The back of a young boy, who's wearing headphones and sitting at a computer with dual monitors.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Nearly every major video game released has some form of DLC, which is content you can add to a game to expand the experience. Let’s take a look at the forms in which DLC is available, and why it’s so common.

What Is DLC?

DLC stands for “downloadable content.” It’s additional digital content a player can install on top of a complete video game. DLC can be distributed online within the game or via a gaming platform, such as Steam or the Playstation Store. Sometimes, it might be free. Other times, you might have to purchase it separately, or it might be included in bundles that come with the base game.

DLC can encompass a wide variety of things. Some are just simple cosmetic changes, such as skins and voice-overs, while others feature entirely new areas, stories, or game mechanics that completely overhaul the game.

Some content packs add hundreds of hours of additional playing time. Developers often use DLC as a way to update a game and keep players interested for months (or even years) after its initial release.

The "World of Warcraft: Cataclysm" online expansion set box.
Blizzard/World of Warcraft

Downloadable content is, in many ways, a natural successor to expansion packs. The concept of game expansions came from role-playing and card games. They offered a way for publishers to add content without creating an entirely new game. Expansions often included items, characters, or abilities that increased a game’s longevity and kept players invested.

Expansion packs later came to video games—primarily, PC gaming. They were often distributed as discs players could add on top of a game via their computers. Expansion packs were also very common in massive multiplayer online games (MMOs), from Ultima Online to World of Warcraft.

Today, the word “expansions” still refers to expensive downloads that have a lot of content.

DLC as Monetization

Ad for a "Call of Duty" season pass including four DLC packs.
Activision/Call of Duty

Many publishers use DLC as a form of additional monetization. It can cost anywhere from a few cents to as much as the base game, or more.

Developers usually split DLC into small purchases called “microtransactions” to monetize it. These small purchases are often items, costumes, or playable game modes. Microtransactions are an especially common way to monetize free games.

Another option they use is the “season pass.” These are often sold near the initial launch of a game. It allows players to download all current and upcoming DLC released within a certain period. They’re often packaged for a lower price than if a player bought them separately. These are commonly used in game franchises that are refreshed periodically so players can get a steady stream of content until the next game is released.

However, many people have criticized season passes, claiming they’re overpriced and lacking transparency. Because players don’t get most of the content in a season pass until months after they purchase it, it’s difficult to determine if it’s worth the cost.

Additionally, many publishers don’t include more expensive DLC with season passes—they tend to sell those separately.

User-Generated DLC

Not all DLC is published by game developers. Many games also have players who create in-game content and make it available for download. DLC created by people who play the game is often called a “mod.” User-generated content can expand games in all sorts of ways. It also often leads to entire subcommunities and forums dedicated to creating, distributing, and reviewing game mods.

A scene with three characters from "The Edler Scrolls V: Skyrim" DLC.
Bethesda Studios/The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A fantastic example of this is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Even though Skyrim is nearly nine years old, it’s still home to one of the largest, most active modding communities on the entire web. A quick Google search leads to thousands of guides, databases, and tools dedicated to Skyrim modding. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Bethesda Game Studios (the developer) designed the game to be friendly and easy to mod.

Community content can extend the longevity of a game well after a developer stops updating it. For example, Blizzard’s Warcraft III was released in 2003, but it still has an active community of players. This is due to the many mods that continue to be maintained.

DLC Gives You More to Play

An ad for "No Man's Sky: Living Ship."
Hello Games/No Man’s Sky

While DLC can lead to some suspect monetization schemes from big publishers, there are plenty of examples of companies that use it to make games better.

A great example of a game that does DLC well is the open-world exploration game No Man’s Sky. Upon release, it was criticized for lacking promised features and distinct content.

However, since then, the game has offered numerous free major DLC updates. All of these have expanded gameplay, added multiplayer features, significantly increased the amount of content, and just made the game more enjoyable to play. No Man’s Sky now has a dedicated, active player-base, and many copies are still sold every year.

If you love a game, the option to get more of it to play is always a bonus. That’s why, for all its faults, many gamers still embrace DLC.

Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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