Wiping expansions off the table

There is one thing I am still waiting for in the world of MMOs. Okay – that is not quite true, there are a good few things I am expecting to see developers change in the future. One particular aspect however, has been gaining ground and speed there lately: namely the removal of the classic expansion model.

If I consider some of the biggest negatives MMO developers and players currently suffer from, it’s the ever-increasing pressure to deliver content fast vs. beating it, the extreme between players with not enough time to experience new content  and waves of un-subscribers towards the second half of an expansion-cycle. We all know at least some of these feelings: the race right after an expansion or major content patch hits. Then, the inevitable monotony and burnout hitting raid guilds and players at later stages, the “been there done it all”, driving some into creating yet another alt and others into canceling their sub altogether, waiting on the next installment.

And when you think about that, you realize that it’s quite an unnatural flow of things: a disturbance to the consistent and long-term enjoyment of a game. The “content peaks” delivered by traditional expansions create highly negative side effects, not just for the player base but the developers. So, why keep clinging to this model?

How extremes destroy stability

My main grief with expansions is their very situational concentration of a truckload of new content on one arbitrary and artificial moment in time – funny enough called the “release”. Players will wait 1-2 years for that monumental chunk of new content to arrive, all its ground-breaking changes and additions to the game delivered in one, fatal strike. The wait time drags on and gets tedious, the expectations are high. Some players cope by rolling alts or going on preparation sprees, others fall deep into “player depression” and “identity crisis”, leaving their guilds, canceling their subs.

The change of emotion that finally follows on arrival is extreme: players go from utter boredom to an almost hysterical rush to take in as much of the long-desired content as possible. Between those two points in time, we have a gradually plunging curve, only ever lifted by a major content patch or two (if such exist). Make no mistake though: the first quarter into a new expansion is peak time. Things go steadily downhill from there, on an individual level as much as overall sub numbers. Every time, every year, the same story like a groundhog day

Now let’s assume developers decided to get rid of these opposite poles entirely: let’s assume that instead of featuring virtual coitus, erm release, every 1-2 years (few content patches included), they would rather aim to create a more natural and continuous flow of events and change by releasing regular patches on a 2-weeks base. Every other week, something in your world would change, get added or removed. It might be small things like a flood destroying parts of a map. It might be big events like a new quest hub being installed or a new dungeon. The frequent patching would allow developers to create an atmosphere of a living, breathing story where things happen constantly and where the environment (both NPC and PC) reacts accordingly, more like to our real world. There is never the one, big traumatic change but a dynamic world that is being re-shaped all the time, like a book with endless chapters.

How exciting would that be! To log in every other Wednesday, knowing that something has happened somewhere in your world! Maybe even uncommented in patchnotes at times. Sometimes big, sometimes small. Sometimes an isolated event, sometimes an ongoing number of chapters. The world would feel more alive and relaxed because change happens gradually. The game won’t rush ahead of you, leaving you behind. And it won’t just stop at some point, leaving you longing for more –

Not enough, along with this change in game flow, a long list of negative effects would shrink considerably or fall away entirely. Things that used to unsettle and spoil your fun in the game:

  • Begone player burnout during the second half of expansions
  • Begone (raid) guilds struggling to keep going because players despair or leave
  • Begone un-subscribing and re-subscribing once things are looking up
  • Begone social break-ups because friends frequently leave and return
  • Begone “content rush” right after the big fat expansion hits
  • Begone time pressure for raid guilds fearing the next major patch striking
  • Begone missing out on big loads of content
  • Begone long wait times to experience something new
  • Begone radical changes to economy and gear/item values
  • Begone big jumps and breaks in lore and world

I remember how underwhelming player reception was in places for WoW’s Shattering in 4.0.3.; pretty much the entire world as we knew it got revamped in a swift strike, and yet there was little orchestration or preparation beforehand. Few earthquakes aside, it was certainly no thrill. Then, we did not get to be present when it happened, either. We got to log back later, presented with a grand Fait accompli that didn’t make us feel like a part of the world. Expansions often feature drastic and overwhelming changes and additions like that which simply feel un-immersive. Getting to read huge walls of lore later on is not the same as experiencing a process.

I want to feel part of the world I play in. I want to be included in a continuous and ever growing story. I want change happening all the time, not every 1-2 years in traumatic leaps. I want stable and lasting fun, not a curve that goes from player fatigue and long wait times to over-excitement, before tumbling back down into the valley of tears. I don’t want to regularly un-subscribe from the MMO I am playing because it’s delivering content in situational peaks. Surely, developers would wish for that too?

Why don’t they do it already?

If you consider Blizzard’s ongoing (failing *cough*) effort to create a game that keeps a tight, exciting leash on its player base through an unebbing flow of fast rewards and achievements, you could think breaking the “peak-time” expansion model would follow the same strategy; after all, what better way of keeping things fresh and interesting than releasing new bits of content every other week?

