The Evolution of DLC

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but here the focus is on three: DLC. What does this initialism stand for? Traditionally, it was ‘Downloadable Content’; however, product placement has led to some publishers such as Capcom to refer to it as ‘Disc Locked Content’. This interpretation relates to the physical media we use right now, but it does not really make sense for other media such as cartridges or full software which has already been digitally downloaded. Either way, ‘DLC’ is a modern initialism for an enhancement to a video game; whether it is a large expansion pack or minor addon. These enhancements may be available for free or at a premium and delivered in a variety of ways.

Many years before digital distribution for video games became mainstream, expansion packs were delivered on physical media. A notable example from my childhood would be Sonic & Knuckles – the only SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive title to utilise the ‘revolutionary’ Lock-On Technology for the system – forming one of my most favourite video games of all time: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. This would constitute the large expansion pack element of the concept. We were also treated to an additional playable character in another title with Knuckles the Echidna in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – giving us our minor addon. The fun didn’t stop there, though: insert any other cartridge into the lock-on slot and those who wanted to play more than fourteen Blue Sphere stages were made happy too with bonus content!

With the magical ‘90s left behind, technology began to radically evolve. Despite requiring assistance from a peripheral called the PlayStation®2 Expansion Bay, it was possible to access additional content in a limited number of titles such as SOCOM 2 U.S. Navy Seals by installing from physical media. Additional content was also available to download for certain titles available on the sixth generation of consoles, where the technology progressed further when Microsoft included a substantial amount of internal storage for the time (8GB or 10GB) and network support as standard with the original Xbox system. The concept continued to evolve throughout the seventh generation with Microsoft, Sony and Valve really pushing things forward with their online distribution platforms. As the 21st Century progressed, other publishers including Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and – more recently – Epic Games wanted a slice of the pie.

Additional content is still made available on physical media, but the distribution methods have changed. The ‘Game of the Year Edition’ concept is popular, often offering all additional content released for the title in the past. This is usually beneficial for new consumers; however, sometimes there can be so much DLC released that it makes more sense to purchase the entire game again. It is no secret that big-name publishers make most of their profit from additional purchases and not the base game, so some will also take things further by continuing to release additional content even past the release of the ‘Special Edition’. Season Passes – often sold at the time of release – may expire and require renewal in order to access additional content at a discount in the future, prolonging the income stream for the title. Day-One DLC is also an unfortunate trend in the modern market, as publishers often attempt to squeeze even more money out of the consumer’s wallet in order to access content which may be already available on the disc they already paid for.

When I think of DLC ‘done right’, the 2009 release of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned comes to mind. Despite being signed as a timed exclusive deal to benefit the Xbox 360, Rockstar Games offered an entirely new perspective on the base game, Grand Theft Auto IV, with a full story mode and access to the game’s entire map with additional features. This was followed up later in the year with Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, which followed the same concept. After the exclusive deal with Microsoft expired, these expansion packs were made available as standalone downloads (without requiring the base game to play) and on physical media for Microsoft Windows and the PlayStation®3 with the launch of Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City. We’ve seen other examples of standalone titles over the years, such as The Last of Us: Left Behind from Naughty Dog – originally released as DLC only, offering a cheaper backstory to introduce new players to the franchise.

If there was ever an example of how to be consumer-friendly, the way Rockstar Games handled Grand Theft Auto IV is one for the books. I would deem this as great value for money, especially as there is a point where the publisher stops treating your wallet as a free water tank. It is a shame that this trend did not continue for their future titles including Grand Theft Auto V. I give a lot of credit to Naughty Dog for the same reasons when it comes to single player gameplay. Polyphony Digital also deserves an honourable mention for offering completely free updates to improve its Gran Turismo series – this is passed off as the publisher’s DLC business model, but with a twist…

Keep an eye out over the coming weeks and we’ll talk about three more letters which have become a lot more commonplace in the current decade. Tolerated by some, loathed by most, for better or worse. Can you guess what these letters are?

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