The prevalence of downloadable content (DLC) is a contentious topic of debate in modern gaming. Some hate it with a fiery passion, some take joy in collecting every new accessory (a friend of mine who is a big The Sims fan comes to mind), and for many it’s simply a cost-value calculation. Whatever your stance, it’s a near guarantee that we’ll have a flash in the pan ‘controversy’ over the DLC scheme for a new game every few months. The big question in all of this is whether this ongoing argument is actually taking us anywhere. Has DLC improved due to the continuous debate surrounding it, are more a fair value for their cost?

What each player considers fair will vary wildly, and to a certain degree the question relies more on psychology than logic. But more than that, the question hinges on the different ways this content is made available. In the current market, a few approaches stand out: Large content DLCs involve whole new campaigns, factions, or game areas, and might weigh in at twenty or thirty bucks for a full-price main game. Conversely, you have the a la carte offerings, where you buy individual characters, skins or other assets for a couple bucks a pop. Finally, we have episodic games exemplified by titles like Life is Strange and everything by Telltale Games, where the main product is delivered across multiple DLC.

Among these, I’ll start with big DLCs for a simple reason: they’re not new. Long before the digital delivery era, we bought ‘expansion packs’ for games right in the store (possibly after walking several miles uphill in the snow to get there). This was never terribly controversial. If the initial game was something you enjoyed so much that you’d rather get more of the same than buy a new game? Then so be it.

I don’t think this has really changed. Warcraft 2 and Jedi Knight had full-size expansions that did well in the CD era, leading to subsequent full sequels. Today, the Hearts of Stone DLC for The Witcher 3 has an Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam. Quality is always subjective and there’s nothing that guarantees a particular expansion will be as good as the original title, but this is just as true when purchasing a new game. Unless a publisher is outright dishonest about the size of an expansion, it’s hard to see how anyone could call this brand of DLC unfair, now or then. So it would seem not a lot has changed in this area, because it hasn’t really needed to.

Micro-style addons, conversely, really came into their own in the direct download era and are the cause of a lot of aggravation. When I can conjure angry rants from the past with two words (‘Horse Armor’), it’s proof that there is some kind of problem here, or at least a feeling that resonates through the gaming landscape. And it’s definitely here where the DLC market has evolved the most, from the inception of microtransactions onward.

The cost for the infamous equine protection was $2.50, back in 2006. We still see these small addons priced similarly, varying from maybe a dollar to five. This is cup-of-coffee pricing (we could even call the range ‘Dunkin to Starbucks’ if we didn’t feel like using numbers), so at a glance it’s hard to get riled up. But the issue tends to be how quickly these costs add up. There are games with hundreds of dollars of DLC comprised of mostly small-ticket items, which begins to seem like a deliberate effort at slowly milking money out of the consumer. After all, when we purchase the initial game (with hundreds of visual and audio assets), we don’t pay for them individually. This thinking leads to the most rage-inspiring of DLC concepts: cut content. Whether true or not, it stings to feel like you’re paying item-by-item for material that should (or at least could) have been in the base product. ‘Fairness’ is inherently subjective, but this is a red line for many.

As this is happening on a much bigger scale a decade after the Horse Armor incident, it’s clear that the complaints haven’t done much to discourage the model. With the success of microtransactions in MMOs and on mobile devices, it’s hard to imagine that they ever will. Players will complain, justifiably in some cases, but there’s enough people buying that it makes economic sense for the companies involved. Fortunately, some publishers do seem to acknowledge the negative reaction that can be inspired by a multitude of small DLCs, particularly in the single player arena, where Pay to Win schemes don’t have the appeal they do in competitive multiplayer. Thus the dawn of the Season Pass.


Season Passes bundle smaller DLCs, saving buyers money, but that’s not even their biggest advantage. Rather, their innovation is in taking uncertainty out of purchases, reducing the sense of being nickle-and-dimed or ‘tricked’ into investing more money into a game than one would otherwise. Regardless of actual savings or whether the individual costs were objectively unfair to begin with, it’s a lot easier as a consumer to look at the cost of the base game, the cost of the pass, and decide if it’s all worth it. I bought the Fallout 4 pass sight-unseen, because Fallout 3 and New Vegas both had a number of quality DLCs. I know the franchise and the company and I know I’ll want the content, and it’s easy for me to say that the game is worth a larger fixed price. I like knowing that if there’s some small DLC (Power Armor for my dog, just for argument’s sake?), I’ll just get it, without having to worry if it’s ‘worth it.’

Season Passes are good for the companies too, because they secure revenue ahead of time, justifying development costs for the very DLC they’re selling. Taken to its logical conclusion, this concept has led us into the era of the episodic game. These titles break a full single player experience into chapters and sell them individually, often with Season Pass style bundles also available.  These offer the consumer a great deal of flexibility. They can try the initial chapter for a minimal investment. If money is tight, they can buy later chapters one at a time, for coffee and a sandwich-level prices. And if they want it all, they can buy the full collection. Even complaints over individual chapter delays are hard to consider rage worthy, since a traditional title would be delayed the exact same amount of time by the ending not being finished… except with no chance to play the initial portions.

So that’s where I stand on this ongoing debate. For many DLC, particularly the traditional expansion style, I don’t think much has changed, but that’s because the old system wasn’t really broken to begin with. For smaller DLC, while pricing may not really be onerous, we know that some companies are going to continue with dubious models to squeeze out profits. Season Passes are a great alternative to this, whether you’re simply budget minded or troubled by the uncertainty of multiple smaller transactions. The fact that they help smaller publishers get games to market is a great thing, too.

What’s your take? Are DLC pricing models fair or not, and do Season Passes help? Will we see further changes on the horizon, or will business continue as usual? You can let us know in the comments or on Twitter (@Official_OnlySP) or Facebook.

The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.

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