No Good Expansions*

*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.

Maybe the only fully good MMO expansion ever

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.

12 thoughts on “No Good Expansions*

  1. Kaylriene

    A lot of interesting thoughts to unpack on this one!

    I’ll mainly focus on the point about change, because it resonates a lot with me. It seems like every MMO I play wants to walk a fine line between being the same game people remember while also changing just enough to be brand new to people on the outside, but realistically, at a certain point, you have run through your consumer options (short of people who were born during the launch window) and you’re starting to fall to a point where the smart money is on keeping things the same and using focused, smaller changes to keep your core audience happy. I think the thing with WoW in particular is that a lot of the changes in the “bad” expansions skew towards trying to pull in new players and often come at the cost of existing players, at least in their perception. (Cataclysm offered the 1-60 revamp, WoD was the first level boost in the box expansion, and BfA counts level-scaled old content as a feature, which is clearly a hook for new players as much for the Allied Race-levelers)

    I’m not a big leveler, so I didn’t like the 1-60 revamp at the time of Cataclysm, but then I leveled some alts through it, and it is a good change. It kept the game modern-ish while still capturing a lot of the old vibe. But the gameplay fundamentally changed with that and I would agree that is definitely where the Classic rumblings start. You could make the case that the game needed those changes, but it also put up a hard line for original players that “this is a new game now” and it forced people to decide if they like new WoW or not. A lot of people initially said yes, but the subscriber figures say that the momentum didn’t last and too many people just couldn’t reconcile it.

    I certainly don’t envy anyone who has to make those decisions and design that content – you can bring your best work as a game designer and still lose because it doesn’t revere the fundamentals of the game in the eye of the beholder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kaylriene

    Also: as someone who read reviews of the EQ expansions in Computer Gaming World back in the day, I’m surprised I never noticed they came out so frequently. Two a year? My head would be spinning, and it must have been a nightmare to keep a guild or raid team on the same page with the need to purchase a new box every few months to keep pushing new content.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Krumm

    Ahh, I feel you hit the mark on this one.
    We all ache for our youth as it where. Those memories of places which drive us towards nostalgia after a time. It is what drives me to peek in on Ultima every so often and sadly makes me wish I had played Everquest back in the day. Im enjoying EQ2 but its like a history book i haven’t read and man i love history so I’m going to have to break down and play it so that I can feel even more connected to EQ+II.

    I agree with you on the front of vanilla/Classic, TBC, and WOTLK. In fact those three taken together made a great trilogy. But you forgot to mention that Cataclysm+ also took away our talent trees which dramatically changed the game (what we have now are now talent trees lets be honest). Changed how and when we got our powers. Defanged Glphys (which had cosmetic potential never realized). Wow began to forget that it used to take good ideas from other games and use them to aid their craft. Remeber that plants versus zombies mini game near the old dalaran site.

    Image if they had taken the development time to implement player housing like had at first hinted. Imagine further if they had looked to the sorts of LOTRO or Everquest II. The capital cities have lots of doors that dont open right? image, truly image, if you could walk up to it and pay for a house, with upkeep requirements….eh a money sink no? A reason for people to remain subbed and invested outside of a endgame leveling facet? Oh what a nice image that would be.

    Heavens know that some of the old cities could use a bit of normal traffic; But as you suggest I myself have felt that desire to see classic grow sense cataclysm. My hope is to have one day a WOTLK server but either way with a Classic or a progression server in the future; at some point the game will grow stale and then after I will end up just popping into wow with a old level 20 just to see the place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bhagpuss

    I’ll try to keep this short because I’ll probably spin off a reply post tomorrow – if I have the energy. it could get long…

    I would go back to six-monthly expansions *in a heartbeat* for any MMORPG I currently play. I found it the ideal cadence. It completely supported my disinterest in endgame content. For the huge majority of EQ’s bi-annual expansion period I simply ignored the endgame altogether; it had literally nothing to do with me, might as well have been a separate game, and that suited me perfectly.

