MMO Mechanics: MMORPG expansions vs. sequels

The recent news about EverQuest Next‘s cancellation has renewed the debate about whether or not MMOs should get sequels, which have given me plenty to think about in terms of mechanics and future MMO development. There are a variety of strategies that online games use to stay updated and introduce new mechanics, of course, and each comes with varying levels of disruption for active players. This disruption is an especially important factor for MMO developers since they need to be conscious of the fact that MMOs are living products with persistent worlds.

Some game developers opt to add new game mechanics in self-contained expansions, causing a separation of those players who own the expansion from those who don’t. Full-fledged sequels may make more sense in cases where the disruption caused by new content would be too great or the gap between new and old mechanics would be too much for the current playerbase to swallow. Some studios have even eschewed both sequels and expansions, opting to use iterative development methods where old mechanics are often updated and retired players who decide to come back can return to a very different game indeed.

In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’ll look at some examples of each of these three update methods and discuss the impact of each on game mechanics.

EQ2 (1)

Should MMOs have sequels?

Sequels allow developers to change core mechanics without impacting the previous game, meaning that people who like the game as it is aren’t forced to change if they don’t wish to. It can undoubtedly be very difficult for devs to make fundamental changes to MMOs without creating a sequel as so much of an MMO’s existing content will rely on its current mechanics. Changing anything significantly could break previous content and make other features obsolete, so the ramifications of every mechanical addition or subtraction need to be measured very carefully.

EVE Online has struggled with legacy code for years, with parts of the code that developers wouldn’t touch for fear of breaking the game for all the current players. CCP Games opted to spend a lot of development time building entirely new systems for things such as criminal flagging and territorial warfare so that it could develop new features that interacted with those systems. Building a new game from scratch offers developers a very tempting clean slate and lets them experiment with new game mechanics with much less risk or wasted development time. New mechanics can be developed without worrying about their effect on old content, as none of the content and gameplay from the previous game necessarily needs to be carried over. Sequels are also fantastic for devs who wish to experiment with new game mechanics that might not have been entirely technologically feasible, as may have been the case with EQN’s emergent AI.

The choice to sequelise an MMO franchise is a bit more of a complex issue, though, and hasn’t always worked out for the best. When SOE released EverQuest II, the original began to lose a significant number of subscribers over the following year. Lineage painted a similar picture, with the original losing around a million subs in the year that followed Lineage II’s launch. Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s launch was even preceded with Star Wars Galaxies being completely shut down, largely because the devs didn’t want two different Star Wars MMOs competing. This brings me to the most obvious issue with opting for a sequel: A lot of people don’t want to play the prequel when a new game is available. Some percentage of fans will also make the switch from the original to the new game, weakening the strength of the original’s community, draining resources from its development, and risking that players will miss out on all of its unique mechanics.

GW2

Are expansions a low-risk option?

The typical way we think of MMOs adding new mechanics and content is through expansions: Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and World of Warcraft spring to mind. Expansions should be much faster to develop than a sequel as they use the existing codebase and toolsets and there’s a lower risk of alienating players, so I can see why this option is so popular in the MMO market. It’s not always a fantastic option, however, as developers usually stay tied to the existing mechanics much more strongly due to how complicated it can be to change major content or features without breaking things.

That risk of breaking things in part feeds into why expansions often cause old content to be invalidated. as it’s sometimes simply easier to disable or throttle a conflicting or problematic feature to make way for new mechanics rather than trying to jam both into the same content. I find this to be especially true in games with vertical progression: Just look at the beautiful dungeons and raids across older WoW endgame content that are largely empty despite the team’s best intentions, or just try to find people willing to run the same old zergy GW2 dungeons that have no real incentive. New mechanics are frequently championed over older ones even where both do co-exist, and many older content zones are abandoned unless a map-wide revamp happens.

Frequent expansions can cause some unique problems for MMOs because constantly adding new areas — especially those with fun, engaging new mechanics — spreads players out across the virtual world and causes isolation. EQII added new cities in several of its expansions, for example, which spread players out even further and pulled them away from the core cities. This can undeniably present a problem in a persistent world as it may limit the potential for players meeting and interacting in those supposedly massively multiplayer shared spaces. If those abandoned areas offered up unique mechanics, that also means a whole section of players are disincentivised from enjoying them.

EVE

Iterative development: A balanced approach?

