Saturday, February 16, 2019

Same Same But Different

Wilhelm has a provacatively-titled post up about expansions. He's bouncing off another very interesting post on the same subject by Kaylriene. Now here am I, bouncing off both of them. Isn't blogging wonderful?

Both posts have long comment threads that are well worth reading. It's a topic that could sustain many discussions and it would be all too easy to wander off into the thickets of detail about this expansion or that, something I'm extremely tempted to do, a temptation to which I may very well give in, some other time.

For now, though, I'm going to try and opine on the generalities a little. Why do I like expansions so much? Why do I feel uncomfortable with any MMO that shies away from them? What makes for the perfect cadence?

As is so often the case, a little research finds my memory playing me false. In a comment on Wilhelm's thread I repeated a claim I've made many times; that I'd found EverQuest's six-monthly expansion release schedule, something they kept up for five years between 2002 and 2007, perfectly suited to my needs.

This is not entirely accurate. Checking the list of expansions that appeared during those years I find that, while I did indeed buy and play, on release, the first four bi-annual expansions (Planes of Power, Legacy of Ykesha, Lost Dungeons of Norrath and Gates of Discord), after that I skipped an entire year, missing both Omens of War and Dragons of Norrath, before returning for Depths of Darkhollow in September 2005.

There was a very good reason for that: Gates of Discord. GoD, with SOE's unerring timing, arrived in February 2004. That gave EverQuest players most of the year to struggle with the worst expansion they'd ever seen. GoD was not just brutal and unforgiving, it was buggy and often unplayable. It was later revealed that it had been released unfinished for reasons having mostly to do with arcane internal politics within the company.

Gates of Discord broke guilds. It broke the one I'd been with for years. Before Omens of War appeared in September to stem the hemorrhage, EQ had bled players in all directions. I went to the EQ2 beta along with half my guild. Others I knew went to the beta for a new Blizzard MMO called World of Warcraft. It was more than a year before I returned. Most never did.

This is a lesson; a bad expansion can break your game. Many, myself included, would say Storm Legion broke Rift. I've heard it argued that Mines of Moria broke Lord of the Rings Online or that Trials of Atlantis broke Dark Age of Camelot. Every expansion upsets someone but when you upset almost everyone you give yourself a lot of work just to get back to where you were. You never quite do.

As many people have observed, though, as a developer you can't just sit back and do nothing. Assuming your goal is to make money and keep everyone in work, you have to have something to sell and your players have to have something to do. These days a canny combination of premium membership, cosmetics and cash shops can make for a surprisingly substantial and consistent income stream but even now, the big cash injection comes when you have a "box" to sell.

Expansions also get you coverage. Over time, as your MMO ages, people write and stream and talk about it less and less. Everyone wants novelty, except your slowly shrinking installed base, who want anything but. You have the inevitable dilemma to face: new players or old?

When you're talking about a video game that's ten or fifteen or even twenty years old, the chances of attracting fresh blood are vanishingly small. Everyone who cares already knows about your game. Anyone who's interested has already tried it. It's huge and tangled and complicated and the barriers to entry are so high there's snow on top.

EverQuest last made a concerted effort to draw in a new audience all the way back in 2006, with The Serpent's Spine. TSS added an entire wing of the game that allowed new players to progress from tutorial to level cap in brand new zones, just as though the game was new.

That was seven years after the game began. It's now been running for twice as long, mostly as a nostalgia train for devotees, than it ever managed as walk-in entertainment for newcomers.

This, again as many have pointed out, is another lesson: you need to decide who your customers are. After a certain point, almost all your income is coming from people who play your game because yours is the game they play. They may not have much interest in what's new or hip in the genre any more. They may actively dislike most of what they know about "that sort of thing", assuming they know anything at all. They may be staying with you because your game is old-fashioned, not in spite of it, however uncomfortable that feels.

Every change you make risks shearing off a chunk of your playerbase with no realistic chance of attracting a significant number of new players to replace them. On the other hand, you have to have something to offer that doesn't feel like last year's leftovers warmed over. Your regular players will probably be happy enough with more of the same but the goal is to pull back some of those who've drifted away, while not driving off too many of the ones you've managed to keep.

