I’m not really on board with the trend of saying that big expansions are back. They never left. Sure, we have one coming out for Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, but World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, and Final Fantasy XIV have all been keeping the faith for a long while now. Their format shifted for a while as game distribution formats shifted, but the idea of a big expansion has never gone away, just taken a drubbing from the popular adage of “let’s launch lots of little expansions over and over.”
Me, I’ve never been a fan of that approach. I wasn’t a fan of it with Guild Wars 2 when the game first made that a selling point, and I haven’t been fond of the games jumping on the bandwagon since then. And there are a lot of reasons why I’m in favor of slower patches and expansion with more content versus faster and smaller.
1. It gives the community a rallying point
One of my dearest MMO memories is from the launch day of Final Fantasy XI‘s third expansion, Treasures of Aht Urghan. For one thing, it hit a lot of my personal aesthetic preferences, so that alone made me happy to be there at launch, but the memory I’m thinking of was the boat ride I took with a thick gathering of players sailing toward the new continent. I knew I wasn’t going to be there for long, because I had new jobs to unlock elsewhere (hooray, Blue Mage and Corsair!), but there was so much excitement and energy on the boat, so many people speculating and banding together.
Expansions create a sense of camaraderie right off the bat, with everyone heading off to explore the same new stuff, and it’s a sense of community and belonging that you don’t get through most of the game’s lifespan. For a little while, everything is equally new to everyone. You’re all explorers, and you’re all on the same team, and you’re all trying to figure out what’s going on.
2. It allows for more in-depth features
One of the things that Guild Wars 2‘s designers touted with the whole idea of its living world updates was that the team could patch in an expansion’s worth of content a small piece at a time. In practice, that didn’t happen, and it’s kind of a good thing it didn’t because adding a new zone alone can create some new experiences and shake up the presence of a game, but an expansion by definition shakes up the whole foundation. It expands it. What used to be important is no longer the same, and what matters now didn’t matter that much beforehand.
Expansions allow for big chunks of content that work in concert with one another, rather than isolated bits here and there that exist off to one side from the rest of the game. The first Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, suffered a lot for the fact that it existed almost entirely on one planet separate from everything else. It was an island of higher-level content in a sea of the same stuff everywhere else, and the net result was that even though it wasn’t small, it felt smaller.
3. It frees space for big changes
You know what the biggest mistake of the Star Wars Galaxies NGE update was? (Well, the biggest timing-related mistake, anyhow; I have no interest in discussing the mechanical changes or whether it was a good idea.) It was that it launched completely separate from an expansion. Not to put too fine a point on it, that was just plain dumb. Players expect big changes going into an expansion, but not necessarily just after one launches.
One of the things that World of Warcraft has regularly done to its credit is saving its major system shifts for expansions rather than partway along the cycle. Sure, the developers might know that armor penetration is going away after this expansion, but the actual removal coincides when there’s a whole lot of new stuff to explore and the game is majorly changing anyhow. You don’t feel the change as keenly when the structure of the game is already shifting.
4. It encourages longer engagement
Slower updates keep you engaged for longer because you can’t be done with them in a day. You aren’t meant to be done with them in a day. Yes, updates will always take longer to make than they take to consume, it’s the nature of the beast. The important thing is that if you take three weeks to clear out all of the content, you’ve probably picked up lots of other side things you want to do and made friendships that keep you logging in over the next two months. When you have an update every week, you log in for the hour’s worth of content and then come back in a week.
5. Smaller and faster never works out well
I remember when WildStar boasted about having monthly updates, my first thought was, “Wow, that was really stupid.” Sure enough, three months in that cadence stopped. Star Wars: The Old Republic offered a similar promise, and again, it didn’t last. The Elder Scrolls Online? Oh yeah. And so on and so forth.
Full kudos to the Guild Wars 2 team for being the one of the few studios I can think of promising very quick updates and delivering them for an extended period of time. The actual content of those updates isn’t the point, in this case.
6. Smaller and faster also removes a money angle
I have a theory, and bear with me on it for just a minute: When a game is built around yearly-or-close-to-it expansions, the game’s development budget is planned with that in mind. A rush of sales will happen then. When there’s no expansion on the horizon, though, no big punch of what the developers can sell… well, the game still needs to make money somehow, right? So cash shop items are the only thing really left for the game other than aggressive subscription pushes.
In other words, the lack of an expansion doesn’t mean that the development team isn’t expecting you to drop $30 extra per year on the game. It just means that said team needs to extract that $30 from you in a different fashion, and the obvious method of doing so is by focusing more on the cash shop. That doesn’t exactly give more time for developing updates that don’t cost money.
7. It helps track the game’s progress
Warlords of Draenor is awful. World of Warcraft is not. The game has had four excellent expansions (including vanilla) and two bad ones. And the nature of those expansions serves to mark time for the game, so I can point and really talk about how the game changed between Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria and so forth.
For those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about MMOs, being able to mark progress on a steady scale is important, and creating distinct eras of development is a good thing for understanding what worked in the past and what can work again.
8. It creates expectations for the future
People in Final Fantasy XIV are already talking about the next expansion. We have, I believe, at least a year before we even hear about another expansion. But the structure has been put into place, and speculation runs rampant about new potential jobs, new gameplay mechanics, things that can be done with another go-round. The existence of structure provides a road map for continuing that structure. And players who expect more cool stuff in the future are more likely to stick around now.
9. Smaller and faster is more intimidating
Joining a new game or getting back up to speed on an old one requires a certain amount of adjustment. With a game that provides slower and larger updates, this means that any given update contains lots of stuff for you to work through. But it’s also more static. By contrast, a game pushing out new updates at a breakneck pace is a new batch of information to overwhelm your sense on a distressingly regular schedule. You barely have a handle on the base game that you’re leveling through, and now it’s being changed and you don’t even know why.
Yes, sometimes this rapid stuff passes you by as you’re catching up anyway and isn’t relevant for what you’re doing. But it’s also a lot more overwhelming than knowing you have a few months at least with the game-that-is before it becomes the game-that-was.
10. I like boxes
It’s silly, I know. But I like having boxes for stuff, and you can’t have that with a new micropatch every other week. I don’t think you can, anyway; let me call some distributors and see.