MMO Expansions – What Is Appropriate Timing?

With the release of The Burning Crusade and the commentary that has surrounded it, there are a couple of questions I want to dredge up.  The first, and perhaps the easiest to discuss, is the timing of expansions.  How often should an MMO offer expansions?

I have my own opinion on the subject, which is that once a year is about the right pace for major expansions.  Any more than that and I start losing track of what is going on.  But I am at the elder end of the MMO age demographic, so my views on the subject are pretty suspect.

To get around that, I grabbed some information on a few more well known MMOs to see how they have handled expansion time frames.

EverQuest The Buried Sea, the 13th expansion for the game, will be out in February, keeping their expansions on a twice-a-year pace like some crazy gnome-built contraption that nobody can shut off.  Is there a good, detailed guide to EverQuest expansions out there?  Or a random EverQuest expansion generator?

EverQuest II has had either three or six expansions, depending on whether you count adventure packs or not.  Conservatively they are doing better than one expansion per year, but with the December producer’s letter from Scott Hartsman, there is some indication that they are going to ease off that pace and settle into something closer to once a year.

Dark Age of Camelot has had 4 retail expansions at the rate of about one a year plus two expansion-like free content upgrades.

Ultima Online has had 7 expansions since its release in 1997 that started off at the rate of about one a year.  It will be close to two years between releases before the next one arrives.

Star Wars Galaxies has had 3 expansions since release, although The Trials of Obi-Wan got pretty well trod upon by the New Game Enhancements or NGE.  The rate of expansions was about one per year until NGE.

City of Heroes has only one expansion in the sense I mean here, which is City of Villains.  They do, however, provide pretty major updates to content on a regular basis, called “Issues” to keep in the comic book vein.  They are on Issue 8 currently, which puts the pace at about one a quarter, but I do not know if each Issue has enough content to compare it to a retail expansion.

Lineage II has no expansions, but has introduced a “chronicle,” which constitutes a content upgrade along the lines of an expansion, nearly every six months, putting them in the EverQuest league for timing.  Again, like City of Heroes, I do not know if Chronicles are as extensive as retail box expansions.  The chronicles are free, so if you buy the game box on the shelf today, you get them all when you patch.

World of Warcraft is the big news of late, with a single expansion more than two years since release.  They did add some free, high end raiding content during that time frame, but the average player saw little or no content since the initial launch.

Summary

My read on this is that an expansion a year is about right, though it isn’t an absolutely provable proposition.  If you pull out the non-retail expansions, only EverQuest, and possibly EverQuest II, seem to be exceeding that rate.

This is one of those posts where I wish I had a forum, because it begs for reader feedback.  What do you think the right time line for expansions should be?  Or what MMO examples have I missed or misread that should be considered?

12 thoughts on “MMO Expansions – What Is Appropriate Timing?

  1. Van Hemlock

    I guess the ‘correct’ answer is ‘when most people are done with the stuff they already have’, a hopelessly subjective span at best.

    Examples: Even slow-coach old me had Dinged 60 in Wow some months before The Burning Crusade, and that’s coming to the game eight months after release, and with about the same amount of time taken as breaks in between – WoW probably needs one a year at the longest.

    Scars of Vellious on the other hand, one of the earlier Everquest 1 expansions, is a title I *still* don’t have a character that’s able to use it.

    A lot of it depends entirely on the expected rate of comsumption of the original offering (and the *actual* rate as well – TBC, 28 hours!)

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  2. Joel-TheMaelstromPodcast.com

    I dont know if you are correct in saying that the average WoW player has seen no new content since launch. Keep in mind how easy it is to hit the level cap… and the fact that better than 95% of WoW players have at least one level 60. Also keep in mind that we have seen a steady ramping up of the quality of gear that drops in the regular level sixty dungeons like UBRS and Scholo making the more dificult instances much easier to work your way into. Since release we have seen Naxaramus, AQ40, and Blackwing Lair which all undoubtedly fit the bill as high end raiding content. But we have also seen AQ 20 and Zul Grub which are small (realitive to the 40 man content I suppose) 20 man instances. We have also seen Dire Maul which was probably the best five man instance in the game untill the release of BC. We have also seen the release of a new zone, Silithus, with just gobs of content both for groups and solo players.

    Now looking at this list it seems that the content is evenly dispersed between the high end and the mid to low end of the level 60 spectrum. And had this been released all at once as an expansion it would have been a fairly good expansion. I would have liked to have seen more five man content released… but I am begining to think that they were saving most of the five man content they produced for the Burning Crusade.

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  3. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I do not think the assumption that 95% of active players have a level 60 can be asserted unchallenged and I do not think that a huge number of level 60 players continue to consume content once they hit that level. I would like to see some information around both.

