self contained experiences, designed to be enjoyed purely on their own. The vast majority of mods in the Workshop are designed to improve, rather than replace. They make the lighting better, or overhaul the magic systems so that it’s far more engaging and interesting to be a mage. And when they’re working like this, they can work in tandem, creating an experience that’s far greater than what was there in the first place. Kudos to Bethesda for making the world of Skyrim, but it’s only with the mods that the game can really shine, and all the creases and bugs can be pushed down and ironed away. It goes from a rumpled bit of brilliance to something resplendent.

Dawnguard, as interesting as it is going to be, is always going to be story and quest focused. It’ll be about a capsule experience, where you’re running through a series of quests, some important, and some side, before picking up some new loot and enjoying a new environment at all. It's going to change how vampires work in the game, and frankly that’s the most exciting part of it all. With that many developers working on it, I want Dawnguard to fundamentally improve Skyrim, in every aspect, or at the very least make the world a more interesting place to exist. 

A capsule experience is what modders can do, and are doing. Vast improvements are what modders can do, and are doing.

The big secret is that this doesn’t really matter all that much. The DLC isn’t really aimed at the PC market so much as taking a laser sighted cross-hair to the consoles. In that light, it’s hard not to see the sense of it all. Bethesda make them with that in mind, and they’ll probably wrack up a fair few PC sales too, because not everyone is happy or capable of slapping around their install files with some new additions. 

It’s just that, having immersed myself in the world of Skyrim modding for the past few months, I’m really struggling to see what Dawnguard might bring to make me excited enough to hand over money for it. I’ve got mods I haven’t even touched yet, but sound amazing. Mods like Moonpath to Elsweyr which brings a jungle to Skyrim, or Alternate Start, which gives you a wide variety of different starting stories to take, from Innkeeper to Lone Ranger. 

I can have all these, and an frankly absurd amount more, just at the click of the button.

Dawnguard is asking me for actual money.  I think I’m going to have to get a lot more than new quests and the odd item or two to cough up. 

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