What is DLC in Gaming?

edited August 2023 in Gaming
  • “DLC” is an abbreviation of the term “downloadable content,” which is content in a game that is made available for download by the developers or publisher after launch, and may be paid or free.
  • DLC takes the form of new quest lines, skins, characters, levels, and more.
  • DLC has been around since the late 1990s. Nowadays, it is almost expected that any AAA title is going to have DLC

When you buy a modern video game, it is usually not a one-off purchase. You will typically find that extra content and features are available for purchase within the game itself or from the original platform where you purchased the game. DLC stands for “downloadable content,” or content in a game that provides extra features that were not included in the initial release.

LC can range from simple cosmetic changes, such as skins and voice-overs, to major additions, including entirely new areas, stories, or mechanics that can completely alter the gaming experience. DLC packs can expand the playtime of a game by hundreds of hours, making them an ideal way for developers to keep players engaged for months or even years after the game’s release. However, implementing DLC well requires nuance; if implemented poorly, DLC can detract from the experience and in the worst of cases even ruin a game.

History of DLC in games

The concept of game expansions originally came from role-playing and card games. Expansions were a way for publishers to add content without creating an entirely new game. Expansion packs first came to video games—primarily, PC games—in the form of discs that players had to physically obtain and install. With the rise of the internet, DLC was the natural successor to expansion packs.

The advent of DLC can arguably be traced back to the Atari 2600 and Sega Genesis in the early 1990s. Both of these systems offered content and even full games for download through the use of telephone modems and cable lines.

However, the more accepted view of how DLC first began gaining traction is that in the early 1990s, mods (fan-created modifications) were being created for PC games and being passed around among players for free, often adding new looks, new maps, or new ways to play an existing game. By the late 1990s, developers and publishers were chasing the popularity of fan-created mods with their own, typically free, add-ons, to keep people interested in a released game. In 1997, the RTS PC game Total Annihilation began offering free downloadable content each month, and later came to offer weekly new unit downloads.

By the early 2000s, the free add-ons and modifications that had become popular on PC began to appear on consoles and be monetized. Microsoft led the charge on this move with its powerful Xbox Live network, an online multiplayer gaming and digital media delivery service, and the introduction of Microsoft Points, a payment system that served as a bridge between real cash and money that could only be spent on Xbox Live. Many Xbox live titles made additional mostly free content available for download.

In 2006, the first, or at least most noted, example of a microtransaction appeared, when publisher Bethesda Softworks released a small piece of DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, selling armor for your in-game horse for $2.50. Fans originally railed against the release as too expensive and absurd, but as of today, horse armor and other cosmetic items have become ever more popular.

Current types of DLC

  • New features, such as extra maps, characters, levels, and challenges. 
  • Items that help you progress through the game, such as weapons, special abilities, and power-ups. 
  • Cosmetic add-ons, such as character outfits, weapon skins, and game design enhancements. 
  • Loot boxes containing a random assortment of in-game perks. 
  • Season passes that grant early access to future DLC.


A microtransaction is a tiny purchase of a small item inside an already purchased or freely downloaded game. After Bethesda proved the model of making money with tiny cosmetic in-game items with its $2.50 horse armor, other publishers soon followed suit.

In the early days of the Apple and Google Play stores, a plethora of monetization concepts were applied by game developers. Among the most popular remains the freemium model, in which a game is given away and a variety of systems are used to get the player to spend money in the game. These systems include selling more play time, cosmetic items, and even game-changing items that can greatly increase a player’s chances to win the game. This last method, known as pay-to-win, is often attacked. It is controversial because it gives players with deep pockets an unfair advantage over those with less money; however, the freemium model remains a popular way for smartphone game designers to monetize their titles. 

Loot boxes

Many trace the loot box to a massively popular, massive online game in China called ZT Online around the year 2007. Players could purchase treasure chests, which promised a chance to earn the game’s best gear without grinding. The game also rewarded players who purchased the most chests.

A ​​controversial aspect of loot boxes is that games do not inform players what is inside the loot box until payment is complete. This is what critics point to as a structural feature similar to gambling: gamers pay for the chance to open a loot box, hoping to unlock a rare or particularly valuable feature.

Why are so many older gamers upset at current DLCs?

In many older games, extra content had to be unlocked rather than purchased and downloaded. Being charged for something that used to be free seems unfair to some gamers, especially those who remember the days before DLC. Over time, consumers have shown that they are willing to pay for extra content. This has allowed some publishers to take advantage of customers for increased profit.

Initially, DLC was either created and passed around freely between gamers or it was a kind of gift from the developers: extra content to commemorate a milestone, extra content that did not fit the original budget or development deadline, or content the gamers asked for and developers were able to create. In all these instances, DLC was conceived and created after the game’s release. Now, DLC is announced at the same time as the game, available for purchase at launch, and in some cases, even packaged with the game but unavailable for use without purchase. All of this, along with the scope of some of the DLC, made gamers feel as if DLC is no longer extra content for a game, but instead what should be standard content being held behind a paywall.

Future of DLC

The rise of loot boxes and microtransactions has been linked to video game addiction. For this reason, many countries have begun regulating their use to protect young gamers and those at risk of losing money. Furthermore, the pay-to-win model has already been widely criticized in gamer circles, and developers are less likely nowadays to incorporate this model into new games. DLC is definitely here to stay, as the technology coevolves alongside that of NFTs. We are likely to see a gravitation of DLC toward expansion packs, cosmetic upgrades, and quest and storylines add-ons that supplement original content without providing players with any unfair advantages. 

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.



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