Fortunately, the MMORPG genre has been around long-enough to have established a number of recognized nodal points. A clever developer can plan ahead. There are certain levers to pull that should have predictable results: mounts; flying; housing; NPC Mercenaries; PvP Battlegrounds; cloaks. (Yes, cloaks...)

Farm the changes and you can keep the installed base as happy as installed bases get (tar and feathers but no torches and pitchforks). Meanwhile, you get to enjoy a few months of revived interest from the much greater number of people who used to play and still have relatively rose-tinted memories of how it felt.

Just how often can you pull that trick off, though? EverQuest has almost certainly had more success in developing and marketing pure nostalgia via the Progression Server production line than it could ever have hoped for from the last decade of high-end-focused expansions. Who, reading this, has actually played through any of the new content in an EQ expansion since 2010's House of Thule? There have been  eight more since then.

EverQuest II is five years younger but that's still plenty of time for expansions to pile up. There have been fifteen, which averages out at one a year although the schedule has had some bumps. World of Warcraft, exactly the same age, has managed fewer than half that with seven.

Evidently, commercial success and frequency of expansions are not inextricably linked. Then again, who can say whether there would be more people subscribed to WoW right now had they kept to the same cadence as the erstwhile rival they left in the dust so long ago?

WoW's astonishing success could have - perhaps should have - killed both EverQuest and EQII, but it didn't. How far has the willingness of first SOE and latterly Daybreak to keep pumping out expansions, year in, year out, contributed to the impression that these are games people still play? If (when) the expansions stop, as some of us, myself included, thought they might this year, will the conclusion be that the games are over? Or will that installed base just carry on, regardless, grumbling and complaining but still paying and playing?

My own feeling is that an MMORPG that no longer releases expansions has become a curiosity, a period piece. That doesn't mean its days are over: Final Fantasy XI proves that much, but it does mean an almost inevitable drift, slipping out of public awareness into the muzzy comfort of history.

While your game can still raise a news item or two on its upcoming release schedule, no-one can reasonably claim it's dead. People may shake their heads in wonder that anyone's left to care but the corollary is that someone must.

What, then, to make of busy, active, successful MMORPGs that eschew expansions altogether? Guild Wars 2 is one. Alright, GW2 has had two expansions in seven years but only in the way your cat might have had two baths. ArenaNet had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the expansion cycle and all the evidence right now is that, having wriggled free, they hope never to go back.

The Living World/Story concept was devised to replace both the desire and need for expansions with a continual stream of expansion-like live content. It took ANet many years to get that cadence right; so many years that they were forced to drop two expansions just to fill the gaping holes. Now it looks as though they finally have the pattern down pat. Will GW2 fans ever see another expansion? Maybe. Money is still nice. Just don't expect one any time soon.

The effect this has on me, as a regular, long-time GW2 player, is enervating. It's arguable that four quarterly updates comes to something not so different in size and scale to a full expansion but that's not at all how it feels. Also, there's nothing to buy. That's important.

I don't look forward to LS releases any more. If anything, I dread them. GW2 feels to me like an MMORPG already in maintenance mode, except every few months there's a very brief upset that annoys me for a few days before everything settles back to normal. I spend nothing on the game even though I play every day. Without an expansion to look forward to, there's not much to hold my attention, which is wandering.

Then again, I strongly disliked Path of Fire. I rate it the second-worst expansion for any game for which I've ever paid money (Storm Legion being the worst). And since it was hugely more popular than Heart of Thorns, which I loved, I should probably be glad there's no sign of a third. I'll most likely loathe it, if and when it arrives.

In a way, that sums up the problem: every expansion is a roll of the dice. If it changes the game too much people who liked things the way they were will leave. If it changes it too little people who were getting itchy feet will take it as a cue to quit. There's a Goldilocks zone there somewhere but good luck finding it.

It's a truly fascinating subject, or I find it so. Because I came to the MMO genre via the undisputed emperor of expansions, SOE, my expectations have been sculpted into a certain shape. I love expansions and I want them for any MMORPG I play. I like to anticipate them, I like to pay for them, I like to play them. And when I've done all that I want to do it again. And again.

On balance, for a game I'm playing regularly, I think once a year is about right. First there's the three or four months playing through the new expansion that just appeared. Then there's the announcement of the next one to look forward to.

