Massively Overthinking: How long should MMO expansions be?


Star Wars The Old Republic’s Legacy of the Sith struggled for many reasons, but the one I’ve seen echoed over and over is that it was simply too short for the cost and the label of “expansion.” Traditionally, there’s an expectation that expansions should have a specific set of things, like story content, dungeons, questing, new systems, and maybe even new classes and zones. But regardless of the specifics, players want to feel as if they’re buying an expansion to the world that expands how much time they’re going to spend in it, that lengthens the life of the game for them.

So when an MMO doesn’t do that… well, you get the reception to LOTS.

I want to talk about expansions in this week’s Massively Overthinking – not necessarily just LOTS but in general. Do you expect different things from expansions vs. updates? Do you expect to pay more for expansions vs. other content, like quest packs or DLC? How much time should you expect to put into leveling through an expansion’s core content versus the inevitable repeatable content once that’s through? How long should an MMO expansion be, and how much time do you truly expect to get out of one?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’ve said this a few times, but I am extremely spoiled by some early titles: Asheron’s Call 1, Asheron’s Call 2, and Horizons/Istaria. Subscriptions gave us monthly updates where we’d get things like new mechanics, dungeons, land masses, races, skills, level cap increases, multi-month dev-lead events… and yet, two out of three of those games also had expansions. The difference? They combined most of those things into content that would essentially be catered to for the next year or so. For example, maybe the level cap would be lifted in one patch, but an expansion would add XP-heavy mobs to grind on, along with new items to unlock new move/class customization. A new landmass would have its own lore to discover, and some people might blow through it in about a month, but most of us might take a few months or longer, depending on the guild. It wouldn’t matter, though, as the next month would add even more content.

If a game lacks a subscription, I very much do expect to pay for quest packs/DLC. It feels much fairer than gambleboxes, which was one of the reasons I would purchase that content from Niantic in Pokemon GO before I saw how little it cares for its players’ safety. But even if I ignore corporate irresponsibility, the cost of entertainment was a better deal than going to the movies for the most part, possibly in the same ballpark as my old-school MMOs subscription fees vs. updates (at least, for the lighter and possibly medium content months). That’s how most good DLC feels, MMO or not. A few bucks? A few hours. $10-$20? A few days. $25-$40? A few weeks. More than that, it should over a month.

Sadly, though, the label is used in marketing speech, and inappropriately at times. I know some of our younger MMO fans probably look at my “updates” and would see something like Aerlinthe Patch and call that an expansion. That being said, for me, an “expansion” is something in the $25/$40+ range that should take me weeks/months to finish. Anything less is just DLC.

Andy McAdams: One of those weird things that always stuck with me was a social studies textbook in high school that talked about Canada’s independence as “Evolution not Revolution” (a potshot at supposed American proclivity for bloodshed and a rare moment of criticism of the United States). This same concept applies to my concepts of updates vs expansions, albeit without the same vague ideological existentialism as my social studies textbook.

I see updates as evolutions of what’s already there. That evolution can be things like tweaking class balance, itemization, and a continuation of a story. Developers aren’t necessarily adding anything net-new most of the time; they are just improving what’s already there. That doesn’t mean that new features don’t drop in updates, just that they scale and impact of those features is smaller — more contained.

Expansions, on the other hand, are revolutions of the game. Not like “revolutionary” in the eye-rolly marketing term, but meaning that it dramatically changes multiple aspects of the game at the same time. Big swings in class balance changes (or entire reworks), taking the story in a new story direction, adding new features like a Dance Studio… *cough*. An expansion is a whole batch of big changes that involves improvements, changes, new content, brand-new features. It creates substantive change in the way the game is played in a way that an update does not.

With that in mind, I understand better than most how expensive it is to create these games, so I’m generally OK with a $50ish price tag on a full-fledged expansion that meets my definition above. For updates it really depends. ESO is probably the best model to use, and I don’t have a good sense of how much I’d be willing to pay for quest packs or DLC. It just depends – I loved the Thieves Guild DLC, so I’m willing to shell out for that, but I can’t get into all the Argonian-themed DLC, so I’m not really willing to dish out there. I really like the idea of classes as DLC (if not slimy) like RIFT’s. Again, how much I’d be willing to shell out probably depends on the theme. A dark wizard, psionicist, or illusionist support class – I’m going to shell out more than a rethemed sword-and-board character.

So that’s a lot of words to say, “Well, I guess it depends.”

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I hate to go all “I know it when I see it” on expansions, but I think that for most content updates, it does boil down to that. There’s no one specific thing that an expansion has to have versus an update, but it does need to have “enough” stuff overall that people believe it’s an expansion of the game and not just a slapped-on patch to what’s already there. The bucket needs to be full; what you fill it with is up to you. Classes, skills, maps, modes, races, gear, dungeons, quests, story, crafting, housing. Something to fill a sizable chunk of my time in the aggregate – especially if you expect me to pay for it. More than anything, I expect to see maps and zones.

Multiplayer fans or younger generations might be content with things like season passes, but MMORPG veterans have plenty of comparisons at the ready if you’re going to try to market something as an expansion. Anyone who grew up on World of Warcraft or older MMOs is going to automatically compare your offerings to what we were able to buy two decades ago. If you’re not coming close to that, people will be suspicious and hostile.