Almost all online games have regular maintenance and updates over time, but for many MMOs these updates are the primary method of delivering new game mechanics and content. MMOs that primarily use iterative development will make huge changes that affect all players and don’t require separate expansion purchases. RuneScape, for example, has gone through several complete game engine rewrites over the years and the combat system has been redesigned several times.

Old content is often updated or removed in iterative updates to make way for new content and mechanics. EVE is a solid example: CCP has revamped practically every game mechanic, ship and module over the years in addition to adding entirely new gameplay. Game developers who employ this iterative approach are necessarily creating a live product that can be completely different in the span of six months or a year, which risks leaving behind players who like the game as it was whenever they made the purchase. The main issue mirrors that of expansions: If you don’t participate in the game at a particular time then you can miss out on some amazing mechanics forever.

Over to you!

There’s no universally approved method for keeping an MMO updated, but I believe that transparency during initial development and for the lifespan of a live product is critical to keeping players on board for the long haul since a solid playerbase is an asset to development that shouldn’t be ignored. What do you think? Do you prefer expansions or sequels? Must expansions pack in as much as a sequel? Must sequels necessarily kill off their predecessors? Let me know in the comments.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to tina@massivelyop.com.
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21 Comments on "MMO Mechanics: MMORPG expansions vs. sequels"

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Nyphur
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Nyphur

arktourosx Nyphur Burning it to the ground sounds like fun to me!

DPandaren
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DPandaren

I think SoE did the right thing with a sequel. By not having it being so much as a direct upgrade from the original or a direct sequel, they were able to just rework what they had and build a new game. EQ and EQ2 live together simultaneously because one’s the original and the other is a parallel universe that takes place in THE FUTURE. 

Like, expansions are good, but as with the EVE example, at some point, there just becomes this huge pile of old code no one wants to work with because they’re afraid it’ll completely break the game. Something I think WoW is going/hitting at right now at this point.

Bluetouchpaper
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Bluetouchpaper

Maybe updating the graphics and keeping the original game in tact would be a better option for most games ? 

But sequels can work just look at Guild Wars 2 although I hear its not a patch on the first game from people who played it I liked it enough to play it 6 months so it was worth it to me . 

There are some games I would never play a sequel to .After seeing what happened to World of Warcraft I would never touch another Blizzard mmo with a barge poll .

Bonnenuit
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Bonnenuit

PurpleCopper I think they are hugely different, if for no reason than because in an expansion, you keep all progression you’ve made up to that point. In a sequel, everyone must start a whole new game anew.

Most times I’d rather not lose all the time I’ve invested into a game already. All else being equal (which it never is), give me expansions over sequels, hands down.

dLinden
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dLinden

sequels sure, after few years(5+) .. new engine etc
but this days, its same shit, high price + 1~2year after original launch xD

Nanulak
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Nanulak

Expansions keep the games alive longer and the community intact.  Sequels never measure up to the originals and the new communities are totally different.  So, for me I like expansions as they are improvements to my game and a sequel is a different game and may or may not capture my interest.

mourasaint
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mourasaint

MMOs are too big to have sequels. No player in his right mind will want to jump in to any MMO with a “2” at the end, unless he was fully immersed and familiar with the first one. 

Generally, MMO sequels can only ever attract the players of the first one.

Coffee, Please
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Coffee, Please

WandaClamshuckr Coffee, Please
We’ll just agree to disagree, although I never personally played EQN to say.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

camelotcrusade Damonvile 
It’s kinda like that for me. If I’m actively playing, an expansion is another reason for me to stay, while a sequel might make me abandon the old game without jumping into the expansion; but if I’m not playing, either because I never got into the game or because I left in the past, then an expansion is usually one more reason for me to stay away, while a sequel might lure me into trying the sequel.

arktourosx
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arktourosx

Nyphur I really like the idea of all that, but my years online have taught me that there’s no way to accomplish that in an open world with other people around.  You think about great ideas like alternative methods to completing quests or accomplishing objectives and I’m sitting here thinking about the guys who are going to watch it all burn to the ground just because they now literally can.

