4 reasons why giving up on expansions is a bad idea

fateLast year, Turbine announced that Lord of the Rings Online would be eschewing expansions going forward in favor of large quarterly updates (of which it did only three “quarters” in 2014). EVE Online has made the switch as well, going to smaller monthly updates instead of twice-a-year large releases. Recently, EverQuest II took the same stance, falling back on smaller DLC updates than yearly expansions.

It feels a bit like the MMO industry is getting out of the expansion business, although that’s not totally true — Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft, and others will undoubtedly continue to champion the expansion model. If asked to choose between more regular but smaller DLC and more infrequent but larger expansions, I would probably lean to the latter. As it stands, I think that giving up on expansions are a bad idea — and here’s why.

1. Despite developers’ promises, you don’t end up getting the same amount of new content.

One of the most common claims that you hear when a studio waves goodbye to expansions is that the new content delivery format will provide the same content over the same time period. It sounds good, and might even feel that way for the first month or so. But in my experience, the DLC model never adds up to a full expansion even by a generous viewpoint.

Let’s use a pie analogy. Say an expansion is a full pie — it’s huge, very filling, lots of stuff in it. The devs wanting to switch to DLC are saying that they’re going to take the same pie but cut it up and give you smaller pieces that can be assembled, perhaps over a year, into a full pie. But in reality you get maybe two-thirds of a pie in the end while the studio puts in less work and hopes you don’t notice. Remember how ArenaNet liked to say that Guild Wars 2’s living world seasons and feature packs would be considered “expansion big” if piled together? Yeah… nice idea, but two zones, a linear questline, and quality of life fixes do not an expansion make (not that I’m exactly complaining, as it was free).

Plus, one of the big selling points of expansions are major new features that aren’t usually in content updates and DLC, such as new classes, new races, and new systems. Good luck finding that in most DLC; you’re just going to get a bit more of the same, because a bit more of the same is easier to make in smaller chunks.

2. An expansion is an event, a DLC is a blip.

So when’s the last time you saw a media or community frenzy over the coming of a DLC? I cannot think of any within my field of observation. Now expansions, those are hype-worthy events, with tons of coverage, beta testing, pre-orders, and the like. An expansion is a big, big deal for a game, a sign that its team has faith in its future, and a reason for the community to celebrate. The launch of an expansion feels a lot like the game’s release, right down to the influx of new faces and getting a spotlight for a few weeks.

DLC? Doesn’t do any of that. In fact, in my mind I lump DLC in with “monthly content patches” in terms of my excitement — moderate, but hardly something I’m going to count down the number of days until it arrives.

3. Expansions justify a box price; DLC is a mixed bag.

Maybe a studio figures that if the price per slice of pie adds up to more than the cost of a single boxed expansion, it makes more financial sense. This might be the most subjective of all of my points, but I’m not always convinced to spend money on DLC the way I am about expansions. I would rather buy one big ticket item than a bunch of smaller ones, because with the expansion I feel like I’m getting some serious money’s worth — with the DLC I feel like I’m being a bit nickel-and-dimed.

Plus, what if your fans don’t buy as much DLC (dollar-wise) as they would put into a single expansion purchase? That’s totally possible, since you’re giving players a choice about what parts of the content they can buy (which is the one positive aspect of DLC). As a studio, you end up losing potential revenue by chopping up your product and allowing players to not buy it.

4. You won’t get onto my MMO Timeline page with anything less than an expansion.

And that’s the worst tragedy of them all.

16 thoughts on “4 reasons why giving up on expansions is a bad idea

  1. bhagpuss April 6, 2015 / 9:19 am

    The longer I play MMOs the less interested in “new content” I become. The means of distribution of “new content” fades into insignificance compared to the actual content of said “content” and unless I’m getting both new explorable lands and more levels I find it hard to get excited.

    Even new races and classes don’t really do all that much for me any more. I still haven’t rolled a Channeler in EQ2 and I have no particular desire to roll a … wait a minute, can’t remember the name…let me look it up…a Revenant, that’s what it’s called… in GW2 either. Anyway, if the core gameplay is strong enough, we really shouldn’t need an endless drip-feed of novelty to hold our attention, whether it comes in quarterly DLC or annual box form.

  2. Ravious April 6, 2015 / 9:24 am

    How do you feel about TSW’s model?

    I think the best thing is the Expansion + “Season Pass” style, personally.

  3. Syp April 6, 2015 / 9:42 am

    @Ravious – It’s not a terrible model and it works quite well for TSW. But if they had the resources to have put together a Tokyo expansion up front, it would have been a bigger deal and gotten a lot more promotion for the game.

  4. M.C. Barnes April 6, 2015 / 10:06 am

    Rift does both, doesn’t it? Regular updates and occasional true expansions.

  5. Wilhelm Arcturus April 6, 2015 / 11:28 am

    There is a certain amount of content fatigue that comes with smaller, closer updates. I am feeling that a lot in EVE Online, where their every five week expansion routine means that I can’t tell you what half of them delivered without looking things up. It becomes a blur and the “oh new shiny!” enthusiasm fades with the constant stream of lesser shinies.

    Also, I kind of like to chew on my content for a stretch. People are complaining about Warlords of Draenor getting stale while I am still finding new things to do every week. I am not sure I could have handled something like the GW2 constant updates. I would have fallen behind.

