The DLC/Expansion Conundrum: an eXposition

When Amplitude announced its Shadows DLC for Endless Legend, it touched off a debate inside the eXplorminate internal forums. What exactly is a DLC anyway? Isn’t Shadows more of an expansion? Is it going to be expensive enough to be called an expansion? How do you classify these things to begin with? The staff at eXplorminate debated these questions, and out of that came the idea for this article. We hope it sheds some light on the subject.

16 ELS

DLC, the death of the eXpansion, or vice versa

Written by: Nate “Nasarog” Lobos

When I talk to my gaming friends about additional, post-release gaming content, I am constantly faced with a quandary: Is it a DLC or an expansion? What’s the difference? How much does it cost? Will you buy it for me?!?!?!?


No, not this junk

The initial use of expansions came from board games and paper role playing games in the 70’s. It was later co-opted into video games and card-based games in the early 90’s. However, a long long time ago, in days gone by, when a video game came out with additional content, it was usually in the form of an actual disc. The disc was full of minor/major bug fixes, new gameplay mechanics, art and whatever else they put into it. Sometimes these expansions were necessary to fix issues that had long plagued the players and the developers. Other times they brought forth highly requested features. Once in awhile they even added a lot of content that amounted to very little actual changes to gameplay and, in turn, resulted in an unhappy audience. Not because of newly introduced bugs, which has also happened in the past, but with poorly thought out gameplay features that ruined the experience.

All of this disc-based content was in the 80’s and 90’s when the Internet was not found in private homes. Even when it was found there, it was usually very slow. Once the calendar hit the year 2000, and the Y2K disaster didn’t happen, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief and it got back to making the future happen. Internet speeds started to pick up and Valve’s Steam was born (‘05). Around the same time, you also had other platforms that competed with Steam like Stardock’s Impulse, the App store for the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox, as well as a few others.

Let’s call this era the birth of downloadable content, or DLC, for short. No longer were the big box stores reserving space for PC/MAC/LINUX titles. Little by little, the consoles took over retail outlets completely and the PC gamer was left out in the cold. PC gaming was pronounced dead. Except it wasn’t. It was about to go through a resurgence. The online gaming community was getting strong and the online marketplace was about to explode.


Steam, is that you?

Steam brought it all home and here we are now. But what happened to all the store bought games? They went the way of the dinosaurs, well, at least in most places in North America. You can still find a copy of a game here or there, but almost all computer games are now directly downloaded through Steam, GoG, and proprietary sites like Battle.net, UPlay and Origin, the new EA store.

But what is the difference between an expansion and DLC? An expansion can come in two forms: the first is additional content that extends the main game but requires the original game (and/or disc) like Gods and Kings/Brave New World for Civilization V. The second is of the stand-alone variety where the original game is not needed to play because the expansion has all of the necessary content to function on its own like Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.

What about price? Well, usually the price of the expansion pack is less than the original game, but when you add the two or more together, it can get rather expensive. This is especially true for games released by 2K/Firaxis, because their expansions are pretty close in price, if not the same as the original titles. Many times, the new expansion renders the original almost unplayable without the upgrades. In a situation like Civilization and the new addition, Beyond Earth, it might take several expansions to flesh out the game. This wouldn’t be such an issue if the expansions were stand-alone products like some of the Total War titles from Creative Assembly, though they, too, are guilty of flooding us with useless expansions. Then you have Paradox Interactive that takes a middle of the road approach with both expansions and free updates.


Ah, now this is an eXpansion.

So, an expansion can be on the expensive side, just ask any loyal Distant Worlds player about that. Historically though, expansions were priced in such a way as to compensate the developers and fuel further development on the current title or new games altogether.

So how does DLC fit in? Easy, or it used to be. As I stated above, it wasn’t until the late 90’s that DLC started to gain steam, but it was strictly for PC gaming. The first game I can recall that I played that had DLC was Total Annihilation. The first console to offer DLC was the Sega Dreamcast, a personal favorite of mine. Xbox and Playstation soon followed with their own offerings and that’s where the digital marketplace really took off.


Did someone say DLC?!? We’re here.

DLC can be something as little as an outfit, a weapon, an avatar to a full game, or some kind of a special one-off super rare item that can go for thousands of dollars in a real money auction house. That’s right, you read me correctly. But these days the delineation between a full fledged expansion and DLC content is hard to distinguish. Since you download practically everything from an online delivery system, everything is DLC these days.

But for me, I like to look at it differently. Here’s how I distinguish them.

Expansions are DLC that add gameplay mechanics like new factions, whole modules like diplomacy and espionage, terrain and unit types and, finally, whole new dimensions to existing games like aquatic gameplay or additional mechanics. They can also revisit old mechanics and change them to improve overall gameplay.