    Instead, I usually got either ten new levels and/or a new race and racial starting area and/or some mid-level zones or dungeons plus at least one major systems enhancement and a bunch of minor amusements. That usually kept me fully occupied for something like three or four months and by the time the novelty was wearing off we’d be into the hype period for the next expansion and I’d be all excited about that. That whole “three monther” thing that Keen invented came close to describing how EQ worked for about six years: you had all the buzz and excitement of a new MMO every six months without the trouble of actually having to find a new MMO!

    After F2P arrived and with the post-WoW explosion of would-be WoW Killers, dropping to an annual cadence also made sense for me. I had plenty of new MMOs to try out so coming back once a year or so to revisit EQ and/or EQ2 for another two or three month run freed up the rest of the year for new games. Now that the flood has turned into a trickle and threatens to dry up entirely, once a year isn’t really enough.

    Coming from that to MMO developers who think that every other year or, God forbid, every third year is often enough to press refresh I begin to despair. And don’t get me started on the utterly ludicrous conceit that live development can carry the weight of expansions…

    As for there not being any good expansions, I feel exactly the opposite. I can barely think of a bad one. Oh, wait, yes I can – GW2’s Path of Fire, without doubt the worst expansion i’ve paid money for in a decade. Mostly, though, I love all expansions. EQ did have a few bland ones but even those I enjoyed in patches – they were certainly a lot better than not having an expansion that year (or half-year) and EQ2 has never had a bad expansion for my money – or even a mediocre one. They’ve all been great.

    Anyway, I said I’d keep it short…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Shintar

    I still have very mixed feelings about Cataclysm to this day. Technically it was the expansion during which I quit, but that was fairly close to its end, and the fact that nothing I was hearing about the upcoming Mists of Pandaria really excited me was certainly a factor as well.

    Ultimately there were a lot of things in Cata that I liked: The revamped levelling experience was enjoyable and refreshing, I liked the new dungeons in their initial, relatively hard iteration, and the first tier of raiding was quite good as well. Plus I had a blast doing rated battlegrounds with a dedicated team for a while. And who could forget the introduction of Darkmoon Island?

    However, at the same time it really showed that Blizzard’s design goals for the game didn’t match what I myself wanted out of the game anymore. The new 1-60 quests were a fun romp, but the utter disregard for lore and any sort of continuity in them was mind-boggling. The hard dungeons I enjoyed were soon nerfed because Blizzard decided that keeping their random group finder running smoothly was more important to them than providing guild groups with any fun or sense of adventure. The raid tier I enjoyed was pushed into forced obsolescence only a few months in as they wanted everyone to go to Firelands instead, which I enjoyed a lot less.

    Anyway, I agree with the overall notion of this post that expansions are tricky business. However, I think that there are still better and worse ways of going about them, and the expansions that are generally decried as the worst ones usually earned that reputation for a reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Kaylriene – Hold that thought on CGW for about… a month. I have already written the March 15th post, related to the obvious subject that will be discussed that day, and it involves CGW.

    @Bhagpuss – I am probably declaring the cup to be half empty a little more loudly than I should. This post could have easily been titled “No Perfect Expansions” or “No Expansion is Without Sin” or “Somebody Out There Hates Every Expansion.”

    I generally like expansions overall and, as you can see in this post, I even have some nice things to say about Cataclysm. There are only a few expansions I generally dislike, and they all have the common thread of being additions to games I otherwise enjoyed that made me stop playing them. For LOTRO, Mirkwood is one. I could never get through it. It was a gloomy slog. For Rift, it was Storm Legion, which represents such a change in zone design philosophy that I left.

    Another is Kingdom of Sky for EQII, which was launched way too quickly after Desert of Flames and which was just visually unappealing for me. I spent about a decade avoiding it. It didn’t help that its launch coincided with SOE having some horrible server performance problems… that was the peak of the Qeynos Harbor lag.

    And, of course, I know people who have hated various expansions. The constant stream of EQ expansions was good, unless you hit one you didn’t like. I had several friends who carried on playing EQ for ages, buying every expansion, until they hit that one… and then they quit and never came back.

