*Some expansions excepted
A post somewhat sparked by what Kaylriene wrote, though I have been harboring bits and pieces of this for ages now. Ready for a Friday ramble? Here we go.
I suppose that EverQuest needs to take some of the heat on this. Coming up to its 20th anniversary it already has 25 expansions past the base game that launched back in 1999. While expansions and updates and sequels and such were clearly a thing long before EverQuest came along, the success of EverQuest in the then burgeoning MMORPG space made it a standard bearer and template for games that came later, including World of Warcraft.
EverQuest went more than a year before launching the first expansion for the game, Ruins of Kunark, which I sometimes refer to as “the only good expansion,” and then embarked on a quest to launch two expansions a year in order to keep the community engaged and happy with new content.
That kept that money machine printing, but brought with it a series of problems like keeping people up to date, rolling past expansions up into consolidated, all-in-one packages like EverQuest Platinum, and what often felt like an exchange of quality in the name of getting another expansion out. And some expansions barely felt like expansions at all.
SOE eased up on that plan in 2007, opting to dial back to just one expansion a year for both EverQuest and EverQuest II, which also launched with similar expansion plans.
So, if nothing else, EverQuest solidified the norm that expansions are a requirement, something the players expect. That we complain about Blizzard only being able to crank out a WoW expansion every other year is directly related to the pace set by SOE. Sort of.
But the one thing we know about expansions, that we complain about yet never think all that deeply about, is how they undue what has come before.
An expansion to a live MMORPG, by its very nature, changes the overall game. And change always alienates somebody. As I have often said, every feature, every aspect, no matter how trivial or generally despised, is somebody’s favorite part of that game.
MMORPG players also represent a dichotomy. If they’ve played through the current content, it is likely because they have enjoyed it as it was laid out. They’ve reached the end, they’re happy, and they want more of the same. Mostly. Some played through and were unhappy about some things, but happy overall. Ideally an expansion will give players more of what made them happy, plus adjusting the things that made people unhappy.
Adjusting, of course, will make other player unhappy, as you’re pretty much guaranteed to be changing somebody’s favorite thing. And every expansion brings change to the world, on top of the usual restart of the gear and level grind which, as people often point out, replaces their top end raid gear with better quest drop greens almost immediately.
Just handing out more of the same when it comes to content can feel repetitive and uninspired, but changing things makes people angry, because change makes people angry. But leaving everything as it is means people finish the content and eventually stop giving you money via their monthly subscription. The theoretical best path forward is the one that engages the most people while angering the fewest.
I refer to Ruins of Kunark as the one good expansion because it seemed to thread the needle almost exactly right. I delivered more of what people were into, more content, more levels, more races, more dragons, more gear, all without having a huge impact on the game as it already stood.
Ruins of Kunark isn’t really the “one good expansion,” if only because “good” is very subjective. And there are other expansions I have enjoyed. It is more that it represents an expansion that did more to expand the game than annoy the installed base. But first expansions can be like that. Or they used to be like that. Desert of Flames was like that for EverQuest II in many ways, and certainly The Burning Crusade had that first expansion magic for WoW. I’d even argue that WoW, ever more fortunate than one would expect, got a double dip at that well, as Wrath of the Lich King continued on and did very well without disrupting the apple cart.
Eventually though, expansions begin to work against the game. There is always a core group that keeps up, both others fall behind. For EverQuest, the every six month pace meant a lot of people falling behind. Expansions also put a gap between new players and the bulk of the player base. That’s not so bad after one expansion, but each new expansion makes it worse. And then there are the changes that anger the core fan base.
That leads us to Cataclysm. The team at SOE, in their attempt to crank out new content, often neglected the old. If I go back to Qeynos today it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1999. There are a few new items, some new vendors scattered about, and the new mechanics added in to the game over the years. But I can still stand out in front of the gates and fight beetles, skeletons, kicking snakes, and the occasional Fippy Darkpaw. Yes, they redid Freeport, much to the chagrin of many, and the Commonlands and the Desert of Ro, but they have mostly left the old world looking like it did back in the day. Enough has changed over the years that can’t go back and relive the game as it was at launch, which brought out the Project 1999 effort, but at least I can still go bask in the eerie green glow of the chessboard in Butcherblock if I want.
