What Is DLC in Gaming and How Does It Work?

The inside scoop on downloadable content

Wooden letter blocks spell out DLC

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What is DLC? Downloadable content, or DLC, is what gamers call extra content players can download after purchasing a video game. While some DLC is offered for free, players typically must pay additional fees to unlock new content. Freemium games rely entirely on DLC to make a profit.

What Does DLC Mean in Games?

DLC is sold exclusively by a game's publisher in digital format. It tends to be tied to the individual customer's console or account, which means DLC can't be resold or traded like physical game discs. A similar concept to DLC is disc-locked content, which must be activated through an online service.

Sometimes, companies release physical copies of games with a code needed to download additional content. For example, the Switch version of Resident Evil Origins Collection requires players to enter a code to download the remake of Resident Evil. It has also become common practice for publishers to offer DLC as part of pre-order bonuses, special edition bundles, and re-releases.

Examples of DLC

Types of DLC that games offer include:

  • New features, like extra characters, levels, and challenges
  • Items that help you progress through the game, such as weapons and power-ups
  • Cosmetic extras, such as character outfits and weapon skins
  • Loot crates containing a random assortment of in-game perks
  • Season passes that grant early access to upcoming DLC

The History of DLC in Gaming

The concept of digital game distribution dates back to the 1980s with Atari's GameLine service, but the real-time strategy game Total Annihilation is credited for normalizing DLC in 1997 when its developers started releasing new content every month. A few years later, Sega, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo began supporting DLC for their consoles and handheld systems. Franchises like Guitar Hero and Just Dance have relied heavily on DLC to keep players engaged.

In the late 2000s, social media and mobile gaming normalized the concept of microtransactions, which make it easy for players to quickly download new content with a single tap. Thus, developers were incentivized to continually add new features that players can buy. Today, nearly every major console or mobile game supports some form of DLC.

What Parents Should Know About DLC

Although most games claim you must be 18 to purchase DLC, many game consoles and mobile devices allow users to make instant purchases with previously stored credit card information. Therefore, parents should set up parental controls to manage in-app purchases.

Some services, like the Nintendo 3DS eShop, require users to enter a password before completing a transaction.

Is DLC Safe?

DLC offered through reputable services such as the PlayStation Network, Google Play, or Steam is always safe to download.

DLC is different from a mod, which is content made by a third-party. Always use a virus scanner when downloading files from the internet.

Criticisms of DLC

The rise of DLC and microtransations has been linked to video game addiction. Some lawmakers have compared loot crates to gambling since players don't know exactly what they're getting before making a purchase. In fact, countries like Japan regulate the sale of loot crates as a form of gambling. Season passes have been criticized for the same reason.

Game developers have been accused of intentionally leaving content out of games so they can offer more DLC. Multiplayer games that offer a lot of power-ups for purchase are sometimes called "pay-to-win," since players with deeper wallets have an advantage.

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