The history and effect of downloadable content on video games

Features Editor

So you’ve just finished that fancy new game that came out this month. As the credits roll you find yourself wishing there was more. Well, good news. The developers are releasing a miniature expansion to the game that can extend its length. Yet is everything really as good as it sounds?

Downloadable content, or DLC as it has become known as, is one of the relatively more recent changes to games. Yet, like many things, there is quite a bit of history leading up to this. The ideas of DLC came to fruition in the early 1980’s with a product called GameLine. GameLine was an oversized cartridge that went into an Atari 2600 and had a place to plug in a phone jack. After this one could download games onto an Atari 2600 and play them without having an actual cartridge. While the idea was ahead of its time, the North American video game crash of 1983 (also known as Atari shock) forced the service to shut its doors before it could take off. Similar services, like Sega Channel (1994), also showed up, but for the most part none of these other services really took off.

Thanks to their constant connection to the internet, DLC started mostly on the computer. Games like Starcraft and Half-Life had users create different game modes and modifications that would be distributed across the internet. For example, 1997’s Total Annihilation would offer up new units every month for free to be downloaded into the game.

In 1999 Sega released the Sega Dreamcast, a console that could connect to the internet without additional accessories necessary for connection. Console games were able to have an online component to them, and some games began to add content after launching. While the Dreamcast was not a huge success, the idea continued on with Microsoft’s Xbox and the online Xbox Live component. When Microsoft released the Xbox 360 in 2005 they set up a marketplace for exactly that, and in 2006 Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii followed with marketplaces of their own. Since then, DLC has become a mainstay in the video game industry.

DLC is used for many things in games now. The types of DLC can range from simple additions, like new songs for Guitar Hero and costumes for your Street Fighter characters, to more complicated things like new Call of Duty maps or entire new campaigns for a single-player focused game. Sometimes it costs money, sometimes it’s free, but overall it does seem like the majority of games are now featuring DLC.

Some people have not taken well to this idea though. There are feelings in the gaming community that content is either being cut from games or held back on purpose so DLC can later be sold to the player for extra money. New games like Star Wars Battlefront and Fallout 4 have announced content they will be adding in later before the game even comes out.

There may be some truth in this statement, but not in the way most people expect. Content is cut from games all the time, whether it’s getting DLC or not. There just simply is not enough time or money to make sure everything wanted gets into the game. Instead of having to save something to show up in a sequel, DLC can be used as a testing ground for content that may or may not have been good enough for a sequel anyway.

Worst case scenarios do happen though. Capcom had disappointed fans when several of their games, including Resident Evil 5 and Street Fighter X Tekken, actually released with extra content on the disc yet locked away so it couldn’t be accessed without spending money first. Recently Nintendo also got some backlash for doing similar with Splatoon.

Yet in a way, the need to add DLC and charge extra makes some sense. The cost of creating new video games is constantly going up, yet the price of new games hasn’t changed since it became $60 in 2005. Now developers are hoping gamers will buy both the game and a good chunk of the extra content they add to it. Usually they are combined into a package called a “season pass”, where one can buy most of, if not all of, the DLC for a single game. Yet season passes tend to be pricy and can range anywhere between $20 to $60, sometimes doubling the price of the game.

That is not to say all DLC is bad though, in fact some of it can be quite excellent. Naughty Dog’s 2013 surprise hit The Last of Us released a second campaign called “Left Behind” that many fans said was just as good as the main game. Other games like Bioshock 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Outlast, Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin and Dishonored all had DLC campaigns that people said were superior to the original game.

There is real entertainment in a game that manages to hit both the worst and best though, and that game would be 2006’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After the game  was released; the developers said they would be adding small pieces of content for relatively cheap prices. The first one they released was the rather infamous “horse armor”. Priced at 200 MS Points (Microsoft Points), the equivalent to about $2.50, all this extra pack did was add the ability to buy armor for your horse. So yes, first you had to spend real money to buy the pack, then you had to earn money in-game to buy the armor. The backlash over what was seen as an overpriced and minimalistic offering was rather large, and to this day you cannot mention DLC without someone making fun of horse armor.

But the developers did learn from this; the very next offering was “Orrey”, a single new quest that was cheaper and had more content than the horse armor. New small mission packs were offered at cheap rates, and the game did eventually get a much larger expansion called “Shivering Isles” that most people went on to praise, saying it was one of the best things to come out of the game. Developer Bethesda has gone on to make fun of their early failure, at one point offering every piece of DLC for their game at half off… except for horse armor which they doubled the price of.

There are not subjects that can split the gamer community quite like DLC can, and it seems whoever you ask will either say it’s one of the biggest problems with games currently, or a nice bonus that adds more value to a game for less money. Yet either way it is here to stay and DLC is another change gamers will have to get used to.


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