Is it a marketing thing? Are expansion modules so crucial a selling-point for recruiting new customers? Surely, it can’t be the retail factor – it would have the smallest part in overall profits generated via subs, virtual goods and merchandise. So, attracting potential new customers with announcing your next big hit, I can see that as a factor. As far as I know, Blizzard added a substantial amount of new subscribers with each of their expansion releases, heavily marketing for “The Burning Crusade” or “Wrath of the Lich King”. I wonder though: how many effective customers have they lost since Cataclysm’s launch – does the strategy really work forever? And how much sub time do they lose every year because players unsubscribe regularly? It would be interesting to compare the potential losses and gains here.

It would be interesting too, to hear a developers point of view concerning the planning, administrative and actual design efforts (and deadline pressure) that go before a full-scale expansion. Have them compare the effectiveness of such an undertaking to a large number of mini-patches allowing them to break down change and innovation, focusing on one chapter at a time. Somehow I feel that from a pure design’s point of view, it would be more controlled and rewarding to go with the second option. Safer in terms of devastating bugs and far-reaching miscalculations, too. I am of course entirely speculative here and as usual happy to be educated otherwise!

I am no design or marketing and investment specialist; I would still claim however, that a content delivery model creating the more lasting effect, the stable fun and entertainment and the more dynamic and immersive flow of content for a player base, bests a system full of highs, lows and break-ups. That is from my humble point of view – from me, the paying customer. Somehow I have the feeling I am not alone.

So, who will step forward and show us how it’s done already? I am waiting!

P.S. I love charts, don’t you? I have actually used them in the one, proper way in this article – serving and exemplifying my personal message and meaning, rather than basing on existing numbers. It’s called journalistic freedom!

14 comments

  1. The graphs are fantastic. Especially the stick figures.

    As for the expansion model, I agree in that rolling out everything at once and charging people for it is a terrible decision. I reference it a lot, but City of Heroes has only had one expansion, and is up 20 patches all of which with at least a decent amount of content, with one ever few months. It is my personal opinion that they are going Free to Play only because their playerbase is TOO stable: There is barely any growth.

    Weekly world events, though, would be interesting. I still am a big proponent of giving players the tools to do this sort of thing, but much smaller updates more frequently would not only solve the expansion problem you mention, but would make balancing and changing classes a more fluid experience. A bit better than “Hey Hunters, you use focus now. You have 5 levels to figure it out. Seeya later!”

  2. You’re dead on, naturally, regarding the flow of game enticement. I think it would be a much more solid business model as well as benefiting the world itself by making it seem more alive.

    Every two weeks something happening – or not, for a change up once in a while – would be an enticement to keep going. The level of innovation would have to peak because they couldn’t just reuse the same content over and over (another flood? Come on…), and the re-use of old zones for new exploration would benefit, as well (oh man, another Draenei space ship just landed in Felwood; let’s go check it out!).

    Great idea!

  3. Well Blizzard did announce that they would push out content faster to keep the players sticking around more.
    The question for me is – how?

    If they are leaning towards your model with a more dynamic world, more small side updates that is not necessarily connected to the highest tiers of end game, then I’m in.

    If on the other hand it’s renewing raiding more often, popping new and better gear twice as often, I’m very much out, in fact I’m already out of raiding. It would make gear even more meaningless and replaceable than it already is.

  4. Interesting post and I don’t disagree on principle but I think a couple of your points are a bit muddled. For example you say that time pressure and fear of missing out would be gone under your model, but those things aren’t as much connected to having big expansions as to a continual urge to reset the game, which you could theoretically do in smaller, periodic patches as well. You even mention a flood destroying parts of the map; don’t you think that kind of thing would also create pressure to finish the content there quickly before some random event in the next patch wipes it out again?

    Personally I’m not that bothered about how often new content comes out and to what extent, but I’m very sceptical about regularly destroying or obsoleting parts of the game, which is a very different issue.

    P.S.: Also love the stick men. :)

  5. @Straw Fellow
    Thanks, it was good fun to make the graphs! ;)
    I can see why subscribers were a problem like that in CoH, although you could argue what’s better – stability or potential gains AND losses. I guess it heavily depends on the size of the game, in Blizzard’s case they can simply afford to “play around” with their customers. Like you said too, it depends on the frequency of smaller patches and if we considered every 2 weeks, there’s a lot of potential.

    Just imagine WotLK had not been released all at once: instead, following Arthas story on landing there and meeting Muradin first, they only ever opened 1-2 maps at a time every 2 weeks. with that alone, you could have easily stretched the opening of the new areas over the course of 10-12 weeks. now compare it with the alternative of launching everything (and more): I’d say for the average player 3 months aren’t even so off in terms of finishing questing everywhere, running a few 5mans and completing a first set of blue gear. so in reality, you’d spend the same amount of time but the experience would be MAJORLY different. I’d like to see more care for timing like this.

