Downloadable content

Downloadable content (DLC) is additional content created for an already released video game, distributed through the Internet by the game's publisher. It can either be added for no extra cost or it can be a form of video game monetization[1], enabling the publisher to gain additional revenue from a title after it has been purchased, often using some type of microtransaction system.

Downloadable content can be of several types, ranging from aesthetic changes for a character, or new objects or challenges. A DLC may come in the form of a video game expansion pack, adding new levels, game modes or a whole new storyline. Although expansion packs in general aren't necessarily DLC, expansion packs that are released exclusively through digital download are marketed as, and therefore commonly referred to as, DLC. However, DLC more generally applies to smaller in-game add-ons and digitally specific expansions.

Downloadable content became prevalent in the 21st century, and especially with the proliferation of Internet-enabled, sixth-generation video game consoles. It has become common practice to re-release games in the form of special editions incorporating previously released DLC along with the main title.

Since the popularization of microtransactions in online distribution platforms such as Steam, the term DLC has become a synonymous for any form of paid content in video games, regardless of whether or not they constitute the download of new content, leading to the creation of the term "on-disc DLC" for content included on the game's original files, but locked behind a paywall.[2]


Precursors to DLC

The earliest form of downloadable content were offerings of full games, such as on the Atari 2600's GameLine service, which allowed users to download games using a telephone line. A similar service, Sega Channel, allowed for the downloading of games to the Sega Genesis over a cable line. While the GameLine and Sega Channel services allowed for the distribution of entire titles, they did not provide downloadable content for existing titles.

On personal computers

As the popularity and speed of internet connections rose, so did the popularity of using the internet for digital distribution of media. User-created game mods and maps were distributed exclusively online, as they were mainly created by people without the infrastructure capable of distributing the content through physical media.

In 1997, Cavedog offered a new unit every month as free downloadable content for their real-time strategy computer game Total Annihilation.[1][3]

On consoles

The Dreamcast was the first console to feature online support as a standard; DLC was available, though limited in size due to the narrowband connection and the size limitations of a memory card. These online features were still considered a breakthrough in video games, but the competing PlayStation 2 did not ship with a built-in network adapter.[4]

With the advent of the Xbox, Microsoft was the second company to implement downloadable content. Many original Xbox Live titles, including Splinter Cell, Halo 2, and Ninja Gaiden, offered varying amounts of extra content, available for download through the Xbox Live service. Most of this content, with the notable exception of content for Microsoft-published titles, was available for free.[5]

With the Xbox 360 introduction in 2005, Microsoft integrated downloadable content more fully into their console, devoting an entire section of the console's user interface to the Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft believed that publishers would benefit by offering small pieces of content at a small cost ($1 to $5), rather than full expansion packs (~$20), as this would allow players to pick and chose what content they desired, providing revenue to the publishers. They also partially removed the need for credit cards by implementing their own Microsoft Points currency, which could be bought either with a credit card online or as redeemable codes in game stores to avoid the banking fees associated with the small price points.[6] This is a strategy that would be adopted by Nintendo with Nintendo Points and Sony with the PlayStation Network Card.

One of the most infamous examples of DLC on consoles was the Horse Armor DLC package released on the Xbox Live Marketplace in 2006 for the Bethesda Softworks game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that fans criticized as useless and overpriced.[7] However, by 2009, the Horse Armor DLC was one of the top ten content packs that Bethesda had sold, which justified the DLC model for future games.[6]

Sony adopted the same approach with their downloadable hub, the PlayStation Store. With Gran Turismo HD, Sony planned an entirely barebones title, with the idea of requiring the bulk of the content to be purchased separately via many separate online microtransactions.[8] The project was later canceled. Nintendo has featured a sparser amount of downloadable content on their Wii Shop Channel, the bulk of which is accounted for by digital distribution of emulated Nintendo titles from previous generations.