Half a year of mild anticipation follows, with plenty of time to get up to speed in any areas that may be lacking. Then there's a couple of months of gentle pre-expansion activity both in and out of game before the next one drops and the whole cycle rolls over. Perfect.

Which is not to say I'd turn my nose up at an expansion every six months. If the content was decent that would certainly reduce my desire to play multiple MMOs. I can't see that ever happening again, though.

To conclude, my feeling is that expansions are essential for the ongoing health of any MMORPG that hasn't yet slumped into maintenance mode. In the early years, expansions can and do bring in new customers in numbers but after a time the best that can be expected is for the expansions to keep the players who are already committed from having other ideas. Crucially, if your expansion isn't going to do more harm than good, it better not be a stinker.

As to what constitutes a "good" expansion, that's a question for another day and another post. I feel this is a topic I might come back to, again and again.




  1. Lots of good points here.

    I honestly think that from a consumer's perspective, expansions probably aren't necessary. You can get roughly the same amount of content from regular meaty patches, and it will probably cost you less.


    While my rational mind argues that expansions aren't needed, I can't deny that they excite me. It's more viscerally appealing to dive into a huge pool of new content than to get it in a trickle. I can live without expansions, but I must admit I'd prefer to have them than not.

    And they do make good business sense. I doubt that box sales are really a significant financial boon in the long term compared to sub fees or milking cash shop whales, but expansions are an excellent tool of publicity. As said above, expansions are exciting. They get attention in a way patches don't. I almost never bother reading patch news for games I'm not actively playing, but a major expansion will almost always grab my attention. I've been following the news around Shadowbringers pretty closely despite the fact I've never played past the free trial in FFXIV, despite the fact I probably never will play beyond that, and despite the fact everything around Shadowbringers is so arcanely geared toward the fans that the only thing I've been able to gather from it all is "bunny girls in lingerie."

    The idea of what the right number of expansions is may very much be a matter of conditioning. You were weaned on EverQuest's rapid cadence, so that feels right to you. I'm used to Blizzard's more sedate pace, so I'd say that 2-3 years is the appropriate gap between expansions (assuming plenty of smaller patches in between). It gives each one room to breathe and fully develop its story, and you don't feel rushed to finish all the content before it's irrelevant.

    1. I was thinking about the aggregate difference between live content and expansions as I was working on this post. Looking at GW2, now that ANet is using such a repetitive, predictable format for the Living Story it's easy to make a direct comparison. We get four episodes a year (roughly) and each comes with about an hour or two of story and a full new map. If you assume GW2 would never have an expansion more often than every other year, LS would give you something like sixteen hours of story and eight new maps in that time. I think you'd get a bit more story and a couple fewer maps from an expansion, so it's very comparable.

      The problem from my perspective is that every other MMO I have played (if it's been at all successful) has provided something like that much content *in addition* to full expansions. Outside of LS, GW2 only really offers a relatively small amount of holiday content and regular "balance patches". The "Side Stories" they were doing (which were my favorite content post HoT) seem to have dried up.

      The thing is, when EQ was pumping out an expansion every year, then every six months, then every year again - for two decades - they also added as much or more Live content inbetween those expansions as GW2 does now. Not just holiday events and pre-expansion build-ups, but long storylines like the Rude Individuals/Bertoxolous plot, the invasion of Firiona Vie or the overthrow of Grobb. There was more "Living Story" in the days of annual and bi-annual expansions than we've ever had from GW2.

      Consequently, I really don't see expansions and a vigourous program of Live content additions as an either/or. I've seen both together and I see no good reason why that shouldn't be the norm for a well-run, successful MMORPG.

  2. The thing about expansions, something I think Daybreak forgot and relearned very quickly not too long after they left the protection of Sony, is that they are beacons in their own way. They spark up the community, get people interested and excited and talking about the game again. They even get a bit of news coverage, reminding outsiders that the game still exists... exists and must be doing well because they're launching an expansion.

    And, of course, they bring in money.

    The downside is that they can set unrealistic expectations. You mentioned Rift and Storm Legion. (Which also got mentioned in Twitter.) I was really enjoying the Rift base game, I had a character of each archetype at level cap, so was super excited to get more in the form of an expansion.

