A free DLC pack, titled Outlaws to the End, was announced last week for the upcoming wild-west shooter Red Dead Redemption. The pack adds six co-op missions to the game and comes out in June; nearly a month after Red Dead Redemption is released. The timing and price of the pack is very interesting, because it neatly illustrates the evolution in the way that publishers think about downloadable content.

The earliest DLC was as much an experiment as it was a revenue source. Publishers and developers had no idea whether people would be willing to pay for the additional content, and announcing DLC before the game came out simply didn’t happen. But as DLC caught on, the way that publishers thought about it became more sophisticated, and its role become more than squeezing a few extra dollars out of a popular game. In just a few years we’ve gone from, “Hey, I wonder if people would pay a couple of bucks for a new horse model?” to things like EA’s 'Project Ten Dollar' and 'Online Pass', where downloadable content is so well established that it’s used as a carrot to entice gamers to buy games new.

Simply making a good game is not enough to guarantee success anymore. Publishers need to be very smart with their marketing and make good use of the tools that are available. The success of DLC has opened new avenues for publishers, allowing for new strategies that go beyond simply lining their pockets.

Take the Outlaws to the End pack. There’s no immediate money to be made, because the content is free, and it seems like a very strange choice to leave out an entire gameplay mode. But when you look at it from a wider perspective, Rockstar’s decision makes a lot of sense. By making the co-op a discrete event, linked but separate from the game itself, Rockstar increases the amount of real estate Red Dead Redemption occupies in peoples’ minds and gives consumers an incentive to hang onto the game after they’ve completed it.

It’s pretty easy to flit from game to game, and keeping people engaged with a particular title can be difficult. If co-op had been included in Red Dead Revolver’s initial release, people would be excited about it, but it would be part of the general excitement about the game. By delaying it, people are excited for an entire month, a month they are not trading the game in for something else and a month they are talking about the upcoming co-op mode expectantly.

When you consider that most game sales take place in the first few weeks, maintaining a buzz for an additional month is a pretty big deal. Will Outlaws to the End make Rockstar a tonne of cash? Not directly, no, but as with a lot of modern DLC, that was never the point.

From relatively humble and tentative beginnings, downloadable content has become a subtle and nuanced thing. Its role has evolved in a handful of years, and has catalysed the growth of the industry in new directions. DLC isn’t just some add-on anymore, it’s an important part of the grand plan.