Cataclysm though… well, it had a number of strikes against it from the get go, not the least of which was following on after two successful and popular expansions, which together played out the Warcraft lore as we knew it. So Cataclysm had to break new ground on the lore front.
Cataclysm also only offered us five additional levels, a break with the pattern so far. We also didn’t get a new world or continent, with the five new leveling zones being integrated into the old world. We also got flying in old Azeroth right away, a feature that can start an argument faster than most. I suspect flying is something Blizzard regrets in hindsight, but once they gave it to us they had to keep on finding ways to make us unlock it all over again.
But most of all, Cataclysm redid the old world. Zones were redone, new quest lines were created, and the 1-60 leveling experience became a completely different beast.
Arguably, it is a better experience. I have run all of the redone zones. I have the achievements to prove it. (Another divisive feature.) And the zones all now have a story through which you can progress rather than the, at times, haphazard quest hubs which had you killing and collecting and killing some more over and over, often without rhyme or reason.
To give J. Allen Brack his due, for a specific set of circumstances, you don’t want the old game.
The rework, which was also necessitated by the need to give us flying throughout Azeroth, save for in the Blood Elf and Draenei starter zones, was spoiled by a couple of things. First, the level curve had been cut back, so that the pacing of the new zones was off. You would easily end up with quests so low level that they went gray if you chased down every quest in a zone. And second, the rework of the 1-60 instances made them all short and easy and the optimum path for leveling using the dungeon finder. You could run three an hour easy, even queuing as DPS, so you could, and probably did, bypass all that reworked content.
But, bigger than that, at least over the long haul, the removal of the old content led to something we might now call the WoW Classic movement. There was already a nascent force in action on that, since the first two expansions reworked classes and talents, so you couldn’t really play the old content the way you did in 2005. Vanilla servers were already a thing. But they became a much bigger deal when Blizzard changed the old world.
Overall though, Cataclysm wasn’t a bad expansion. It took me a while to get to that conclusion, because I did not like it at first, to the point of walking away from the game for a year.
The new races were fine. The 80-85 zones were good. Val’shir might be the prettiest zone in the game. It is like playing in the most beautiful aquarium ever. (A pity about the motion sickness thing.) I ran and enjoyed all of the instances, with the reworked Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub raids being particularly good. Being at level and doing the content was a decent experience. I still use my camel mount regularly in no-fly areas. Regardless though, the changes burned. They were divisive. Blizz pissed off a lot of the core player base, even if the whole thing ended up getting us WoW Classic.
I think, even if Blizz hadn’t done all of those changes… which I guess would have meant calling it something other than Cataclysm… that it would have been a let down of an expansion. Having to follow on after TBC and WotLK was a big ask. How do you follow up Ice Crown Citadel?
Mists of Pandaria revived things a bit, though I think that was as much by being a really solid expansion as it was that expectations were low after Cataclysm. But Warlords of Draenor? Doomed. The expectations set by reviving the themes from TBC meant eventual disappointment. Garrisons were not great. They were not the housing people wanted. They took people out of the world, just like Blizz said housing would, without being a place people cared about and could make their own. But I think the fact that it wasn’t the return of Outland and the excitement of 2007 was what led to the eventual drop in subscriptions. People realized there was no going back to their memories of the old game.
As every feature is somebody’s favorite feature, the thing that keeps them in the game, every expansion is somebody’s breaking point, the thing that gets them to walk away. The more expansions that come along, the more people end up dropping out. Or, if they don’t drop out, they return to play casually, as much out of habit as anything. The investment in the game isn’t as deep. You play for a bit, see the sights, do the tourist thing, get the achievements, then unsubscribe until the next expansion.
Eventually there is an equilibrium it seems. EverQuest and EverQuest II seemed to have found it. They still do an expansion every year that plays to the installed base, that gives them just enough of what they want… be they invested or tourist… to buy-in and spend some time with the game.
Basically, expansions are change, and change has a habit of breaking the bonds players have with your game. However, if you sit still and have no expansions then people will leave over time anyway, so you cannot simply avoid expansions and change either. It is probably better to move forward in the end, make the changes, earn a bit of extra money, and carry on.
Just don’t expect everybody to thank you for it.