    And then Storm Legion hit and it was a slog. Huge zones for no reason other than bigger must be better. A punishing experience curve; if the expansion have been another 50 levels it would have been fine, but they had to keep you from level cap through a lot of content and only 10 levels. Mobs scaled to be a lot tougher than the base game; what have we learned about only using people in raid gear as beta testers?

    I am sure there were people who loved SL, but a lot of people did not because it represented a fundamental mis-match when compared with what the base game experience gave us. Expectations were set, then not met. And there was a lot of hype from Trion about the expansion. They even got to the point of inviting me along for a preview tour.

    And all of that vanished not too long after the expansion went live, people tried it, and many walked away.

    1. I very rarely suffer from buyer's remorse. I paid around £150 for Mrs Bhagpuss and I to alpha test Landmark, for example, and I consider it money well spent. The money I spent on Storm Legion, which was more than that for two copies including the 12 month sub deal they were doing, might as well have been money down a storm drain. Completely wasted. We played for about a week, if that, and it all but killed any interest I had in ever playing Rift again.

      In retrospect I probably should have seen it coming. Rift, which started out as a (for the time) rather casual MMORPG, had been slowly morphing into something that fancied itself to be hardcore. It was kind of a pre-cursor to what WildStar tried and it worked about as well. Storm Legion leeched all the last fun out of what had for a while been a very enjoyable MMO. It never recovered.

      It's instructive to compare that with SOE's Gates of Discord disaster. Despite a perfect storm of a terrible expansion, releasing a sequel to their own games so they were competing with themselves and having the 800-pound Gorrilla that became WoW make its first appearance, all in the same year, they were able to course-correct with a series of fairly well-received, bi-annual expansions, beginning with the the much more popular "Omens of War" and eventually running into the semi-reboot of Serpent's Spine two years later. It may not have worried WoW but it stabilized EQ and kept the ship afloat in stormy waters.

      How ironic that Scott Hartsman should have been doing much the same over at EQ2 around the same time. If only he'd remembered what had worked then when he was overseeing Storm Legion. Maybe he'd still have a gaming company to run today...

  3. I suspect you’re hopelessly mistaken about GW2. If you look at their revenue generation pattern, they get the highest peak at each expansion launch as existing players and returning players both buy into the hype and spend 4 or 5x an average monthly subscription for a $50-$80 expansion. If they know what’s good for their bottom line, they are definitely working on expansion number 3.

    But because it’s both their style to remain quiet about things until it’s ready to reduce the hype-“but you promised” cycle and how inconsistent their company’s output tends to be in general (release something, break something else; take a long time to work with their patchy old game and fail and iterate; or management decision to bundle up stuff or whatever other weirdness is their work culture, etc.), they are remaining deathly silent about anything and everything.

    My guess is episode 6 will be targeted to launch late this quarter in March if they are good, and will probably drag and be delayed into Apr-May. Followed by gradual expansion news drip-feed into Aug-Sep, the usual time for their two year expansion cycle. If they can’t output that, it is indeed time to start wondering about what the heck all their employees are doing.

    As of now, only the community management and marketing teams have hit upon the magic formula - say nothing and they have less problems to have to fix and an easier time at work, players will attrition by themselves and who’s to say it was because of a lack of those areas and not something else?

    1. Yes, I thought that was what was going on too. It would seem logical. Then I started to see repeated statements on the forums that it had been confirmed that we would go directly from LS4 into LS5 without a break. Many people weren't saying this as though it was speculation but as if they were repeating a widely-known fact, so I did some digging.

      At first I thought the source was a somewhat vague interview, but then I found something much more solid. It's stated in the Anniversary video, which I hadn't watched, and just in case there was any doubt Gaile Gray confirmed in a forum post in August last year that "We will be moving straight into Season 5 at the conclusion of Season 4."

      Assuming Season 5 lasts the same length as all the others, that rules out an expansion in 2019. Unless you assume they would do both at the same time, which would be wonderful but not going to happen. That means the third expansion, if they are indeed working on one, can't come until 2020. At best it would be a Spring 2020 launch.

      Add to this the latest Nexon report. GW2 made almost as much money in 2018, without an expansion, as they did in the year PoF launched. They have their LS machine running smoothly now and they seem to have tweaked the Gem Store so it generates the kind of income they want. They never wanted to make expansions in the first place. They are on record, repeatedly, saying that. If they don't have to make them for commercial reasons, why would they?