arktourosx
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arktourosx

Sequels are problematic by design. 
When developers look at sequels, they look at it as a chance to do something different.  Like Planetside 2 wanted to try a hex style system instead of a lattice style control system.  They also sought to alleviate the issues from Planetside 1 where most fights are never ending base bunker fights (dropship or interlink facility memories make me shudder) by making the base interiors more accessible and open.  Essentially they’re looking to market to a new group of players who are looking for something different than their original game.
Where the problem comes into play is when you consider the veterans of the original game who’ll check it out.  Since they generally liked what was going on in the first game they’re often times upset to find the sequel greatly varies from the original.  Their agenda largely seems to be to look for the exact same game they played before only with better graphics or technology.  Again looking at Planetside 2 SOE was heavily criticized for “swiss cheese” style base design that was largely undefendable.  They’re lambasted to this day for not having the same scope as the original game.  “Why couldn’t you have just remade the original game with new graphics?” is something you’ll read on every sequel’s forums time and time again.
Really a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

WandaClamshuckr
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WandaClamshuckr

Coffee, Please I have to disagree on your EQ2 point.  I played both games, and I found EQ2 to be a natural successor to the the franchise.  EQN on the other hand..

tobascodagama
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tobascodagama

Lethality I agree, I don’t think MMO sequels are a smart idea in general. What I’d like to see are ARR-style “relaunches” of games that are getting long in the tooth. Leave up a legacy server for fans of the original and just start from as close to scratch as you feel like.

Coffee, Please
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Coffee, Please

Sequels are a great way to make use of modern technology and to ditch out of date game mechanics. Exploiting DirectX 12’s asynchronous access to multiple cores & GPUs (and its new tech in general) is one example. Tech improvements and visual improvements will also require new technology in people’s machines (ex: DX12 video cards), so that’s another reason for a sequel.
The big problem with sequels, IMO, is that the new game can stray too far from the original. EQ2 is great example. I’m not saying that it’s a bad game at all, but it’s never been EverQuest. New tech and new mechanics are great, but then the dev needs to resist the urge to tinker too much.
It’s kind of like dealing with your vehicle. Most of the time it’s much more reasonable, practical, cost effective to replace the tires, replace parts under the hood, tune a few things and keep it running. Eventually it just gets too old to be worth the time or money and you need a new vehicle.

camelotcrusade
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camelotcrusade

Damonvile Pretty much what Damonvile said.  I like expansions when I’m active, and sequels when I want a fresh take to pull me back in.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Expansions and sequels are pretty much the same thing.

One’s just in increments and the other is a bigger jump.

It’s all really just about market branding.

Lethality
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Lethality

I think with the multi-year investment in technology that goes into these things — just to get the foundation laid — there shouldn’t need to really be a “sequel” like there are with single player games. These games should last a decade as an ongoing virtual world. 
What happens after that decade? Well, they update the tech and keep it rolling. At some point they may see value in starting tech from scratch, and at that point make a decision if you want to keep the same world going or jump into a different part of it.
Heck, I even wonder why they just don’t invest in those the same way? I’d love to see Witcher 3 expand for 10 more years! Why not? They built the tech; built the tools; use ’em!

Damonvile
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Damonvile

I think with all mmos I just reach a point where I don’t want to be in that world any more. No new content is going to make me want to come back and play it. I don’t hate it, or spend my days raging about how the developers ruined everything forever. I’m just not interested in that game anymore.
Wow is a game like that. Played for 4 years,and 2 expansions. Loved it till one day I was just bored and didn’t want to play anymore. I’ve never been back or even tempted to try a new expansion.

That being said if they made wow 2 and didn’t just clone what they have, I’d be interested in trying it.

So that doesn’t really help me answer your question :P because my answer is, I like expansions till I don’t like the game. Then I’m fine with a sequel…if it’s good!.

Nyphur
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Nyphur

solipsis Crowfall’s campaign worlds will reportedly have destructible environments, but I was also very much looking forward to seeing voxelfarm in action. I think voxelfarm could really shine in a PvE-focused MMORPG, as it potentially opens up more options for how to complete certain quests or dungeons. A rogue might just sneak in somewhere for a quest, while a wizard could complete the same quest by blowing a hole in the wall to get in, and maybe a druid could turn into a creature that can tunnel under the ground to get in.
It’d add a ton of creativity to standard PvE MMOs and allow for new types of non-combat magic and interesting new strategies for dungeons depending on your group setup etc. I honestly think something like that would be the next great evolution of the MMORPG genre, and I hope we get a game that properly attempts it (with non-blocky voxels, of course).

Rheem Octuris
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Rheem Octuris

solipsis Not really. The closest is probably SkySaga, which has a blooky world but things like plants and animals are more ‘normal’ looking than most games.

solipsis
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solipsis

Speaking of EQ:Next. I was looking forward to their use of non-blocky voxel technology. Any other game attempting to use non-blocky voxels?

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