Precursors to DLC
The earliest form of downloadable content were offerings of full games, such as on the Atari 2600's GameLine service, which allowed users to download games using a telephone line. A similar service, Sega Channel, allowed for the downloading of games to the Sega Genesis over a cable line. While the GameLine and Sega Channel services allowed for the distribution of entire titles, they did not provide downloadable content for existing titles.
On personal computers
As the popularity and speed of internet connections rose, so did the popularity of using the internet for digital distribution of media. User-created game mods and maps were distributed exclusively online, as they were mainly created by people without the infrastructure capable of distributing the content through physical media.
In 1997, Cavedog offered a new unit every month as free downloadable content for their real-time strategy computer game Total Annihilation.
The Dreamcast was the first console to feature online support as a standard; DLC was available, though limited in size due to the narrowband connection and the size limitations of a memory card. These online features were still considered a breakthrough in video games, but the competing PlayStation 2 did not ship with a built-in network adapter.
With the advent of the Xbox, Microsoft was the second company to implement downloadable content. Many original Xbox Live titles, including Splinter Cell, Halo 2, and Ninja Gaiden, offered varying amounts of extra content, available for download through the Xbox Live service. Most of this content, with the notable exception of content for Microsoft-published titles, was available for free.
With the Xbox 360 introduction in 2005, Microsoft integrated downloadable content more fully into their console, devoting an entire section of the console's user interface to the Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft believed that publishers would benefit by offering small pieces of content at a small cost ($1 to $5), rather than full expansion packs (~$20), as this would allow players to pick and chose what content they desired, providing revenue to the publishers. They also partially removed the need for credit cards by implementing their own Microsoft Points currency, which could be bought either with a credit card online or as redeemable codes in game stores to avoid the banking fees associated with the small price points. This is a strategy that would be adopted by Nintendo with Nintendo Points and Sony with the PlayStation Network Card.
One of the most infamous examples of DLC on consoles was the Horse Armor DLC package released on the Xbox Live Marketplace in 2006 for the Bethesda Softworks game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that fans criticized as useless and overpriced. However, by 2009, the Horse Armor DLC was one of the top ten content packs that Bethesda had sold, which justified the DLC model for future games.
Sony adopted the same approach with their downloadable hub, the PlayStation Store. With Gran Turismo HD, Sony planned an entirely barebones title, with the idea of requiring the bulk of the content to be purchased separately via many separate online microtransactions. The project was later canceled. Nintendo has featured a sparser amount of downloadable content on their Wii Shop Channel, the bulk of which is accounted for by digital distribution of emulated Nintendo titles from previous generations.
Music video games such as titles from the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises have taken significant advantage of downloadable content. Harmonix claimed that Guitar Hero II would feature "more online content than anyone has ever seen in a game to this date." Rock Band features the largest number of downloadable items of any console video game, with a steady number of new songs that were added weekly between 2007 and 2013. Acquiring all the downloadable content for Rock Band would, as of July 12, 2012, cost $9,150.10.
Nokia phones of the late 1990s and early 2000s shipped with side-scrolling shooter Space Impact, available on various models. With the introduction of WAP in 2000, additional downloadable content for the game, with extra levels, became available.
Through use of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection users can download DLC to the Nintendo DS handheld for certain games. A good example is Picross DS, in which users can download puzzle "packs" of classic puzzles from previous Picross games (such as Mario's Picross) as well as downloadable user generated content. Professor Layton and the Curious Village was thought to have "bonus puzzles" that can be "downloaded" using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, however connecting to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection simply unlocked the puzzles which were already stored in the game. Similarly, Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 had hidden costumes that were unlocked using DS Download Stations for a limited time.
Due to the Nintendo DS's use of cartridges and lack of a hard drive there is limited space for DLC and developers would have to plan for storage space on the cartridge. Picross DS itself only has room for ten puzzle packs, and Professor Layton's and Ouendan 2's DLC is already on the cartridge and is simply unlocked with a weekly code.
The Nintendo DS's downloadable content is distinct as it is currently being offered at no cost. However, the Nintendo DSi contains a Shop similar to that of the Wii that contains games and applications, most of which must be bought using Nintendo Points. It is also worth noting that, using the Wii's Nintendo Channel, various DS files, such as game demos and videos can be downloaded onto the Wii console and transferred via wireless to a DSi handheld.
The Nintendo 3DS supports downloadable content as of update (220.127.116.11U), the first title to support it being Theatrhythm Final Fantasy in the form of extra songs. Other games to support DLC quickly followed, such as Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS.
Starting with Apple's iPhone OS version 3.0 release, and Apple's iPhone 4, downloadable content became available for the platform via applications bought from the App Store. While this ability was initially only available to developers for paid applications, Apple eventually allowed for developers to offer this in free applications as well in October 2009.