      Which does beg the question of what they are all doing if they aren't making an expansion. That's where the growing speculation about GW3 comes from. I'm on the fence about this one. I can't see the company having a five or ten year plan that says Item 1: "Run GW2 profitably" Item 2: "There is no Item 2". Surely they must be working on either an expansion or another game. If I had to bet, I'd say we'll get an expansion in 2020. If it comes in the Spring that would put it around two and a half years between expansions, which is, I guess, comparable to WoW. By my reckoning, that's exactly what I said: "Don't expect one any time soon".

      If I'm wrong and we get an expansion in 2019 I'll be delighted... until it comes. If it's as awful as PoF I'll wish they hadn't bothered.

  4. It's not a new idea but I don't think it's been mentioned in this (or what I've caught up on reading so far) - expansions are the gear reset that help returning players get caught up quickly with the main playerbase. Blizzard's model of giving free level tokens with expansions really solidified this approach. But the gear reset is nothing new.

    Speaking of gear I think Storm Legion is a very good pick for worst expansion because of the points mentioned about over-sized zones etc, but also the gear curve was brutally steep. I took a break and returned prior to Storm Legion to get my old main to the old cap and ready - but he was utterly undergeared for Storm Legion because it was, very short-sightedly, aimed at characters who had been at cap raiding for several tiers. Even after several levels gained he still felt underpowered. I switched soul builds numerous times but it wasn't just the build, he lacked the item level for the content from the get-go. I love EQ2's more recent approach of simply handing out starter gear for expansions, I think that's a really smart move to compare to this.

    I think another aspect to this is thematic. I can't attest to how theme links to an expanion's reception in the Everquests, though I'm sure I'd get the gist of a more informed answer from all that I've read on your and Wilhelm's blog over the years. I need to go blog about this as it's too long for a comment, but World of Warcraft has suffered from poorer expansions that had very theme-focused expansions that a significant portion of the playerbase simply do not care about. Battle for Azeroth is one of these, the faction war isn't that strong or popular, and not everyone grew into the MMO game from the RTS originals. The theme runs through so much of the PVE content that it makes doing a good share of it unpalatable subconsciously - for me that has killed alt play dead, I've done all non-raid stuff on one Alliance and one Horde, and I have some stuff done on my Alliance healer alt so he could help out with dungeon runs. Nothing else, that is unheard of for me, I blame it all on how little I care about the war.

    1. Yes, the gear reset is a huge factor. I started off hating it (I left EQ2 for six months as a direct result of the gear reset in Rise of Kunark) but now I really like it. I also agree that the newish method EQ2 uses, just giving you a full set of gear appropriate for the expansion, is a great idea.

      I didn't find Storm Legion all that difficult in terms of gear even though, like you, I was coming into it with a character I'd not played for a year and who had never raided. At first I found it literally impossible to kill anything but then a friend pointed me to the "Granpa Says Knock Yourself Out" build. That made it easy to kill stuff but even so it was slow and more importantly tedious. It's all very well being able to kill mobs and not die but when you have to kill thousands and every kill is identical and your xp bar barely moves there's a huge feeling of "what's the point?". The vast difference between that and EQ2 expansions is that even when there are lots of Kill 10 and Fetch quests to get through, each individual quest is quite short and the progress your character makes is very noticeable. In Storm Legion it just felt like nothing was happening at all.

      As for themes, I very much agree. There are many reasons why I don't like Path of Fire but one of the main ones is bloody Palawa Joko, one of the most tedious villains I have ever had the displeasure to have to listen to. I found his every utterance cliched and unoriginal and every aspect of his empire boring beyond belief. I had no idea why my character was there or why he cared. It felt as though the entire main storyline had been derailed for a pet project of some developer, which it probably had.

  5. Trials of Atlantis was a guild / game killer for DAOC. That was at the height of the game too. A great example of devs trying to sell something they desperately want but that the community had no interest in. (Largely a necessary PVE grind in a PVP game.).

    You reopened an old wound with that one! And that in itself is amazing they it brought up bad memories of my guild collapse in a game I was quite fond of at the time.

  6. After running out of steam of resizing this little comment window I wrote a blog post instead...


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