Perfect Ten: Why big MMO expansions are a good thing

    
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Yes, this is one such alt.

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.

Of course, then you actually find it, but that's a different problem.

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.

There were a lot of other mistakes here too, but that's another discussion.

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.

Is that this game's issue? No, my friends, it's much wider than that. It just doesn't help.

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.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Gavin_Lafferty
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Gavin_Lafferty

Fathdris tylerh129 Eliot_Lefebvre It’s nice to see there is some debate about whether Cataclysm was a bad expansion. 

Also funny how there is no debate about Warlords. It is terrible and the game’s nadir. At least it has to be the nadir, another failure like Warlords will not be tolerated.

Fathdris
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Fathdris

tylerh129 Eliot_Lefebvre Fathdris Vash’ir was awesome.

Fathdris
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Fathdris

Eliot_Lefebvre Fathdris Cataclysm was never a bad expasion to begin with. It had the best zone in the game (Vashir), and it revamped the old world from the pathetic mess that it was to a streamlined leveling experience. It also updated the timeline.

AND its raids and heroics were actually hard. I’m not a raider, but I did see a lot of whiners complaining that it was “too hard”. Considering they whined that Wrath was too easy… and then again that MoP was too easy….

Cataclysm also had a decent story… as did MoP. 
Warlord’s story looks like it is written by a pre-schooling who has been exposed to alcohol. And what is with Garrisons?! And then the diabolical decision regarding flying.

Craywulf
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Craywulf

Expansions are 100% marketing. Absolutely do not guarantee anything more or less than regular updates. It’s only a perception and expectation that somehow the classification of updates being made into an “expansion” is what stirs up the masses. Gamers can be real suckers into being convinced that the next update is something more magical because there’s some marketing behind it. 

I absolutely believe ArenaNet is pulling a conjob with its expansion. They could easily provided it free in their updates. They marketed it for the suckers and crybabies who bailed on the game a year ago.

Drivendawn
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Drivendawn

Nevid Eliot_Lefebvre So you have a problem with said content. That’s fine but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a large X-pac. You don’t know how the zones will be used in the future so it’s a little bit early to be asking why they were built and what content over the next year will be put into them. Also in a month there will be a new raid and exploratory missions and that is a nice bit more end game being added very soon.

Father Xmas
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Father Xmas

Well City of Heroes was able to add individual maps during it’s life which did provide an alternative leveling route and have it’s own self contained story.  The Hollows and Croatoa spring to mind.
So it could have been done in GW2, and well was during the 2nd Living World story with Drytop and Silverwastes.  So it’s not impossible.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Bah, big MMO expansions are just a cynical marketing ploy.

Nevid
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Nevid

Eliot_Lefebvre Nevid The entirely new endgame for crafters and gatherers are a joke. All it did was add extra grind and convolution without actually addressing the issue of crating and melding (vit melds usually only applies to tanks and/or first world/server aiming players) largely useless to combat content where all the weapons and armors they get to make are late and weaker than what you can get through welfare grinding. How do you even justify crafting being allowed to make i110 weapons after i130 weapons have been out for months and even then you still need to pour millions to even think about it competing those tome weapons? Those wootz weapons just became glamour garbage . You dont become a crafter to provide for combatants, you make stuff for glamour and other crafters who wants shortcut. Basing game’s economy almost entirely on fluff is pathetic. 
The six new zones aren’t used well. The only reason to muck around in it is still the terrible ‘hunts’ and it’s already undermined by tomes. Once you get to level cap you have almost no reason to go out there and fight. The new city seems to be only designed for a setpiece of the main scenario story (why even make ishgard and idyllshire). What was even the point of building up mor dhona? Seems likes a huge waste of dev time if they just abandon it as soon as it’s done near the end of expansion. The three classes either had massive balance issues and identity issues, much like the dps-sameyness they had before expac (every melee dps has 1 buff, 1 debuff, 1 short dot, 1 long dot to keep up).
Alex being almost exactly the same in structure is exactly what’s wrong with it. The first 2 fights even had almost the same theme as 2 of the first coil fights (t1 caduceus and t4 and t1 was still more fleshed out). I don’t see how a 10 level bump cap is considered a big change when you reach that level cap you arrive at the exact same endgame. I honestly don’t see you can write point no 3 and then use HW’s level cap content as an example. I really don’t.

tylerh129
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tylerh129

Eliot_Lefebvre Fathdris But I loved Vashj’ir…

tylerh129
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tylerh129

While for the most part you are right, there are a few games such as Runescape which have never had an expansion and do most of these points great without it.