    But since Blizzard has focused their free content on level 60s, somebody like me who, after more than a year, has five characters in the 40s and none beyond, has seen zero new content.

    And why do I have no level 60s? Because all of the quest paths that are so varied into the 20s merge into one 8-race super highway by the late 30s. I and every other player in my level range who isn’t doing an instance (and I would assert that most people do not do instances regularly) is hunting the same mobs in Stranglethorn Vale.

    So the fact that I find Stranglethorn Vale boring and mildly annoying pretty much stops character advancement for me. But Blizzard certainly does not see things that way. Given where they have put their efforts, one can assume that they believe that sub 60 content is great and finished and never to be added to again unless we add a new race, and they too will have to run through STV.

    Compare this to EverQuest II where I always have some parallel zone to go play. Blintz, my swashbuckler, who is only a little behind Blintz my rogue on WoW, has three major zones to choose from to play. If he gets tired of the Enchanted Lands, he can go to Zek or, wow, a new zone, Steamfont.

    But, this is all a different discussion I suppose: Should MMO companies make new content focused on characters not at the current level cap. Given their behaviors, SOE says yes, Blizzard says no.

    And the funny thing about this post is, I added in the part about Blizzard’s free content because the impression one would get from reading so much MMO commentary is that Blizzard has sat on their hands for over two years. I think there is even a comment on this blog about “Why do I have to wait two years for new stuff.”

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  4. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    To Van Hemlock’s comment: I agree, with the right information we could probably come up with a mathematically precise time frame for expansions that would be unique to each game and its content. I did not make my thoughts clear though, not an unusual circumstance, as I was looking more for the perception of what time frame is correct. At what point does the average player, whoever that really is, say, “What, no expansion yet?” versus “What, a new expansion already?”

    My own bias is that WoW falls in the former and that EverQuest falls in the latter and that one a year is about right. But I also put some games on the list that do not do expansions, in the retail box/paid digital download sense. Do people who play City of Heroes or Lineage II feel that they are getting enough content? Is that alternative viable? And if it is, why is Blizzard tarred with the perception of being a year behind with an expansion, since they did pretty much the same thing as Joel pointed out in very nice detail?

    My own guess is that WoW’s player base is much more casual (danger word!) about the game as a whole and that Blizzard’s added content did not really reach them. But since I have no first hand experience with either CoH or Lineage II, that is just a guess. Their user bases might both be up in arms about lack of boxed expansions on the shelf, but since their numbers are much smaller, that tumult might easily be missed.

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  5. darrenl

    I think that once a year is a perfect pace for expansions in an MMO, with the caveat that the content in that expansion WILL last you a year (of course). In between that though, there should be content released every quarter with little content patches. I think content patches (a la Adventure Packs and/or Issues) is a great way address content below the level cap, with expansions adding to both above and below level cap.

    Point is, when I create a new toon to go from 1-60, or 1-70, I should not be seeing the same content as I did with my other characters…ever.

    You’re right, I think SOE has got the content roll-out perfect. There is so much to do in EQ2 with many paths to follow. The real test for WoW will be when and what they release next year, if anything at all. They really do need to work on the mid level 30-40 areas, because we’ve all done those areas 100 times over. WoW would nail the coffin shut if they released mini-content expansions that benefit more than just the end game.

    D

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  6. brent

    First off, the WoW ‘content’ that has come out in the first 2+ years isn’t what I’d consider worthy of mention. Mostly I say this because I’m an arse, but the second reason I say this is because they only introduced instances. No new landmass was added. (And its all for high end raiders.)

    Second, I’ll fill in a few gaps. The CoH issues certainly include some new features, but I’d classify them as “a really big patch”. Lineage’s Chronicles are in fact expansions and include considerable gameplay expansion as well as landmass additions. The timing, price, and smooth rollouts probably should earn them some sort of medal.

    Overall, I agree that once a year is probably good, but I can see situations where quicker rollouts are needed. Guild Wars is a good example. That said, I think the timing of an expansion depends on who you are. In the heyday of EQ, raiding guilds really needed that content added every 6 months, but for family style guilds or guilds that were slow to progress 6 months was way faster than they needed.

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  7. Deniticus

    Put my vote in the once a year category with a few caveats.

    Its a delicate balance between subscriber retention (new content for players at the cap) and new lower level content (primarily new subscriber content).

    EQ certainly seems to be the king as Wilhelm2451 points out. WoW has fallen woefully short and as a result put more pressure on BC. The longer the wait, the more it was needed, the more impressive it needed to be, the more players at the old cap, etc. A dangerous spiral.