Oh, and if you’re trying to charge expansion money for what is actually a patch with a “mini-expansion” name? Get out.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I come from the days when PC games – and their content expansions – came in big shiny cardboard boxes, so that is pretty much going to color a lot of my thinking: Expansions should have a good couple of months’ worth of content from the off, even if consumed at a breakneck pace.

I’ve honestly grown gun-shy using the word “expansion” in writing many stories because of this (as well as being yelled at for the misuse of the term MMO), and that is often not helped by marketing and PR. It’s become another word muddied by marketing, much like beta and alpha “testing” has.

I appreciate that game dev is super expensive nowadays, and I want devs to be both properly paid for their effort as well as not work themselves into pudding, but if you’re asking for even two-thirds of a box price, I definitely expect more than a couple of systems tweak and a couple of hours’ worth of story arc. I didn’t buy those big box PC games for nothing.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing about expansion evaluation is that it’s not really about length so much as depth. And there’s a perfect example of this in my history, the one expansion I have really regretted purchasing: Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia.

For those of you who have played Chains of Promathia, you probably know where this is going. For those of you who have not, though, CoP was an expansion that really brought the game’s story focus forward in a big way. It featured a massive, sprawling storyline that incorporated everything we already knew about the world and brought more besides, bringing us to far-reaching corners of Vana’diel, exploring all sorts of unique and different maps, and forcing players to engage with important bits of lore that resonated down to the very heart of the game’s origins stories. It featured diverse and interesting characters and ran for a very, very long time.

And that was all it included.

There were new maps, yes, but most of them had exceedingly annoying restrictions in terms of levels permitted (requiring you to keep extra sets of equipment on-hand just to traverse them) and they weren’t useful for leveling or anything of the sort. There was a new style of dungeon, but it was highly irritating and most people wanted nothing to do with it. The expansion had plenty of raw content, but it had no additional depth. By contrast, the very next expansion included not just new story and new areas, but also new jobs, new systems, and new ways to explore the game. It might have had slightly less story on a whole, but it had more depth, more to engage players beyond just “clear this very, very long stretch of story under rather irritating limitations.”

Length is nice. Having content that’ll take me some time to go through is all well and good. But the fact that I mainline Final Fantasy XIV expansions and complete the new story in a couple days doesn’t change the fact that the expansions feel substantial with new areas, sidequests, jobs, stories, and so forth so that even when I’ve gotten through all of the main story, there’s still plenty to do. There’s depth there, and finishing off one very specific part doesn’t mean there’s not a lot more out there to enjoy.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): If we’re talking expansion cycles and cadences, I think “every two years” is a really good groove that some of the major titles have adhered to. But if we’re talking scope of an expansion that makes it worthy of that title, then my standards are:

  • A substantial amount of new content (multiple zones, multiple dungeons, many new quests)
  • At least one, if not more, tentpole features (new systems added to the game, new classes, new races, or a vastly expanded/overhauled system)
  • An opportunity to significantly progress one’s characters (additional levels, talents, abilities, etc.)

I’m not hard-line about these, but generally, a good expansion contains all of the above in some measure.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I really do not think much of updates at all. Feature updates and the like should improve existing systems and adjust balance, but an expansion needs to do a lot. An increase to the level cap, new tiers of gear, and just more content and new features to engage in are expected.

So expansions should bring with them enough content and features to keep players busy for months. Now, that doesn’t mean that it needs to include so much grind that players have to drag through but I think if someone is casually playing through the content, maybe a couple hours a night, the main content should take a month maybe two. The more grindy content, like unlocking achievements or special gear should last two or three months of casual play.

Players expect that and are willing to pay for it. I generally expect to pay about a full box price for an expansion. If the add-ons are good for the upgraded packages, I’ll do that too.

Tyler Edwards (blog): At first I thought this was a very simple question to answer, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it may be more complicated than I initially assumed.

Generally, I’d say I think a true expansion needs to include at least some new content (usually leveling and/or story content), and some new feature or system that will persist for the life of the game. The latter is especially important; if you’re not expanding the game in some substantive way, it’s a patch, not an expansion. New races, classes, or other character building options are a classic and effective way to do this, but it could also be in the form of player housing, a well-supported minigame, or some other persistent feature. The persistence is important; I think a lot of the reason recent World of Warcraft expansions have been so poorly received is because of their fleeting “borrowed power” mechanics.

But then it occurred to me there are expansions that don’t fit this model that I’m still very fond of. SWTOR’s Knights of the Eternal Throne comes to mind as one of my favourite MMO expansions, despite not adding much in the way of lasting systems. It’s not even that big in terms of content, but I still loved it. The quality was good enough that I’m willing to overlook its smaller scope.

So I guess the lesson here is that if you deliver on quality, it can be easier to forgive shortcomings elsewhere. It can also be a matter of expectation; given the relative resources available to each game, I expect a lot more from an expansion to WoW than SWTOR.

As I discussed in my recent soapbox, I would have been quite willing to forgive LOTS for being as short as it is if the quality had been impeccable. The problem is that wasn’t the case; the quality of LOTS is very much peccable.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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