Vague Patch Notes: The fuzzy reality of MMO expansions

Not pictured: NFTs.

So for some reason right now, I’m thinking a lot about expansions. It might be because we’ve got Final Fantasy XIV’s next major expansion in less than a month. It might be because we’re being drip-fed the last few new revelations from Guild Wars 2’s next expansion. It might just be due to someone reminding me that Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening existed and was kind of a disappointing morass of stuff despite having high promise. Who knows?

Well, all right, you all probably know it’s more about the first two and not the third one, but sometimes I just have to slide in a hot take about expansions from more than a decade ago. No need to drag me for it; I’ve already done it.

Anyhow, the slate of expansions on deck right now has me thinking about expansions – specifically, what keeps coming to my mind is what we’ve been promised for the features of End of Dragons and how some of them, most notably fishing, feel remarkably thin as a genuine central expansion feature. But… what even makes a central expansion feature? What even is an expansion? How do we draw the line?

Let’s start by acknowledging a truism: In the strictest sense, what makes something an expansion is the game in question calling it an expansion. There is not some dividing line where you can say that technically what you are calling an expansion is actually a megapatch and you will be fined by the Content Naming Commission or something. If Star Trek Online claimed that one new explorable planet and two new missions were an expansion, well, that’s between the marketing team and the players.

However, while there is not a formal definition to be found here, there is still a common-use expectation just the same. The prior offering would not fail to meet a legal definition, but it would fail to meet an expected one, and people would look at the developers askance for it, as happened to Standing Stone Games with Lord of the Rings Online’s “expansion” last fall. Conversely, calling an update containing a whole new storyline, a new sector of space, a new system, and two new reputations “just a patch” would be met with a similar sense of “wait, you’re calling it what?” There are expectations.

And the rest.

So let’s try to establish a baseline. Expansions, per the name, are there to expand the base game. That means we expect certain things. We expect more space, for one thing; expansions are supposed to give us new areas to explore and new things to interact with. The exact quantity can vary, but the idea of new regions seems pretty well set in stone.

Of course, with new areas comes the need for your character to be able to do new things. At a glance, this is often shorthanded as “new level cap” and the like, but that’s actually misleading. A new level cap in and of itself doesn’t necessarily do much; in World of Warcraft’s most recent expansion, the new level cap doesn’t actually provide any new powers. GW2’s expansions have never included a level bump and never will; likewise, Guild Wars definitely had multiple expansions and campaigns without more levels.

However, all of them did feel like expansions because they included new options for characters. Shadowlands adds Covenant powers, so you get new powers that way. (I did not say these were all good options.) GW2 adds new elite specializations so you have new character choices. GW1 added new professions and new skills. The point was not necessarily that you became strictly more powerful, but that you felt like you were getting new tools along the way.

Arguably, a new level cap alone isn’t nearly enough to make something feel like an expansion. The obvious example would be WoW again; the way the game is structured, at this point it feels like new levels are more of an impediment than a benefit. Even FFXIV doesn’t stop at new levels and new tools, since it also adds new jobs so you can start playing something totally different.

So are new areas and a new set of character abilities enough? Probably not. It also seems like a proper expansion needs something else new to really make it stand on its own, something that the game legitimately does not have prior to the expansion’s launch. City of Heroes only had two expansions, but both brought a major new system into the game (the ability to play as villains and then the ability to swap sides). Every GW2 expansion has introduced something new, from Masteries in general to mounts and so on. FFXIV is bringing the aforementioned new jobs as well as the Island Sanctuary. The list goes on.

It’s here that things can start wading far into the bog. After all, what’s a substantial feature and what isn’t? How do you decide whether or not something is big enough or not to fit within a given expansion? Short of going the WoW route and declaring any system you’ve developed to have a hard expiration date, how do you make sure that the new things you’re introducing are going to be supported and relevant moving forward? There are no firm answers, just that need to deliver something real and substantial to serve as an expansion feature.

Eye see.

Let’s look at an expansion that failed to live up to these requirements: Final Fantasy XI’s Chains of Promathia. It definitely delivered on having new areas for players to explore, and it had a lengthy and intricate storyline that fans are still intrigued by even now. Unfortunately, that’s where the expansion ends. There was no new level cap, no new abilities for existing jobs, no new jobs, and not even any real added system. It had a couple of new forms of content, but that didn’t really penetrate past doing the stuff required for the main story.

As such, Chains of Promathia was divisive to say the least. A lot of people were resolute in the idea that the expansion was just too insubstantial to be called that, and the developers later agreed. (It should be noted that the very next expansion, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, added three new jobs and was widely considered to be the high point of the game’s history.)

It’s also where some people (including me) take a little bit of issue with End of Dragons. One cannot argue that it does not possess all of the qualities needed for an expansion – there are new masteries introducing new systems, new elite specializations, new areas, and so forth. But “fishing” feels a little light for a major expansion feature, and you can at least understand why some people might look at that with a raised eyebrow and a sense of “where’s the big centerpiece?”

So what does all this mean? Well… expansions are hard, basically. An expansion has to provide a lot to justify its place as a new product to be sold (or, for many free-to-play titles, as an opportunity to sell other products because the expansion itself is free). That means it needs to add a lot to the game, and sometimes it can be complicated to determine if something is adding enough content to the game. Helped not one whit by the fact that it’s all a very subjective equation.

Is that too vague? All right, here’s a different conclusion: I don’t like Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening. That’s less germane to MMOs, but it’s very concrete.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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