Music video games such as titles from the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises have taken significant advantage of downloadable content. Harmonix claimed that Guitar Hero II would feature "more online content than anyone has ever seen in a game to this date."[9] Rock Band features the largest number of downloadable items of any console video game, with a steady number of new songs that were added weekly between 2007 and 2013. Acquiring all the downloadable content for Rock Band would, as of July 12, 2012, cost $9,150.10.[10]

On handhelds

Nokia phones of the late 1990s and early 2000s shipped with side-scrolling shooter Space Impact, available on various models. With the introduction of WAP in 2000, additional downloadable content for the game, with extra levels, became available.

Through use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection users can download DLC to the Nintendo DS handheld for certain games. A good example is Picross DS, in which users can download puzzle "packs" of classic puzzles from previous Picross games (such as Mario's Picross)[11] as well as downloadable user generated content.[12] Professor Layton and the Curious Village was thought to have "bonus puzzles" that can be "downloaded" using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, however connecting to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection simply unlocked the puzzles which were already stored in the game.[13] Similarly, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 had hidden costumes that were unlocked using DS Download Stations for a limited time.

Due to the Nintendo DS's use of cartridges and lack of a hard drive there is limited space for DLC and developers would have to plan for storage space on the cartridge. Picross DS itself only has room for ten puzzle packs, and Professor Layton's and Ouendan 2's DLC is already on the cartridge and is simply unlocked with a weekly code.

The Nintendo DS's downloadable content is distinct as it is currently being offered at no cost. However, the Nintendo DSi contains a Shop similar to that of the Wii that contains games and applications, most of which must be bought using Nintendo Points. It is also worth noting that, using the Wii's Nintendo Channel, various DS files, such as game demos and videos can be downloaded onto the Wii console and transferred via wireless to a DSi handheld.

The Nintendo 3DS supports downloadable content as of update (, the first title to support it being Theatrhythm Final Fantasy[14] in the form of extra songs. Other games to support DLC quickly followed, such as Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS.

Starting with Apple's iPhone OS version 3.0 release, and Apple's iPhone 4, downloadable content became available for the platform via applications bought from the App Store. While this ability was initially only available to developers for paid applications, Apple eventually allowed for developers to offer this in free applications as well in October 2009.[15]

On-disc DLC

Controversy has arisen when games have charged the user for access to content that was in the game's original distribution. This originated the term "on-disc DLC".[16] Some games include some portions of planned DLC on-disc; a notable example is Mass Effect 3 by BioWare and Electronic Arts. The game disc/distribution included portions of the content in the "From Ashes" DLC; when the user purchased the DLC, it unlocked this content and downloaded additional patches to complete the content. According to Electronic Arts, this on-disc DLC was done because they needed to have the appropriate hooks ready to go within the main game, comparing the content on-disc to scaffolding for constructing a building.[17] Specifically, because the content was planned to add a new playable character which then could be played in the main campaign, they needed to have that content on-disc for all.[18] From BioWare's perspective, having some of that support already in the game allowed them to finish off the main content of Mass Effect 3 and turning it over to Electronic Arts to publish on schedule, thus allowing them to focus on completing the "From Ashes" content at their own pace, which would be downloaded once the DLC was purchased.[19][18] However, players felt they were being cheated by Electronic Arts since the majority of content was already on disc, and believed Electronic Arts had simply locked the content away behind a microtransaction to get more money from players.[19]


Downloadable content is sometimes offered for a price. Since Facebook games popularized the business model of microtransactions,[20] some have criticized downloadable content as being overpriced and an incentive for developers to leave items out of the initial release.[21]

In addition to individual content downloads, video game publishers sometimes offer a "season pass", which allows users to pre-order a selection of upcoming content over a specific time period, and ensuring the customer's ability to immediately obtain the content upon release. While a season pass is often a way to get a discount when compared to purchasing each DLC individually, critics argue that users are essentially paying upfront for something while they don't know what it will be. Downloadable content can also be included in a game purchase, such as with pre-order bonuses or bundled into re-releases of the full game, often branded as a "Game of the Year" edition or similar.

