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.


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.


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
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