Vague Patch Notes: There is no one-and-done with MMOs

You knew this image was going to show up at some point during these articles. Be thankful it only happened at the end.

Last week’s Vague Patch Notes column focused on the struggle of adding new things to MMORPGs forever and ever. I think it was a pretty good column, but unintentionally it mostly focused on the problems of adding stuff without really leaning into the reasons for adding new things. That was just presented as a given. Of course expansions are going to add new things. What else would they do?

This isn’t unusual in and of itself. I write a lot of columns in which I find I’m focusing on one element over others. Pretty normal stuff. But I realized that there is actually a deficiency in treating the addition of new stuff as just a prima facie benefit, as if this were some sort of mistaken guess about how to make expansions be interesting when we really could just get new quests and zones and call it a day, right? So let’s take a step back and really dive into that.

Consider a venerable video game franchise that started just adding more stuff: Mega Man. In Mega Man 1 and Mega Man 2, you fight through robot master stages (six in the former, eight in the latter) and then a handful of Wily fortress stages. For Mega Man 3, the team really felt like the game needed more to it, so instead it added the four Doc Robot stages, which featured fights against the eight robot masters from Mega Man 2. Then we got the Wily stages. Fine in and of itself, but then the next game, Mega Man 4, featured a “fake” villain you had to fight before you found out that you were fighting Dr. Wily.

The general consensus has long been that Mega Man 4 through Mega Man 6 are padded out, despite the fact that you’re getting more game. All right, sure, you do have to make it through the fortresses altogether in one sitting based on passwords, but that’s not so bad in and of itself. It’s more content!

But the problem is that it’s more content for the sake of being more content, in a series where a big chunk of the fun is beating robots and getting new powers. Suddenly you have ever-larger chunks of the game where that doesn’t happen.


New quests and areas are fun, don’t get me wrong, but a big part of any sort of gameplay is progression. You want to get new tricks because that’s just a natural part of feeling like you’ve accomplished something. There’s a reason why so many Bond films feature a scene where Bond is just shown a bunch of cool gadgets for remarkably specific situations, followed by numerous remarkably specific situations when we get to see those cool gadgets wreck shop. That’s the fun part.

Sure, with MMOs it’s a little bit different because sometimes you won’t be playing as the New Class, but you still want new abilities and tricks. The World of Warcraft expansions where “borrowed power” became a really dirty word were also the ones where that borrowed power was your only advancement. You leveled up, but you didn’t actually get anything from leveling up, and that made it feel… well, boring. Where are the cool new tricks?

That doesn’t mean that you have to constantly be fed new things the whole time, no. But it does mean that players expect new stuff to be there because otherwise… why are you here? If you’re using the same abilities as before with the same balance and the same mechanics and all that’s changed are the locations and the quests… that’s not an expansion, that’s a patch. That’s a mission pack.

And that’s a good thing because adding new things to do and new ways to explore a game is… fun. It is enjoyable. These things spark joy.

For example, there is a very dense amount of lore going on in Lord of the Rings Online, and I remember that certain segments of the game’s playerbase were annoyed about how Rune-keepers represented a break from a lot of the game’s traditions. It was the first time that the game really leaned in on having a pure caster (the Lore-master being then more about pets and nature tricks), and while a lot of effort was put into making Rune-keeper contiguous with the setting of the game, for some people that was going to be a hard break.

But this is a fantasy game, and some people really want to fling magic around, and the developers worked hard to find a way to make that happen without invalidating the idea that wizards are uncommon and special. It’s a fine line, but it does fit with the world. It adds to the distinct flavor of this world. And adding things like Wardens, Mariners, and Beornings further leans into the idea that these are distinct ideas you can’t accomplish without adding new elements to the game.


When a game stops being willing to try new things, it starts stagnating. I pick on Star Wars: The Old Republic a bit not because I think it’s a bad game, but because… it seriously took how long for the game to imagine that maybe a character on the Republic side might want to use a sniper rifle? One of the biggest problems that game had with its first expansion is that you went to Makeb, and you got some new abilities from leveling, but it was just extending an existing line you already went on. Once you got through the leveling, what are you doing? What’s the added motivation? What new stuff can you do now?

There is no one-and-done with MMOs. Ever. Patches to add new content are nice and good, and we need those, but there’s a reason that Guild Wars 2 briefly tried to say “well, our patches add up to an expansion!” before realizing that was dumb and pivoting to just actually launching expansions. Heck, it’s telling that the game’s first expansion was one wherein the new areas are indisputably the worst part of the experience. The new profession, specializations, Mastery as a concept, the story, and so forth? All better than actually navigating those terrible jungle maps.

And this is a good thing, because MMORPGs are also the games where those changes to systems, design, and so forth can make even older content better. The Elder Scrolls Online did not launch as a great game, but it has become one with time, in no small part because it’s seen the addition of new classes, new design goals, and a general new experience for everyone playing.

New stuff is fun, and just marking “new stuff” as “new zones and quests and such” is filler. It’ll be fun for a bit, but you need something more substantial after a while or you will get bored and fall off. There are complexities to adding new classes forever, and that’s what I spent last week talking about, but not doing so isn’t a fix to the problem; it’s just accelerating stagnation and boredom.

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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