    So I feel like my basic premise, that change will always drive somebody away, is sound.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yeebo

    I am one of the very few that liked Cataclysm. The launch model of 1. quest in an area until you hit a brick wall where the quests you have left are way too high level for you, 2. go quest somewhere else for a while, 3. then come back and finish the quest lines if you remember to always irked the heck out of me. I had more fun around the launch of that expansion than I have before or since. Goes back to your “Everything is someone’s favorite” I suppose).

    More generally, almost every single time I have left a game that I played for more than a year straight, it was due to an expansion I didn’t like. ToA made me leave DAoC, WoD made me leave WoW, ultimately it was changes that came with the last major expansion that made me leave SWTOR. However, in each case I wouldn’t say it was the expansion per se but rather some change in mechanics that came with it. For example, the switch to the command crate system for end game gearing in Knights of the Fallen Empire, and the complete gutting of crafting and yet another redesign of all the classes that came with Warlords of Drainor. Any of those mechanical changes would have driven me away whether they came with a paid expansion or not. Gear resets and other things that tend to come with expansion don’t bother me in the slightest.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Whorhay

    I have to point out that in EQ the first few expansions did not make everything that came before useless. I stopped playing when Galaxies released but up to that point people were still regularly raiding older content for at least two reasons. First was that raids weren’t instanced, if the big guild(s) on your server were farming something you weren’t going to get a crack at it. So instead you’d go raid other zones that could still give you valuable upgrades, which is the second point, old raid content still dropped useful loot upgrades. Stat inflation was definitely a thing, but the creep was much slower than WoW.

    I enjoyed The Burning Crusade but my character replaced almost all of his gear from raiding molten core and ZG within the first few days. While it was nice to get some gear upgrades it sucked seeing everything go so fast. Upgrading more slowly would have been better to spread the dopamine hits out over a longer period.

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  9. Redbeard

    From my perspective, Cataclysm’s redone Old World was, on the face of it, okay. It showed that Blizz had matured in handling quest writing, a full zone story, and how to keep a player engaged. In short, they took the lessons from BC and Wrath and applied them to the Old World.

    The problem, and an eventual dealmaker for me, was the story discontinuity that rebuilding of the Old World created. Instead of rebuilding Vanilla, they assumed all players would want to play in a post-Cataclysm world and wrote the quests and lore as if that were the case. However, Outland and Northrend were still stuck in a pre-Cataclysm storyline, so in order for a new player to progress they essentially had to go back in time in order to reach the new Cataclysm zones. That only makes sense (sorta kinda) for someone who was an established WoW player, but to a new player, the breakage of the storyline caused massive problems. I knew of a couple of players who started playing in Cataclysm and stopped soon after hitting BC, not because it was hard or boring, but because it made absolutely no sense to them at all. It’s as if someone had reordered the chapters of a novel and expected it to make sense. Blizz inadvertantly cut off their steady supply of new players.

    Since Blizz couldn’t undo the situation they boxed themselves into, they bypassed it by created the “Instant 90” toward the end of Mists, so that new players could simply skip everything that went before. Sure, it sounds like a great idea in theory, but it also eliminated the great advantage WoW had over all the WoW killers that appeared in the 2010s to challenge it: the sheer volume of content. Bypassing all that content and implicitly stating that only the current expac is important meant that WoW’s scope was reduced to only the latest content. Everything else was unimportant.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Alunaria

    Great read :) Oh, expansions were a whole lot different for EQ, I didn’t know. We’re their content similar to Wow?

    I actually liked Cataclysm. Though I am sure that without it, there would not have been the upcoming Classic option. I do wish I could have it all in one game.

    Motion sickness in the underwater zone, I wonder what brought that on. It was quite unique.

    I think WOD happened in hopes of combining old and new. People liked TBC, let’s remake those zones.

    Similar to parts of Legion.

    And even in BFA, I spot some of the music from the classic zones intertwined in the new music tracks. Clever.

    Sometimes I wonder what the player base would say to an expansion treated like Wrath. No World Quests, no Paragon, not as many weekly must do, less to do, but also less have to do.

    The rework of classes is a mystery to me though, I know some need tuning but still.

    Food for thought.

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  11. Pingback: Good or bad expansions, and theme | GamingSF

  12. Pingback: MMO expansions | Armagon Live

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