Note: This entry was edited for structure, word choice, and length in May of 2015.
Since the companies that make our biggest, loudest games are in full corporate whore mode, and are pursuing business practices which would have been thought of as satire even ten short years ago, there has been confusion over the matter of downloadable content and the expansion pack.
The misconception is that the two distribution models are the same thing, and that their nomenclature is merely defined by the size of the offering. Expansion packs are identified with a boxed, retail model that competed for shelf space with full-size videogames. On the other end, downloadable content is the home of armor sets, characters, cheat codes, and things which should be in the damn game to begin with. So if you asked someone what the difference is, they would tell you that it’s a proposition of both size and bang for the buck. Well, that ain’t how it works, so let’s explain how it works. And as long as we’re here, I’ll tell you why the expansion pack is superior to downloadable content.
Of course, that requires us to ask two questions: What is an expansion pack, and what is downloadable content? Let’s answer the first one. After all, there’s not much difference between “sequels” such as Descent II and Unreal Tournament 2004, and “expansion packs” such as Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. They feature similar aesthetics, use a similar or enhanced game engine, and are best known for building directly on the lessons of an older game.
Well, an “expansion pack” is simply a sequel that uses existing software as its base, a means of marketing the “exact same game” at a reduced price point. It is an aesthetically-significant revision point. It can be identified with certain design traits and principles, and it can be thought of as its own game. Most importantly, the self-contained nature of expansion packs—in which players are forced to adopt all of the content in a single blow—allows developers the freedom to significantly alter an existing game. So where Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos expansion pack The Frozen Throne is popularly defined by its addition of a new campaign, new skirmish maps, new environments, and new units—additions commonly associated with downloadable content—it is the significant mechanical upgrades that make The Frozen Throne the superior iteration.
On this front, downloadable content would be the opposite of the expansion pack. Downloadable content is defined by a lack of aesthetic significance. The model implies a piecemeal process where you purchase content as an addendum, much in the way that people purchase miniatures for tabletop role-playing games and booster packs for collectible card games. In a perverse way, this model can be thought of as a means to empower the player, to let the player decide what content they want. But in order to act as an ala carte mechanism, none of the content can be mandatory or essential. And thus, it cannot defined by the titled revision point that would be associated with an expansion pack.
So as hard as GameFAQs may insist that expansion packs and downloadable content are the same thing—classifying both as “add-ons”—nobody is going to identify the “From Ashes” downloadable content package for Mass Effect 3 as its own game, even if it contains a transformative plot point that is impossible for Mass Effect fans to ignore. Nobody is going to identify the “ACDC Track Pack” for Rock Band as its own game, even though it comes in its own box and was sold at a price point commonly associated with the expansion pack. (All the while, players will be quick to think of a Guitar Hero: Metallica or a Green Day: Rock Band—standalone games with a well-defined theme—as their own distinct offerings.) And nobody is going to identify the content packs in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Borderlands 2, which often meet the size requirements commonly associated with expansion packs, as their own games. The interchangeable nature of the content makes it impossible to provide this sort of distinction.
So if you’re paying attention, it should be easy to understand what makes the expansion pack superior. Proper game design entails a mastery and understanding of all your available parts, to understand how choices work in relation to each other. And if you’re building a beautiful machine, you don’t want any additional parts rattling around. You only want what’s essential. Through this, the expansion pack promotes elegance. It promotes a philosophy where the additional content is delivered in a single blow and builds upon an existing rule set in one gigantic leap. The design choices made in the expansion can be considered without any regard for the original version of the game, and with exceptions for persistently-updated games like World of Warcraft, the older iterations will be allowed to stand on their own merits.
But downloadable content can only be standardized for the content which all players already have. The result is that it promotes bloat. It promotes the creation of new content, but without the ability to centralize and integrate that content into the existing game systems. In a narrative-driven game, this means developing backstory that is otherwise not essential to understanding the whole. In a multiplayer game, this means you cannot create content that will give adopters a dominant advantage. In most cases, this simply means that the new content will become unnecessary, redundant, or useless. And the end result is a larger game featuring a larger rule set, but with less meaningful depth being derived from those add-ons.
While the ramifications of these different distribution models may be imperceptible in a game with little new content—one new character in a fighting game, one new gun in a first-person shooter—they become obvious as more and more content is added. Downloadable content says, “We have a game here that is worth playing. What can we do to add more content?” An expansion pack says, “We have a game here that is worth playing. What can we do to make the content better?”
Unfortunately, elegance and craft in design is a difficult endeavor, and in a day and age where everyone and their mother is playing videogames, pursuing this philosophy will leave you with a smaller audience. It will leave you with the small percentage of videogame players who can understand the profound differences brought to an existing game by these changes, and understand that the seemingly high cost of an expansion pack is a necessary evil for a high-quality upgrade. The other model promotes a culture in which the amount of content—rather than the arrangement, craft, and design of the content—is the driving force of intrigue. Which, of course, is ideal to a cabal of publishers who can leverage their artists and programmers in the pursuit of the disposables.
So if you want to make a videogame, it comes down to this: Want to make the most money? Go with downloadable content. But if you want to make the best game? Go with the expansion pack. Make the best damn sequel you can.