    @Stubborn
    Indeed, I see a big challenge in keeping things fresh; you can’t constantly come up with the same. then again, if you look at average expansions (plus 1-2 major patches later), there is a ton of material there. break that up and add a trail of lore between each piece or similar, and people will have sleepless nights waiting for the next chapter on patch night. at least that’s what I’d do, hehe!

  6. @ironica
    Oh I agree! :) the model I personally had in mind, would focus a lot less on a so-called “endgame” and have a lot more room for other events and aspects of MMO gaming (shiny secrets!). WoW is not a good example here. if you look at its endgame, it’s pretty much all most players today do: race to max level, enter instance grinds. to still call it “end”-game is ridiculous from that particular PoV; it’s become WoW’s “main-game”..

    Dungeons and raids are great of course, but I’d like to see them as parts of a journey, a later part certainly and not as the peak of all and everything. how exactly you would implement them to such effect would ofc require a lot of planning and thinking things over (which I have not done at this point), but let’s say you simply stopped making instances the place with all the best or only the best gear in the game – things would already change considerably. then, make gear overall matter less – and offer less but more equal gear from different sources. and so forth.

    obviously that would change entire WoW as we know it. which doesn’t strike me as a particularly bad thing for a future MMO! what’s with all the gear-focus, anyway.

    @Shintar
    Thanks, Shintar! and trust you to spot the loose ends, haha!! =)

    you’re very right of course, the main issue connected with the fear on missing out, is not just time, but the fact that content gets removed or changed. I wonder though, how often is it also that guilds simply won’t visit the older instance anymore, because they choose not to /skip it for the new one? the issue I see there is not that the content is gone, but that the new instance replaces the old – because gear/loot is all that players raid them for. so here, I’d change the entire reward focus. make instances less about steep gear progression. also: bring back attunements / linear instance progression. also see what I suggested to ironyca about loot changes – this way, the issue of an ever-increasing gear gap between new and old players wouldn’t even be a problem. you could find ways to keep content meaningful, even to ‘older’ players.

    I haven’t all thought it through of course, but I’d try re-focus matters like that to have room for multiple gaming speeds.

    the problem that some content actually gets “wiped” is still a concern of course. but I’d assume that changing the look of a map for instance, let’s say by natural disaster, is not strictly speaking removing content. i’d avoid the removal of any significant content in the game and rather go for gradual addition only. and as mentioned, rather than making instances exclusive to one-another, make them chapters of a whole that everyone wants to play (and has to). I’m sure devs could work out great games around such changed values. after all, some of it has been done before, even in WoW. I liked how instances were progressed in vanilla; the only sad thins is as you said, that TBC basically removed all incentive to play them. the raised level cap is of course also an issue here.

    lots and lots of factors, but doable surely (I never claimed it would be easy! :P)

  7. Interesting idea – I’m old fashioned and like my “big chunks of content” with a phase of pleasant continuity after, but I also enjoyed “rerolling” a character 32 times to become a Jedi (once upon a time in a game now cancelled), so maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.

    Back to the topic: I think Shintar already got some of the problem. Currently Rift tries to do the same thing. They offer a new type of “story arc” roughly every month (maybe I’m wrong on the timeframe, but not by much) – with a new instance/raid added (usually), a few new daily quests and a new “favoured enemy” (first it was death, then fire/earth, the latest was water).

    While I found it fascinating for a while, it also got on my nerves pretty quickly. I do like stability, at least for a little while.

    And … the value of things changes with the level a player is at. Technically it probably makes sense to target the max level players (because they have nothing else to do, and there will continually be more of them), but how do the medium level levelers feel, when suddenly their preferred area is changed – possibly without witnessing the event (if you are on holiday for a week) or without warning.

    It would definitely make for a very different online experience – not what “we” are used to at the moment.

    Suddenly I feel like a grumpy old person … I don’t want change! Back when I was a nipper the sky was not visible, because we used to have isometric view! Ah shucks.

  8. @Koch
    Isometric view! EUGH! =P
    Hehe…hey, I’m all for stability, that’s the whole point. and since I’m in a fabulous mood for change and overthrowing the monarchy (?), why not go crazy and ask that future MMO to do away with the whole concept of levels, too? you know, it’s not so extreme – UO, that old beloved grandmother of the genre, had no levels. and overall did a great deal differently from today’s games (which is why some graphic-resistant players have played it to this day). there is a lot of potential here, if a dev is willing to think things through to the very end. :) I’d love to see the best of both worlds, of today and yesterday, combined tomorrow!

    Just briefly: I get the issue with new content excluding the old, but these two are not causally, directly connected (although you can never fully control what a player will choose to do or not do). they are in WoW, because of its entire focus, but in theory adding content gradually does NOT mean that you remove older content. it’s altogether a question of “how”.