Ride’em Mongol…

DLC, on the other hand, is what Paradox does with Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis 4. Every couple of months, they release expansions like Horse Lords and Common Sense that add gameplay features, and release DLC that adds music, alternate faces/costumes and flags to accompany the expansions.

This is something that Amplitude seems to be adopting, as well. It recently released three pieces of DLC: A seven track DLC soundtrack called Echoes of Auriga, which is great by the way. A free DLC called Forges of Creation that adds mod support, bug fixes and a free AI update. Finally, the Lost Tales content that adds all kinds of flavor with 20 different minor faction-focused quests.

Now that I’ve thought about it some more, I don’t think it matters what we call DLCs/expansions. For the games that I love, I will pay for more content. For the games that I don’t? I won’t even bother getting them in the first place. If these expansions and DLCs help extend the life of the game with official support from the developers? I say bring them on. Just don’t forget to reward the players that can’t afford all of this paid content with additional free stuff. Don’t forget to put in the option to turn off the additional content so the games could still be played with people that don’t have the expansions, or let the game’s host share the content in a MP game like in Endless Legend or Armello. That’s the best kind of advertising out there. All in all, we are gaming in a wonderful time for the 4X genre.

So, stop arguing, and go out and play instead!!!


eXpansion vs. DLC – A Fight to the Death

Written By: Troy “TC” Costisick

So we’ve been debating the expansion/DLC conundrum in the moderator forums of eXplorminate, just as Nate mentions. He and I decided to co-write an article on the topic with our different views. Mine is similar to his but subtly different.


Simple, optional, and flavorful – a great example of DLC.

I contend that the term “DLC” has become almost completely detached from its original meaning – similar to how “App” is hardly recognized anymore as shorthand for “application.” DLC has evolved to mean any additional content for a game that requires a separate download from a patch or original game purchase.

Let’s face it, in the realm of PC/Mac/LINUX games, the idea of going to Walmart and buying a box with a disc in it is as quaint as buying a new rock album on vinyl LP. It’s an anachronism, at least in America, and the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Consequently, labeling something as DLC simply because it’s “downloadable” is absurd. All games are downloadable now and I think we can all agree that a complete game is not DLC… it’s a game! With that in mind, a DLC must be more than something that is just a download and must be something that is less than a full game. It must also be something that doesn’t automatically come with the initial purchase: it has to have its own entry in the vendor’s store.

Let’s put DLC aside for a moment and focus on expansion. The word “expansion” suggests that you are expanding the game. For me, a game is more than just character or setting, so giving me more factions or more planet types is not enough to warrant the “expansion” label. You have to expand the game-PLAY. Therefore, unlike Nate, I do not consider adding new factions to be enough of a gameplay change on their own to warrant the expansion label. They’re just more flavor.


Some eXpansions can save a title.

DLC seems to be a less loaded word than expansion. Perhaps studios feel “expansion” puts too much pressure on them and using “DLC” instead makes the additional content feel more friendly to the consumer. It’s clear that the way game companies want to present themselves is changing rapidly for PC Games. As the move to full-download accelerates to the point where it is almost the only way to buy games, we may see the eXtinction of the word “expansion” and the rise of DLC as the new nom du jour.

“The play’s the thing…” a famous poet once wrote, and, for me, if gameplay doesn’t tangibly and mechanically change with a new module, then it doesn’t rank as an expansion. There must be new game code that gives you something different to do that you couldn’t do before. Now, don’t split hairs with me and question, “If a new patch adds new options to a game, does that patch count as an expansion?” No. That’s just the base game being fully implemented. I regard that as the developer finishing the job, not expanding the game from its original vision. Therefore, like DLC, an expansion must be a separate product from the game.


One of the rare times a company advertises new content as an actual eXpansion.

All this taken into consideration, my own preference for defining these two add-ons is as such: a DLC is any separate download that increases one or more aspects of a game without altering how the player plays. An expansion can increase one or more aspects of a game AND alters how players play with/and or use the different aspects of the game.

Now, that’s just my preference. Let’s deal with reality. Game companies don’t care one iota about whether we call something a DLC or an expansion. They just want to market their products the best way they know how. So they’ll call their extra content whatever they want if they think it will help them sell a few more units, or charge a little more money. For some reason the term “DLC” seems to be more popular with companies, so I really respect Stardock labeling Mercenaries as an actual expansion.


Not an eXpansion, just a DLC.