Certain items are provided for free. Providing free DLC can also provide revenue for game companies at the expense of users' convenience. For example, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm for the PlayStation 3 was shipped with certain features disabled. However, users can freely download packs to re enable the missing content from the PlayStation Store. Consequently, users are exposed to advertisements and potential purchases. There is also the additional marketing benefit that users may believe that there is continuing support for the product if there is an apparent flow of such patches. Some games have free DLC content to promote other games. The Wii U version of Sonic Lost World features crossovers with Yoshi's Island and The Legend of Zelda to promote Nintendo titles.

Where a normal software disc may allow its license sold or traded, DLC is generally locked to a specific user's account and does not come with the ability to transfer that license to another user. For instance, non-transferable DLCs were used in EA's "Project Ten Dollars" as mechanism to fight the used games market.[22][23]

Microsoft has been known to require developers to charge for their content, when the developers would rather release their content for free.[24] Some content has even been withheld from release because the developer refused to charge the amount Microsoft required.[24][25] Epic Games, known for continual support of their older titles with downloadable updates, believed that releasing downloadable content over the course of a game's lifetime helped increase sales throughout, and had succeeded well with that business-model in the past, but was required to implement fees for downloads when releasing content for their Microsoft-published game, Gears of War.[24]

As of 2010 the sale of DLC makes up around 20% of video games sales, a substantial portion of a developer's profit margin. Developers are beginning to use the sale of DLC for an already successful game series to fund the development of new IPs or sequels to existing games.[26]


While some content is delivered exclusively through online services, other extra content may already be on the game disc. Extra content on a game disc is inaccessible until it is unlocked by an online service (named "disc-locked" content[27]). Some criticism stems from the fact that many of the items sold on sites like Xbox Live Marketplace are not downloadable content at all, but are instead content keys used to unlock content already on the game disc. Because of this, many people feel as if they are paying to unlock content they already purchased when they bought the game itself. For instance, criticism arose over the downloadable characters for Street Fighter X Tekken, which were found to already be on the game discs.[28][29]

Publishers may also choose to re-release certain titles with previously available downloadable content bundled. There is also criticism concerning the exclusivity of downloadable contents, as some of these contents are frequently added to new disc version of the game. Buyers of the Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition would have access to contents previously exclusives as downloadable content without having to pay any extra fee.[30] The Star Wars: The Force Unleashed re-release "Ultimate Sith Edition" featured an additional level that was later released as DLC, despite LucasArts stating it was exclusive to the re-released version.[31]

There have also been cases where DLCs were intended to be part of the main game, but they were later stripped out of it in order to be sold as a separate feature. Tomb Raider: Underworld has been criticized for providing two DLCs, exclusive to the Xbox 360, that were supposedly removed from the original game.[32][33] The Sims 4: My First Pet was likewise criticised for containing items that had seemingly been removed from the Cats & Dogs expansion, with the DLC requiring the downloadable expansion pack in order to work. PCGamesN described it as "a stuff pack for an expansion pack".[34]

In other media

While video games are the origins of downloadable content, with movies, books and music also becoming more popular in the digital sphere, experimental DLC has also been attempted. Amazon's Kindle service for example allows updating ebooks, which allows authors to not only update and correct work, but also add content.