  9. I like the idea, I too would love it if the world felt a little more alive and a little less like shitloads happened while I was gone (happily questing along in Wrath when suddenly BOOM, Cataclysm. Where was I?). And as Ironyca mentioned, it seems like Blizzard have thought about this too and said they wanted to make the changes more continually than bigger content patches every now and then (not that I think things have changed much tbh).

    I do understand it when people feel worn out once they get to the point where “ok, so this is what we got. Now I know, next thing aint for another four months”. But maybe there also are a lot of people who think “goodie, four months for me to dig in deep into this content”. Maybe some people would be stressed by continous changes that they feel they “have” to play and experience before they’re gone. Just trying to see it from the other side. Overall I think your idea would work better.

  10. @Zinn
    I missed that announcment by Blizzard myself, but frankly I am more than sceptical that they’re able to truly implement this. not necessarily in terms of good intentions, but the game has progressed this far that I don’t believe you could ever re-define enough of it to fit such a model. like was also discussed by the other commenters, there would be tons and tons of things affected by it. but hey, things can always improve at least a little, I guess. :)

    In terms of pressure and the fear of missing something; you can never fully prevent that for each person who’s playing an MMO, of course. the game needs to progress. however, a game with gradual and small changes should present a lot less stress, highs and lows, than the opposite. it’s not like players right now are exactly relaxed and if anything, the gap between casual and hardcore is bigger than ever – with some players already bored out of their wits after 3 months while others haven’t even started.
    I think/hope future developers can do a little better than this.

    one should maybe consider “the size” of missed content too: would you rather sometime miss a small event, or potentially 2 weeks in which your guildmates all race far (as far as possible) ahead of you discovering the new expansion? at least in the first case, the loss is limited.

  11. As a person who develops software (but not games), I think a 2 week dev. cycle for new content is possible… if the infrastructure is there. Rapid ‘agile’ development and testing can work, but with not enough planning things can go awry. Not to mention WoW isn’t just line of code – you have complex graphics that probably could take more than two weeks to finish up. Obviously you can plan ahead what you want and when, but if they’re currently used to development time that takes much longer (aside from bug fixes), it would be hard to switch to a more rapidfire model.

    Right now, I could see them having a completely separate codebase to play around in for a new expansion. That way they can tweak this and that and not effect the live game. If you have an expansion happen slowly over time, you have to work pretty closely with the live code. And I’m guessing they have a pretty big codebase now.

    Not to mention if you change one area at a time, if you haven’t planned out the whole expansion’s story or change your mind, it makes it a little harder to do. Though that’s more a timing issue than anything. And of course, if people expect something every 2 weeks and you miss a deadline… it would set you back for quite some time if you couldn’t catch up.

  12. @Mishahewa
    Thanks for the comment – it’s interesting to hear what others have to say about this with more knowledge on actual development.

    I see the issue with testing time. I would just assume that similar to working on expansions for years, you could start working out these things well in advance (well you would have to), develop the storyline etc. that you then only release bit by bit. but the actual conceptual and planning part would always need to be way ahead of where you stand ingame.

    maybe this would actually require a whole re-organisational process of a developers team, too. a lot more focus on story-writing and concept first, before the execution by the designers and coders. the first team would need to work ‘ahead in time’ of the second team.

    In terms of keeping up the agenda, I would again expect a dev to be able to have things ready for at least 6-12 months in advance? it doesn’t always have to be the same huge, game-altering patch every two weeks, but surely you can distribute content so there’s something every 2 weeks. if we take all the new content of let’s say Cataclysm’s launch, you could easily spread that over 3-6 months of partial releases, rather than all at once. and during that time, a team could already work on what’s to come later. imo it’s a matter of timing and organisation more than anything.

  13. A bit late to the party here as I’ve been really busy lately, but allow me to give a dev (and business) point of view.

    One of the biggest reasons to do larger updates is because it’s easier to hand off to licensees. In the case of WoW, they need to get their content updates approved by the Chinese government before it is allowed in China. It’s a lot easier to get approval once a year rather than once every two weeks.

    You also have efficiencies of scale when testing larger updates. A lot of MMO testing involves seeing how new stuff interacts with older stuff. Updating more frequently ends up being a lot more work when it comes to testing backwards compatibility. Finally, yes, it is easier to charge for an expansion when it’s larger. A game like WoW is run as a business, and there’s no reason to “leave money on the table” as the business people say. It’s easier to charge $30 for an update every year rather than charging $1.20 every two weeks. Plus, it’s easier to get your expansion into the stores, and thus back into magazines and websites, with a larger package.

    In the end, I suspect that the money earned by doing larger updates outweighs losses from players leaving because they’re bored. At least in the past. Maybe Blizzard will do a sudden change.

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