Which brings me to Endless Legend: Shadows… Personally, I’d call it an expansion. It’s adding not just one new sub-system to the game, but two: espionage and stealth. It’s not like Guardians that just added a few extra monsters, some new tech, and a couple other minor things.

Shadows changes the way you play, or can choose to play, in a tangible and mechanical way in much the same way Rising Tide and Eternal Lords changed the way you played Civilization, Beyond Earth and Age of Wonders 3 respectively. I compare it to Pandora’s Eclipse of Nashira, which is also labeled a DLC, but has a drastic impact on the game. Price is immaterial to me. So what if Shadows costs as much as Guardians? It’s an expansion, in my opinion. Amplitude can call it whatever they like, but for my purposes, I’ll be calling it an expansion.

Now, those are our thoughts. What are yours? Tell us what you think the distinction between DLC and eXpansions is. Or if there even is one!


10 replies »

  1. i think there is a difference between DLC and expansion. from my point of view it’s based on the contend that is being delivered.
    big content = expansion
    small content = DLC

    i think it’s comes from the years of gaming. back in the old CD/DVD years there where the big expansions that came with new CD/DVDs.
    then, when online distribution grow, came the DLCs. as bandwith was limited in the beginning, DLC was connected with “small changes” that where easy to distribute with low bandwith.

    at least that’s why i connect DLC with a small update and an Expansion with a big update with more content.
    problem is, most publishers seem to use the words just as they seem fit without any reasonable example why the choose one or the other.

    just my humble opinion.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. On the business side I like Paradox’s approach: every few months they release free content + optional DLC, they let the players return and enjoy the new free features and then consider buying the expansion. There is substatial value on the expansions, ’cause they usually add new playable factions and gameplay features and systems. Also, they don’t split the community, I can join a MP game where there is a player with a DLC I don’t have. Not splitting the community is vital, see how many MP FPSs died because of expansion maps (i.e. Evolve, Titanfall).

    As a gamer I “hate” them, because Crusader Kings 2 + all the expansions is ~150€, and the game is 4 years old.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For a long while now I haven’t considered much the differences between DLC and Expansion. As both eventually merged into the same product form factor through digital distribution channels, I just conceded everything is a DLC now. And some DLCs are just better than others. I am fine with that.

    My beef is instead on how they have been marketed. The abuse being perpetrated by some companies (unfortunately including my all-time favorite company, Paradox) really rubs against my consumer best interests. We even have DLCs of DLCs these days, judging from how Paradox is releasing their DLC Content Packs. It is just too much.

    The business strategy of many gaming companies is part of the reason I have slowly been moving away from computer games and into new hobbies. I just cannot reconcile my consumer rebel self with these companies abusive practices. I could even have the money (which I don’t) to sustain what is rapidly becoming a luxury form of entertainment. But I couldn’t possible make a pact with these businesses, by purchasing their products. I just can’t stand them. My disagreement and distaste is stronger than my desire for a form of entertainment I have been practicing for the past 35 years, since I first picked played a game on a cartridge console.

    I do have emulators, which is where I have spent most of the time on the last 2 or 3 years. That love will never die. The Arcade, ZxSpectrum and MSDOS classics form a major part of my gaming collection and I can still find entertainment value in them. But I fear most modern game companies will keep on rubbing me in the wrong way despite the amazing titles being shipped every year.

    The market has clearly changed, and a whole new generation of young adults with money to spend, living in a much healthier economy than when I had their age, has allowed for these business strategies to gain roots. I know when I’m defeated. But at 46 years old I’m more critical than ever about where I spend my money, to whom am I giving it, and for what purpose. I need to have a feeling I’m not being laughed at, I’m being respected as a consumer, and the company I’m buying for takes these things to heart.

    Surely there are still good people out there. Good companies doing things the right way. I will remain loyal to them, until the day them too grow past the point of no moral return.


    • Interesting thoughts, Mario. I wonder if a company could make a decent income with pre-DLC business practices. It’s hard for me to say if Stardock or Paradox could make the games they do with out it. It will be interesting to see if MuHa games can make a go of it by giving away their DLC for Thea for free.


      • I think they can still sell DLCs. And not just one or two. Five DLCs, seven.

        I’m not opposed to the general idea of a DLC. On the contrary. I welcome the ability to create added value for a game I purchased, since expansion packs were a thing. But it’s being taken to a whole new level of insidiousness..

        Consider a game like Crusader Kings 2. Even if I had bought it in a DLC bundled promotion 2 years ago when there was “only” 30 DLC, I would still have to consider all the 26 DLCs that eventually where released since then. How can I manage that type of expenses for a single game and balance that with my need to buy other games?