  1. Giskard (2012-10-12). "Total Annihilation: An RTSG Classic". The Engineering Guild. Archived from the original on 2013-06-20. Retrieved 2013-06-18. Total Annihilation was one of the early adopters of the DLC releases and every month Cavedog would release a new unit for free to try with the game.
  2. "What Is DLC in Gaming and How Does It Work?". LifeWire.
  3. TA downloadable units on (archived in the Internet Archive on March 30, 2001)
  4. (2002-08-15). "Sony confirms PS2 online plans". Retrieved 2015-12-13.
  5. Goldstein, Hilary (2004-07-16). "Ninja Gaiden Hurricane Pack Vol. 1 Q&A - New details on the enemies, AI changes, and camera fixes. Exclusive screens show off even more enemies and a second costume!". Retrieved 2013-12-17.
  6. Williams, Mike (October 11, 2017). "The Harsh History Of Gaming Microtransactions: From Horse Armor to Loot Boxes". US Gamer. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  7. Sterling, Jim (March 13, 2011). "Oblivion's Horse Armor DLC still selling!". Destructoid. Retrieved 2013-06-18. The "Horse Armor" downloadable content for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has become notorious as the premier example of bad DLC. It's a pointless waste of money that gives something totally useful to a non-character you'll barely use.
  8. "Gran Turismo HD will be a barebones release". Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  9. "Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360 to have most DLC ever". 2007-02-15. Retrieved 2010-11-19.
  10. "Rock Band is an EXPENSIVE Hobby, but HOW Expensive?". Retrieved 2012-11-06.
  11. "IGN: Picross DS". Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  12. "1UP: Picross DS Review". Archived from the original on 2012-03-31. Retrieved 2008-06-24.
  13. "Professor Layton and the not so downloadable content". 2008-03-20. Retrieved 2008-09-24.
  14. "First 3DS game with paid DLC is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy".
  15. Chen, Brian X. (2009-10-15). "Apple Allows In-App Purchases in Free iPhone Apps". Wired. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
  16. "EA exec says complaints about "on-disc DLC" are "nonsense"". Ars Technica.
  17. Orland, Kyle (August 13, 2015). "EA exec says complaints about "on-disc DLC" are "nonsense"". Ars Technica. Retrieved April 25, 2019.
  18. Kain, Erik. "BioWare And EA Respond To DLC Controversy". Forbes. Retrieved 2017-08-01.
  19. "BioWare Responds to Mass Effect 3 DLC Controversy". PCMAG. Retrieved 2017-08-01.
  20. Chris Morrison (2008-10-29). "A popular Facebook game enrages players by adding micro-transactions". VentureBeat. Retrieved 2013-07-10.
  21. Ransom-Wiley, James (2006-04-03). "Download Oblivion's horse armor, for a price". Joystiq. Retrieved 2013-12-17.
  22. Raumer, Daniel (2010-02-18). "Electronic Arts - …kämpft gegen gebrauchte Spiele". GameStar. IDG. Retrieved 2011-07-11.
  23. Adam Satariano and Cliff Edwards (2010-02-10). "Electronic Arts: Lost in an Alien Landscape". Retrieved 2013-12-17. "Project Ten Dollar," a coupon program to reward people who purchase a new game with downloadable content and upgrades. People who buy used games pay an extra $10 or more for the same goodies.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  24. Game Informer, April 2007
  25. Earnest Cavalli (2007-03-26). "Microsoft hearts capitalism, shiny rocks; does not heart free content, sunshine". Retrieved 2013-12-17.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  26. Lizardi, Ryan. "DLC: Perpetual Commodification of the Video Game." Democratic Communiqué [Online], 25.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 Aug. 2017
  28. Dransfield, Ian. "Capcom Includes Paid DLC On The Disc, Hilariously". Play. Retrieved March 16, 2012.
  29. Sinclair, Brendan (March 16, 2012). "On-Disc DLC Outrage Is Off the Mark". GameSpot. Retrieved March 16, 2012.
  30. "Snow" (November 18, 2009). "Announcing Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition". Capcom. Retrieved November 27, 2009.
  31. Thorsen, Tor (2009-07-24). "Force Unleashed unleashing more DLC, Sith Edition". GameSpot. Archived from the original on 2009-07-28. Retrieved 2009-07-25.
  32. Tomb Raider Underword DLC Was Meant To Be In Original Game - Kotaku
  33. Tomb Raider DLC content meant for original game - BitGamer
  34. Hood, Vic. "Buy the other half of your furniture with the latest Sims 4 Stuff pack". PCGamesN.
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