Downloadable content, or DLC – Ask players, some will say it’s a dirty word. Ask developers, they will say it’s a great way to expand upon concepts from the game or introduce new characters, locations, and stories. Ask publishers, they will say it’s a great way to get more revenue. DLC is one of the most consistently divisive and controversial topics in gaming, with headlines popping with some new shady business move every few weeks or so. Nonetheless, it’s become an intrinsic element of gaming that is hardly about to up and leave. In fact, the history of DLC reaches back far longer than many gamers would think off-hand. Come with me then into this rabbit hole as we look back at the history of downloadable content in gaming.

After you pay me $10, of course.

In the time before time

Before DLC – where “downloadable” is the operative term – additional content for game released post-launch was already fairly common. This era of expansion packs is often viewed with rose-tinted glasses and considered to be the “right” way to add content after launch. The fundamental difference here was that due to being physical releases, there wasn’t much point in going small with the content. You didn’t walk into a game store and buy a single cosmetic character skin which came with its own case (or box, if we go far enough back) and disc. Expansion packs usually only contained marginally less content than the main game, offering improvements across the board. Some famous expansions, like Brood War for StarCraft, introduced new units and an entirely new campaign.

As for what the very first example of a post-launch content pack was, it is difficult to give a concrete answer. Gaming in the 80’s was still really obscure, and there is a lot of data from that era that isn’t documented online. That said, the earliest example we’ve found comes from 1981. Dunjonquest: Upper Reaches of Apshai added a new, four-level dungeon to the DnD/Roguelike title Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai.

Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai DLC
Killer tomatoes would definitely spice up any DLC.

Eventually, there came an overlap between expansion packs and DLC, and with a vast array of older titles being retroactively made digitally available, some formerly retail-only expansions can be downloaded, making them DLC, however, we’ll just stick to whatever designation they held upon release for the ease of understanding.

The Dawn of DLC

The earliest days of downloadable content in earnest are also pretty murky. At first, all DLC was free, likely due to the limited availability of secure online payment methods, as seen on the Dreamcast, which was the first console to support DLC for its games. Microsoft was among the first publishers to implement paid DLC on the Xbox. All third party games that received DLC on the platform got it for free, whereas Microsoft published titles had paid content available through the then-new Xbox Live service. For example, Halo 2 had some map packs available for $5. Halo 2 was also the first game to be cross-promoted with Mountain Dew, a beverage that has since been engraved into gamer culture, albeit in a fairly ironic manner.

Halo 2 DLC

On PC, DLC was introduced significantly earlier. One of the first examples was actually fairly advanced in nature. In 1997, the developers of an RTS called Total Annihilation released recurring, monthly free DLC, each of which contained a single new unit. Valve also released Team Fortress Classic in 1999. While today many refer to it as a mod, which for all intents and purposes is correct, it also fits all the criteria for being DLC.

Project $10

Project $10 was a term coined by EA to name their method of reducing second-hand game sales, which were eating into profits. The concept involved including single-use promotional codes with all games that would unlock some minor content in the game. If someone would then buy the game secondhand, that content wouldn’t be available to them unless they re-bought it for approximately $10. While many gamers considered the practice to be staunchly anti-consumer at the time, the general consensus seems to be that it was preferable to the kind of business models pursued today. Some early examples of this concept were seen in Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, which not only had promotional codes for a suit of armour but featured cross promotion with the Blood Dragon Set appearing in both titles.

While not a part of Project $10, this was also the time when what we only refer to as the standard-form DLC was most common. Depending on the game, these packs would contain a fair amount of gameplay content with new areas, missions, quests or whatever form most fits the genre in question, with approximately ~2-5 hours of content with price ranges of $5-15. Coming back to the examples of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, the various DLCs for these games, such as Warden’s Keep for the former or Overlord for the latter fit the bill


The Rise of the Microtransaction

Edging closer to the present day, the standard-form DLCs were joined by a new way to access additional content that has gained a rather tarnished reputation – but wait, what’s this?


Ah, yes, the good old arcades. Many like to forget that technically, the arcade machines of old operated on the principle of microtransactions. Granted, that wasn’t additional content we bought at the time, but the chance to play the game. Imagine if today a game would be released that required real-money payments each time you died? The outrage would be colossal.

In modern terms, microtransactions are typically cheap bits of additional content that most frequently net players cosmetic items or in-game currency. Most common in free-to-play mobile games, microtransactions have become synonymous with greed when it comes to non-mobile gaming. Actually, the sale of cosmetic items which do not affect gameplay as a sustainable business model seems to be an entirely fair approach- it’s pay-to-win scenarios that don’t resonate well with consumers.

Of course, there are some cases where proper AAA releases with the standard $60 price-tag feature microtransactions that aren’t even micro. Grand Theft Auto Online features so-called Shark Cards that can be bought with real money to net you in-game cash. The largest of these costs $100. Then again, Rockstar is justified in this approach with their DLC model, but more on that later.

Season Passable

One of the newest methods of delivering DLC is the Season Pass. While not a new form of DLC itself, it did change the way some players paid for their content. Season Passes became common among AAA titles recently, with the basic concept of giving players the chance to pre-order all additional content with a single down payment. If you were to buy the various DLCs individually, the cumulative cost would be more of the Season Pass, in theory. This, in essence, was the inevitable next step in the proliferation of pre-order culture, where even our DLC needs to be reserved ahead of release.

Some of the criticisms of Season Passes include that they’re blind bags of content. You pay, usually $30, in advance with little idea of what you’re getting. What if after it’s revealed, you don’t think the DLC you’re getting is worth it? Sure, that’s the risk you’re knowingly taking, however, there have been some recent examples where the practice was exploited, such as Street Fighter 5. Players bought Season Passes expecting access to all future content, however, it later turned out that they only gained additional characters, with costumes and stages still requiring purchase. Capcom changed the name of the product to Character Pass later on, however, the damage was already done.

The Outliers

As always, there are some examples who break the mould. Not all DLC can be filed into the categories above. Some of it is free, some of it is paid for differently, and some of it may be delivered in different ways. We mentioned we’d speak about GTA Online’s DLC model: while the game boasts paid microtransactions, the title has also been receiving a steady stream of additional content ever since release, and all of it for free. If you own a copy of GTA 5, you also own all DLC packs that have been released, which total at just under 30. The game doesn’t have multiple currencies, with a ‘premium’ currency that can’t be earned unless you pay. You can access all of the new content without paying another cent, but if you’d rather buy in-game items sooner than grind for the cash and buy them later, the option is there to grab a microtransaction. This is a rare example of a sustainable, and yet consumer friendly approach to securing a steady source of recurring player spending revenue.

DLC has taken on an unfortunate negative connotation due to some of the less savoury business models that have been built around them, but in essence, the concept is hardly malicious. The multi-faceted history of overlapping eras and various approaches prove well enough that additional content is as varied as the games it’s made for.

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Aron Gerencser
Adventuring scribe, self-proclaimed science fiction connoisseur, and avid consumer of retro games. When not writing here, you'll likely find him battling the vicious writer's block over at his fiction blog.

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