Many years back, before the term "downloadable content" was born, when game developers released new content and functionality for their existing games they called it an "expansion pack". This was generally sold in a box from a store, just like the original game, and required the original game to play - very much like downloadable content.

Now, the term "expansion pack" is not something that I see very often, if at all. Instead, everything seems to be called "downloadable content", is very rarely available in a box from a store, and is normally distributed over the internet through some form of digital library system like Steam, or from the developer directly.

I feel this is more than simply "what marketing chose to call it", Blizzard for example never call their new WoW content "downloadable content", even though each of them is automatically downloaded via their launcher - but instead always call them "expansion packs".

Case in point, during some discussion about future content for Skyrim (from some time ago now, since Skyrim has been out for more than a year already), Todd Howard at Bethesda is quoted stating the following;

"For Fallout 3 we did five DLCs," Howard told me during an interview last week at the DICE Summit. "That was a very aggressive path for us. Our plan now is to take more time, to have more meat on them [for Skyrim]. They'll feel closer to an expansion pack."

bold = my emphasis

What is the difference between an "expansion pack" and "downloadable content", or are they essentially the same thing with a decade of evolution on what we call them?

  • 3
    The spelling is different, for one. Other than that, I don't think either one really has an industry standard definition, so publishers use whichever they feel suits them more.
    – PeterL
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 14:35
  • 2
    The Frozen Throne was originally sold on CDs. Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 3:30

5 Answers 5


The two terms are orthogonal - an expansion pack might be DLC, but that would imply two different facts:

  • It is downloadable, e.g. it can be obtained entirely via online means and installed automatically into the game.
  • It adds significant features into the game.

DLC - "downloadable content" - is a very broad term for any additional parts of a game that you can obtain from any of the various online vendors. It's generally reserved for official content from the original publisher, to distinguish it from community content. That is, an additional module for Skyrim to add fancy armor for your horse would be a "mod" if a user did it, but "DLC" if Bethesda did it. DLC can also be very big; for Skyrim, both Dawnguard and Hearthfire are DLC and they make extensive changes to the game.

An "expansion pack" is a separate product that builds on top of an existing game to add significant new features. Expansion packs can usually be purchased at retail and installed from CD, and exist separately from their parent game. They are typically "mini games" in their own right, but rely on the content and engine of their original game for much of their content. In Skyrim, Dawnguard is obviously an "expansion pack" - it add new lands, new weapons, new skill trees, etc. I don't know if it's available for retail yet but I would be very surprised if there's not a Skyrim GOTY edition that includes the two expansion packs.

A better example might be Oblivion: there was a handful of DLC released, including horse armor and Knight of the Nine. Later, there was an actual expansion pack - Shivering Isles - that added an entire new land and new features into the game. (The line was blurried a bit when Bethesda packaged all of their DLC onto a CD for retail sale, but it was basically the same as downloading the DLC and burning the archives to to disk.)

With so much game delivery being online these days, and with official downloadable content getting bigger, the line between a "plug-in" and an "expansion pack" is blurring, and all of it would be considered "DLC".


Personally, I don't think they are the same. Case in point, "downloadable content" encompasses for the game Final Fantasy XIII-2 both extra weapons (which can be downloaded as singular entitites) as well as an extension of the game's story through playing with another character (essentially an expansion pack).

I feel that Downloadable Content encompasses an Expansion Pack, but they are not interchangeable. I guess you could argue that the term Expansion pack has evolved to become Downloadable Content as it would have been very difficult to sell a disc in store that only had an extra weapon for example.

The clue is in the definition of the two terms, they are inherently different.

With regards to your edit, its quite obvious that Bethesda employee meant that traditionally, Expansion Packs contain a lot of content, and could probably hold its right as a game individually. They are referring the Fallout 3's DLC's because they were only really one quest, for example, the DLC that involved a Spaceship, it was simple, you're on a spaceship, get off it.

  • 1
    Exactly. Downloadable Content is any content at all that is, you know, downloadable. An expansion pack may or may not be downloadble (but these days likely is), and while typically thought of as a large-ish chunk of new content, is in actuality anything at all that marketing felt like labeling "Expansion Pack"
    – Sterno
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 14:32
  • @Sterno Does that include on-disc "DLC"? I think gamers have a much more strict definition of DLC than that of marketers.
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:10
  • @fbueckert If that's true, it makes this discussion even more pointless.
    – Sterno
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:15
  • @Sterno See Capcom's SF4 on-disc "DLC"; the only thing that needed downloading was the unlock code. Gamers were NOT happy.
    – Frank
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:18
  • 3
    @fbueckert I think this illustrates the point that everyone has a different definition and this question should be closed. It's off topic and illicits opinion, even in marketers circles, the definition will differ from product to product
    – ediblecode
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:19

As the names already say it, an expansion expands the game, usually in terms of game mechanics and game systems as well as content which utilises those new mechanics. Often it also modifies already existing content to work with the new game mechanics.

Downloadable content on the other hand is just one-third of this: Just the content. Modification of already existing content is avoided or kept to a minimum so that the DLCs can be mixed and matched in any combination. If there are fixes and expansions to game mechanics necessary - which is not very often the case - they come apart from the DLC as a free patch to the regular game.


In today's game market, expansions are now DLC.

Expansion packs traditionally contained large amounts of new content. (Enough to put on a disk that they could sell in a store.)

Today, you can get the same things either as large DLC packs or small DLC packs, depending on the game.


As you've pointed out, there is a difference, but they are also very similar in concept.

The shift took place when broadband became commonplace.

As you pointed out, expansion packs were sold in stores.

From a logistics standpoint, it wasn't feasible to download large quantities of content over a dial up modem and electronic point of sale systems were not readily and easily available as they are today. (think paypal, visa/mc processing, etc)

So, developers had to create a lot of content and bundle it on CD and sell it in the brick and mortar stores. Typically expansions costed around $29.99 from what I remember.

Once broadband adoption rates increased, companies like paypal were born, and consoles were created (xbox, ps3) the shift to DLC started to take place. Consoles were integral in pushing the "DLC" mentality. In fact, I would say that's where the DLC concept was born. There was a whole new generation of gamers that didn't realize that us older PC gamers had been getting all that "DLC" content for free in the past, and so to the younger generation it was normal to pay for additional content.

DLC is essentially "less" content "more" often. (and arguabley less meaningful content)

I personally think we lose out on the deal from both a content and price point perspective. You got way more for your money in an expansion pack than you do these days with all the DLC content.

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