2015: The year expansions became the MMO heroes

heartA couple of weeks ago, Murf Versus had a popular post about how MMOs “forgot to expansion.” He pointed to (last year’s) Warlords of Draenor and how it’s been floundering in mediocrity, the PR flubs over Guild Wars 2’s pre-purchase deal, and Destiny’s Taken King pricing

“I don’t know about you folks,” he wrote, “but it seems strange to have these three high profile games have so many problems with their expansions.”

I’ve been chewing on that post for a week or so now because a lot of it’s had to do with somewhat recent news. While all three of those certainly didn’t help the industry, two (GW2 and Destiny) were issues with the marketing and pricing, and not the actual content of the expansion. To be sure, the stories didn’t help the product and were poisonous for the moment, but I guarantee both issues will be forgotten come this fall. Warlords can stand and fall on its own merit, for all I care right now.

Not to be a knee-jerk contrarian, but I’ve been increasingly vocal that 2015 is the year that expansions are going to do tremendous good for MMOs. They almost have to, in a vacuum of actual big-name new MMO launches. This is the year that older MMOs have the space to grow and get both old and new players to give them a shot. And nothing beckons so hard for an established MMO as an expansion (save perhaps for a business model shift, which puts WildStar into play in a couple of months).

Right now we don’t have a massive number of expansions in play, but each one is poised to be rather significant. Let’s run down the list:


The first major expansion release of 2015 is a couple of weeks old right now and it’s been a dominant topic in the MMO community. FFXIV is still on the rise, even being a sub-only game, and while we have no idea how many people are currently playing, Square-Enix is certainly not shy in bandying around “millions” as an indicator.

What’s more, Heavensward appears to be a genuinely great addition to the game. It’s doing what an expansion should do: generate tremendous amounts of hype for the product, add tons more story, expand the game’s landscape, and throw in more classes (jobs). It had June more or less all to itself and even stood up to World of Warcraft’s same-day patch — and came out on top.

Heart of Thorns

ArenaNet handled the pre-purchase announcement poorly, I think many of us would agree, but it’s recovered nicely by offering a free character slot and by the simple effect of time washing away the heightened emotion of the moment.

Heart of Thorns isn’t the kind of expansion for me, but at least it’s an expansion, period, and Guild Wars 2 really needed one of those. The studio is going to milk this expansion for all its worth during the beta and pre-launch period, getting as many eyeballs as possible to turn back to GW2. It’s pricey, to be sure, but I would think that dedicated players would realize that they haven’t had to pay for playable content since buying the original box and thus rationalize the higher cost.

Knights of the Fallen Empire

The 2015 expansion trifecta rounds to SWTOR’s next big expansion. BioWare’s looking to top what it’s done in the past with its feature and content expansions by using this opportunity to overhaul the game entire — and at the same time make a compelling case for why players should treat SWTOR as a subscription game, period.

Knights of the Fallen Empire could be a relaunch of SWTOR — SWTOR 2.0, it’s being called — with instant level 60s, a jump forward in the timeline, a whole new storyline, an overhaul to the flashpoint/operations system, and monthly episodic content coming in 2016. It’s ambitious and perhaps what SWTOR needs after a few years of release, but then again WoW: Cataclysm attempted to shake things up and flopped pretty badly in the execution. I’m excited about it, but we’ll see.

And more (and less)

Past those, we’ll most likely be hearing about the next World of Warcraft expansion at BlizzCon, the announcement of which will send players out of their minds and cause instant forgiveness to a studio that’s become notorious for content droughts. I’m also willing to bet that RIFT will at least announce its third expansion by year’s end, if not get a beta going.

Not every studio is gung-ho for expansions. CCP, Turbine, and Daybreak have each in their own way distanced themselves from the expansion model, more or less preferring smaller monthly/quarterly updates to the big package.

Still, if at the end of this year we look back at the biggest successes of the year and see expansions as king, it could make a lot of studios rethink the risk/cost/benefit factors of doing them in the future.

7 thoughts on “2015: The year expansions became the MMO heroes

  1. The more I play Heavensward, the more I’m falling in love with (almost) everything about it. I’m so very excited to see where the story is going to take me next! For the first time in a long time, I find myself saying of a modern FF, “This is a real Final Fantasy.” And it’s an MMO. Go figure.

    Anyhow, don’t mean to gush but… *gush!* 🙂

  2. Gush away! It might not be 100% for me, but I’m always happy to see others delighted in their games.

  3. “I’ve been chewing on that post for a week or so now because a lot of it’s had to do with somewhat recent news.”

    How did it taste?

  4. I wonder if Blizz had worn out their forgiveness with the past few expacs, and also with the knowledge that apparently 6.2 is it as far as content for this current expac of Warlords.

    That said, Bioware does seem to be learning one thing from Blizzard’s Cataclysm remake: keep the original stuff intact. If there was one really big letdown in Cataclysm, it is the discontinuity in the storyline from post-Cata Old World to “now woefully out of date” Outland and Northrend. And that’s something that apparently Blizzard is never going to fix. By keeping the original content in place, Bioware avoids that issue entirely.

  5. Oh, and just a note that in terms of programming, changing a planet’s story in a pre and post Fallen Empire world is as simple a matter as flipping a flag in a program. That is also something Blizzard never tried to do, and to be honest, it is harder to do in an active continent with different regions as opposed to using planets. Internally, the post-Fallen world of, say, Nar Shadda* is a different world than the pre-Fallen Nar Shadda. Very tidy.

    *Used for example purposes. No idea if Nar Shadda shows up in the post-Fallen storyline. Odds are good that the Smugglers’ Moon makes it in, however….

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