        Or consider the latest Crusader Kings 2 expansion-like DLC. The Conclave DLC is being sold as two separate DLCs One with added art and another with just the expansion and no art. But if the expansion is largely about changing the mechanics for children heirs and the Council, doesn’t it make sense I would want the game art for this two elements of the game? Why am I being forced to pay extra to have in-game art related to the new expansion features. Imagine being asked by Amplitude to pay extra to have the Shadowds faction art in the Shadows expansion…

        Or consider many other titles (I really didn’t want to make this look like it is just a Paradox problem), in which DLCs are clearly created in a way to provide the most benefit to the developer and the least benefit to the consumer.

        So, hey, DLCs? Heck yes! I love them. But not like this. The industry is turning a beautiful thing into a contentious issue that divides the consumers between those who feel cheated, those who don’t and those who don’t care because they can afford it.


      • In CK2’s case, I think they’re using DLC to avoid making CK3. All of the recent changes could, IMHO, form the basis for an entirely new game if they wanted to continue developing further in that direction. So are the charging people for DLC or for a whole new game?


  4. I agree with you there Troy. DLC, in my eyes, means content that just adds flavor to the game. All of Gal Civ 3s DLC are just extra of the same content you already experience. It doesn’t add any new mechanics, just events, races, and some new worlds

    Endless Legend had Guardians labeled as an Expansion, but that feels like a DLC more than anything. Though I would say it would have to be a light Expansion. It does add to the game, but just barely. It adds things a DLC would usually do, like additional quests, new events, and buildings. The actual Guardians and Legendary Deeds I think keep it from being a full DLC and just a light expansion. I’m curious to see if Amplitude will dab into dlc more with Endless Space 2. They are known for their free updates that actually expand the game, but could easily charge for it in a dlc. They continue to grow as a company so we’ll see what they do going forward.

    @Daniele- But you can always find Paradox sales out there. I might not be the biggest CK2 or EU4 fan out there, but I got both of the games under $10 and got some dlc on sale as well. Even if I bought the DLC at full price id still be under what the game originally came out with.


  5. @Big Perm – Amplitude will. They have another DLpansion or eXpanLC or whatever coming. It will have the new faction and a new game mechanic, like they did for shadows. At $13 or so (I’m guessing here) it would deb perfect. Not as big as Eternal Lords was for AoW3, but pretty decent.


  6. I side with Troy’s distinction on this one, but in the end it comes down to marketing and value. If DLC is titled as an “expansion” and priced at 1/2 or more of original game price than I expect it to introduce new gameplay and/or significantly increase my expected time spent in game. It would be nice if some sort of naming convention could be used that would quickly define whether it’s a small content add or mechanic and gameplay change. It seems some Devs are using “Packs” to define smaller content only DLCs which works for me.

    In the end as long as I liked the original game and think the DLC looks good I’ll get it, but for pricier items it often means waiting for reviews…and sometimes I don’t have patience for that!


  7. I’ve been asking myself the same questions!

    There’s multiple aspects to this :

    As already mentioned, DLC is a short for “DownLoadable Content”, so could potentially stand for anything downloaded from any network.

    But “DLC” has currently very specific meaning on the gaming websites :

    1.) Obviously, it’s for game-related information (for a specific game).

    2.) That information generally has to integrate directly into the game : screenshots, videos, manuals, etc… don’t seem to count
    (though there’s some trend for “DLC” soundtracks – due to Steam’s idiosyncrasies).

    3.) It has to (initially) come from the developer (or the publisher).
    (otherwise it’s an (unofficial) “mod”ification).

    4.) It’s generally assumed you have to pay for it
    (while that wasn’t the case some years ago, when there was some overlap between “patches” and “updates” that also added new content).

    5.) It’s being centralized around a few distribution services
    (while the “patches” and “updates” were distributed by anyone that cared)

    6.) These centralized services make installing them even more straightforward than before, but also allow companies to charge for them, which has been too burdensome for the consumers before.

    7.) Steam being such an important force here, specifics have to be noted :
    Steam recently introduced the ability to deactivate DLC’s
    (while patches/updates are still pretty much mandatory).

    8.) And, as been already mentioned in this article, they can’t be “too big” (which is pretty subjective) or standalone games otherwise they’re called “expansions”.

    Consider also the Blizzard tradition of (sometimes official) custom maps that have grown to the point of “splitting” away from their parent games and “starting a new life”…
    but also how Blizzard and Steam are moving towards monetizing and controlling the custom maps/mods that are allowed on their services.

    ( I’ve had some issues with that recently, which should be relevant here since it’s about the mods for a 4X game :
    http://forums.blind-mind.com/index.php?topic=6676.0 )

    Liked by 1 person


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