Last 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.