Few topics in the world of video gaming are as divisive as downloadable content.
The practice of providing additional content for a released video game dates back quite a ways, though it’s never been as front and center as it is now. Part of DLC’s high profile comes from it being a simple fact of triple-A life; rare are the big budget games that don’t come with an entire season of goodies after the main release.
Another reason that DLC turns heads is because of the controversial things that studios have done with it. Before getting into that, though, it’s worth taking a glance at where DLC came from, where it’s at now, and where it looks to be headed in the future. There’s one fact about DLC that binds its past, present and future together: it’s been around for a while, and doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.
Downloadable content as it’s known today got its start in the mid 90’s, in the form of expansion packs. In those days, expansions were still smaller than the games they supported but typically managed to pack in a decent amount of content. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith and Gearbox’s Half-Life expansions are good examples of what DLC looked like back in the 90’s.
The DLC landscape began to change in the mid-2000’s, and no video game represents that tipping point better than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Oblivion’s downloadable content strategy seemed pedestrian at first; developer Bethesda released a 10-hour expansion called Knights of the Nine, followed by a much meatier add-on called The Shivering Isles (one of the best expansions of all time). After that, though, Bethesda took the then-unorthodox approach of releasing small bits of content for pocket change. Paying a few extra bucks for skins is a given these days, but in Oblivion’s day the practice was considered highly unusual. Except for when it comes to armor for your horse. Because equine protection is no laughing matter.
The Shivering Isles marked the end of expansion packs’ dominance of DLC, as more and more studios began releasing content in the form it’s known as today: a bunch of small, cheap add-ons whose quality is usually much more dubious than that of a full expansion. Companies went from selling full-scale expansion packs to small sets of missions, extra weapons, and all the other peripherals that gamers know about today. Expansions became an endangered species within only a few years, as companies found it less risky to make smaller, more numerous content than to put all their DLC eggs in a single basket.
As small-scale DLC became more common, it became more and more embroiled in controversy. Large corporations like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft sold DLC with wild abandon, eventually hacking pieces out of their own games and selling those bits for extra money. EA’s shamelessness reached a fever pitch in 2012 when it cut the Prothean warrior Javik out of Mass Effect 3 and sold the ability to access him for an additional ten bucks. If it weren’t for Mass Effect 3’s ending being so mediocre, the From Ashes DLC would unarguably be the most controversial part of Mass Effect 3’s legacy.
Things got even more absurd when Evolve entered the picture in 2015. Turtle Rock’s asymmetrical shooter generated a lot of hype before release, but the game’s reputation collapsed overnight when gamers realized that there was hundreds of dollars worth of DLC tucked away in the skins menu. This, combined with Evolve’s relative lack of base game content, pushed gamer outrage to new heights and ultimately devolved Evolve to the bottom of the gaming charts. After that, studios became much more cautious about how they distributed DLC.
Curiously, standalone expansion packs have been making a comeback over the last two years. Make no mistake, there are still plenty of games hawking one-dollar skins and other extras, but story content is once again taking the form of a large-scale expansion instead of a bunch of separately purchased missions.
Though expansions represent a larger risk for studios, they’re generally far superior to short-form DLC and have been received with much more consistent praise by audiences. Examples of successful expansions from the last few years include the excellent The Following expansion for Dying Light and the Far Harbor add-on for Fallout 4. Wolfenstein: The Old Blood and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider are also quality examples of standalone expansions.
This pattern indicates that downloadable content is the seesaw of video games. The practice started out in the form of full expansions, dissipated into small-scale DLC, and now seems to be ramping back up to expansion packs. Expansions are usually a much better deal for gamers, and their return is welcome in an industry full of microtransactions and shady corporate behavior. Keep an eye out for expansions (and what the studios behind them are up to) as the world of video games continues to evolve and change. We can only speculate what form DLC will take 5-10 years from now.