    New races afforded a great opportunity to create an alternate path to the BC content, but it doesn’t appear that Blizz taken them on and the BE and Dranei will be funnelled into the main sequence shortly after they leave the nursery. Too bad.

    Having no prior experience in the genre and lets face it, not anticipating the level of WoWs success, I think Blizzard has been caught flatfooted and has only been able to address the must haves before the nice to haves– dramatically expanding the number of their servers and the scalability of their network and the big bugs.

    A new race with a new road to BC would have been nice.

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  8. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I actually went to Wikipedia to look into the various EverQuest expansions as part of the next article on expansions. It looks like they started on a once-a-year expansion cycle and then, after The Planes of Power, switched to a rock solid pace of an expansion in February and September of each year. The content isn’t as vast for most (but not all) of the later expansions, but they have kept up the pace.

    On GuildWars, I omitted them from my list on purpose, though I was going to mention them at the end (and forgot) as a special case. Their status as an MMO aside, they have a business plan that is built around an expansion every six months, a plan which is generally known, and their content is tailored accordingly. So they have set an expectation that overrides any public perception of expansion schedules.

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  9. Joel-TheMaelstromPodcast.com

    I should proof read more of what I write. I presented the 95% number as a fact. It isn’t. I know of no way to find definite numbers on most player numbers for WoW. I do use WarcraftRealms.com on occasion to get some info on it but the sample sizes they have are far too small and it is impossible to know if characters are on the same account. From a completely subjective viewpoint I see many of the dedicated raiders I play with playing multiple alts up to sixty (or higher now). I myself am a bit of an oddball with my one hunter and an under leveled warrior I use to gather ore and herbs. But certainly my experience isn’t the only one and I could very well be wrong about a very large percentage of people having level sixties.
    The dislike of Stranglethorn seems to be fairly common. When I was taking my much underused Warrior through that level range I got frustrated with how camped everything was on my server so I looked for alternatives… and found several. Badlands, Arathi Highlands, the Swamp of Sorrows (more horde quests here), Dustwallow Marsh (more alliance here), and Desolace. All of these zones range from level 30 – 45 or so (some start at 35 and go up to 45). None of them are as quest heavy as STV but then again none of them are as populated either. And by bouncing between two or more you are able to rocket up in level quickly, and potentially see some content you might have missed otherwise.
    Oh and Brent as I mentioned earlier, one new zone was introduced: Silithus. And it is a fairly good zone… with many quest chains and good rewards as well as some minor world PvP objectives that were introduced later in a patch. But … it is only one zone and it is a high level zone at that.
    I do totally agree that there should be more midlevel content. After two years of the same zones the process of leveling an alt gets fairly stale. It would definitely be nice to see some new zones and new quests for all level ranges.

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  10. brent

    Ah yes. Silithus. The place I’ve been grinding lately. I should have mentioned that. Thanks Joel.

    I don’t understand the hate of Stranglethorn Vale. I loved it there when I was leveling through that range. One of my favorite areas.

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  11. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Heh, I run the Census+ addon for Warcraft Realms, so my own mental data came from them as well. On my server I see about 1/3 of the population at any given time is level 60, but you cannot tell how many of those others are alts.

    On STV… I guess it isn’t that bad, but it wears me out. Because everybody goes there, the competition for mobs can be fierce, it is often quite crowded (compare to Desolace and Mirage Raceway, the zones I am usually coming off of to head into STV), and there is so much running up and down the length of the zone before you ever get a mount.

    I know, poor little me. Somehow I get mired in all those quests and travel and I can never find my way out. Tanaris and The Badlands are always a bit too high level for me, so I end up starting an alt, getting into the 30s and ending up in STV again….

    I hope I can instance my way past them this time around

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  12. Sente

    Stranglethorn Vale is great the first time you level there, after that I found that I really wanted to avoid that area. Although one can probably say the same thing for a number of other areas though, Stranglethorn was definitely one that stuck in my mind as one I did not want to go again to.

    As for the City of issues, they are certainly not at the level of a full blown traditional expansion, although they do add zones and new types of content in them. The rate of issue releases did go down after the City of Villains release (issue 6), only 2 issues has been released after that, roughly 6 months apart. And yes, people think that rate is too low.

    But the issues are expension in the sense that they do add content and content that at least in part is available to everyone. Perhaps a bit similar to the EVE expansions.

    Regardless how the games and the game companies label it, it is about added content for the players. Counting retail expansions would be fine if everyone used that business model and had roughly the same amount of content added in each expansion. But with more diversity being seen here it becomes more difficult to compare I think.
    I do not have a good alternative though. How does one measure what is enough content to keep a majority of players engaged?

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