    And, I have to admit, I am somewhat in the Bhagpuss situation, where I am less interested in new stuff than I used to be. I wasn’t really done with Pandaria when Draenor rolled around. And while I was happy enough to see the new place, I still have a few characters knocking around in the old content.

  6. Redbeard April 6, 2015 / 11:56 am

    I’m not that enamored of the big new expac as I used to be.

    I think that –for me, anyway– Cataclysm broke the model by the story being so discombobulated once you left the new “Cataclysm Revamped” Old World zones and stepped back in time to Outland and Northrend. The fact that Blizzard has basically done a form of hand waving and “pay no attention to that zone behind the curtain!” by the insta-L90 promotion for Draenor has soured me on this even further.

    I’m happier with smaller sized expacs that add some new content, yet also fix some of the outstanding issues in older content.

  7. ChaosConstant April 6, 2015 / 12:21 pm

    My thoughts exactly (I was actually starting a blog post about this… thanks for stealing my idea, jerk). I really felt like Guild Wars 2 was stuck in limbo while the Living World stuff was going on. The devs were all too busy building content for the LW stuff to do anything else, but that took all of half an hour every two weeks. Every so often they took a break from the bi-weekly update to do a small quality-of-life upgrade, half of which only affected some of the players (such as the sPvP updates), but most of them felt like they were pushed out the door quickly lest they take away too much time from the LW. On top of that, if they had made me pay to access the Living World, I’m sure I would have passed on it (I missed out on some of the Season 2 chapters, and don’t plan on buying them), but I’m actually excited to get my hands on an expansion pack with a new class, several new zones (rather than one or two), new class progression, etc.

  8. Tanek April 6, 2015 / 12:53 pm

    “But if they had the resources to have put together a Tokyo expansion up front…”

    For all we know, this may be the scenario the Daybreak EQ2 team is navigating right now. If so, and they need to show results quickly rather than waiting for the usual November expansion timeline, the DLC-only route may not be forever. (Or it may end up working really well and stick around.) They would not be able to say that, of course, any more than the GW2 teams could say “yeah, we’re going to try this Living Story thing for a while and then fall back on an expansion if it doesn’t work out.”

    At this point, I want to see what Daybreak comes up with. Whether they are pulling the strings or it is some investment company, I have to believe the developers want the game to survive. It has lasted over a decade and I still think it is a game that can stand up to many of the MMOs out there. (Granted, I don’t put much weight on graphics.) So giving up on expansions may have many downsides, but if this DLC plan keeps the game afloat when it would otherwise have a much more negative announcement before the next expansion would come around, I’m all for giving it a shot.

  9. Tyler F.M. Edwards April 6, 2015 / 1:24 pm

    I think point #2 is probably the most important one. An expansion can bring in the excitement and publicity in a way DLC never will.

    That said, while the expansion model has a lot going for it, I don’t think it’s entirely a black and white issue. Expansions tend to lead to an issue of “feast or famine.” You get an enormous dump of new stuff that can feel overwhelming for a while, but you’ll often end up with a lengthy lull of little or no content before the next expansion. DLC is a lot steadier and more predictable.

    DLC also has the advantage of letting you pick and choose what you pay for. For example, I don’t like PvP, so if if a game I play were to release a PvP DLC, I could just ignore it and save my money. With an expansion, you’re paying for all of it, even if you’re not interested in large parts of it. I’d have happily bought a cheaper version of Mists of Pandaria that didn’t include pet battles, heroic raids, or the new battlegrounds.

  10. Silverangel April 6, 2015 / 5:09 pm

    An expansion also serves as a reset and a welcome-back, and the chance to catch the wave of returning players, I’ve always felt LotRO was making a mistake to not lump a new class or race, or just a class/race combo unlock, into the expansions after Moria. It enhances the impression of a fresh start as well as giving something to players who aren’t at level cap.

    The bottom line is that without big expansions, in my mind the MMO is going nowhere, and there is no point in investing my time into it..

  11. melbrankin April 6, 2015 / 5:23 pm

    I think the excitement of an expansion cannot be matched by small patched updates – even if you do the final fantasy 14 epic patches and swathes of content – the fact that they are getting a new expansion is huge news and has people buzzing in and out of the community –

    heck I have just reached level 30 in FF14 and Im excited for the expansion hehe

    Given the surrounding news with DBG announcing Everquests not having further expansion just screams of sunsetting and reduced dev input. You can sugar coat that kind of news sometimes but not with their current crop of layoffs etc.

  12. Sean Smith April 7, 2015 / 5:00 am

    I remember reading a developer comment years ago – I think it was Damion Schubert – along the lines of ‘expansions are for new players, updates are for existing players’: ie, gear resets (from levelcap increases) and expertise resets (from new mechanics or areas) allows new players to get involved, whereas smaller updates give existing players new reasons to log in.

    As we all know by now, it’s much cheaper to persuade a returning user to re-join than it is to acquire a new user, AND existing players have a much higher ARPU (average revenue per paying user) – the elder player is the bigger payer – and so it makes complete sense that MMO developers re-align their marketing to encouraging existing players to play/pay more. Makes double sense, actually, because the MMO genre is mature – ie, certainly no longer growing and likely declining – and standard marketing practice says ‘target existing users when market is mature’.

    Sure, they don’t get on your MMO timeline page, but as it’s not quite so well known as the BCG Growth-Share Matrix, you can forgive the developers for this mistake 😀

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