Backing Into the Future
What's the right way to release post-launch MMORPG content ?
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
This week, writers across the Ten Ton Hammer network confront the question of how best to handle expansions. Are free (or more accurately, "included in the subscription price") micro-updates enough to satisfy gamers in those dry periods between release and subsequent pay-to-play expansions? Or is a more radical solution like subscription-free Guild Wars' semi-annual re-release the way to go? We'll begin by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of new content, then I'll show you the most common timetables for post-release among MMOs, then we'll discuss whether or not there's a better way.
The Upbeats and Beatdowns of Updates
The upsides of releasing new content are fairly obvious, but let's review. First of all, over the past 10+ years, MMO players have been trained to expect regular new content, so freshening up the game (especially the endgame) helps meet player expectations. When that content comes in the form of free micro-updates, it helps to justify monthly subscription costs like entirely valid reasoning along the "bandwidth costs money" line just doesn't. Any MMORPG with franchise aspirations eventually creates an important subset of lore fans, and good expansions solve old mysteries and create new ones. A fourth upside is perhaps the most obvious: assuming the developer hasn't cannibalized the pre-release team, they should have a knowledgeable crew and proven tools on-hand to facilitate the expansion, making the major update much more cost- and time-efficient than the original release.
Less talked-about are the downsides of expansions, and it's probably worth bearing these things in mind the next time you feel compelled to criticize your favorite MMO for a lack of new content. Expansions unavoidably grow the game world, and (as I'm fond of pointing out, if you've read any of my other editorials) larger worlds are typically less-dense, leading to less spontaneous social interaction. Groaning over pick-up groups aside, this kind of spontaneity is how you first met most of your friends and guildmates that you didn't bring with you into the game, and it makes up a big part of the fun to be had in the typical MMORPG. Another result of a larger world is that "old world" zones, especially level-redundant areas, tend to become a ghost town. Apart from how depressing a vacuous MMO zone is, it's pretty confusing to new players searching for the next area to level in, too.
And then there's something you've probably noticed elsewhere in the entertainment industry. Movies sagas tend to get worse and worse with each sequel, and though an MMORPG expansion isn't a sequel in the strictest sense, it's nonetheless an addition subject to most of the same creative restrictions and narrative flaws as the original title. All the careful work of balancing the game that goes on in the weeks and months before and after release often goes out the window with an expansion; EverQuest's "Lost Dungeons of Norrath" expansion, DAoC's "Trials of Atlantis", and Star Wars Galaxies' "Combat Upgrade" and "New Game Enhancements" (NGE) are the classic examples.
I think most of us would agree, however, that the upsides of regular new content outstrip the drawbacks. Moving forward with those cautions in mind, let's take a look at when developers typically release new content.
Free events / patches including "micro updates":
- Weekly / Monthly - Community-centric MMOs, like the Horizons: Empire of Istaria, used to pride themselves on regular in-game events which typically revealed new areas and activities and revealed game lore. The last of these weekly event MMOs died off in mid-2004. From May 2004 through late 2005, Horizons put on monthly events. The rise and fall of events in Horizons is indicative of the typical fate of MMORPG events in every game that's tried this approach with regularity. Most mainstream MMOs center their events on the biggest commecial holidays - namely Halloween and Christmas - and forego events the rest of the year. Nonetheless, regular events may make a comeback with community-intensive games like Hero's Journey and Chronicles of Spellborn.
- Quarterly - Though a handful of World of Warcraft's patches were released only a month after the last, most are released on a quarterly timetable. Unlike patches in previous games, WoW's patches almost always offer new mid-to-high level instances, content for all levels such as the PvP "Battlegrounds," and other content besides the usual fixes. City of Heroes and City of Villains' free "Issues" also follow a (roughly) every 3-month release schedule, as does Auto Assault (with its 2 content updates in the last 6 months) and Dungeons and Dragons Online (3 modules in the last 9 months).
- Semi-annually - EverQuest II's two 2005 "adventure packs" ("The Splitpaw Saga" and "The Bloodline Chronicles") fall into this category. These adventure packs were unique in that they cost $10-$15 a piece (about half the cost of the typical retail expansion) and were targetted toward mid-level players. This lineup would eventually include March 2006's "Kingdom of Sky" adventure pack for level-capped players.
- Annually - By far, this is the most widely used timetable for retail expansions. The numbers tell the story: EverQuest (7 years live, 7 expansions), Dark Age of Camelot (5 retail expansions in 5 years live - 7 if you count the free expansions: Foundations and New Frontiers), and EverQuest II (which beat the ratio a bit with 3 expansions in 2 years).
- Bi-Annually - No discussion along these lines would be complete without mentioning the industry's most anticipated expansion to-date. "The Burning Crusade" - World of Warcraft's first retail expansion, is currently set to release 2 years and about 2 months after the game was first released.
The Tau of Updates
I think there's at least several principles we can glean from the varied success of the titles and expansions mentioned above.
- Free updates should be geared towards fixing and extending the game - Whether you call the regular 3-monthish update a patch, an issue, or a module, fixes for items, quests, and class balancing is a given. Endgame content such as new instances (and occasionally content that's fun for all levels, such as WoW's Battlegrounds) should be mandatory. Hater griping aside, players do have a point when they expect fun (or at least the opportunity for fun, without repeating the endgame dungeons ad nauseam) for their monthly money.
- MMOGs shouldn't rely on yearly retail expansions to keep the game fun - This is more or less the converse of the above, but "The Burning Crusade" shows that, with regular content updates and a ground-up emphasis on replayability, 2 years is not too long to make the game community wait for an expansion. Take an extra year and come up with something spectacular.
- Pay-to-play expansions should offer something for all players, regardless of level - By the time an expansion is needed, experienced players should be truly ready for a replay option, and the game should be ready for a jolt of new players. Major expansions should be about growing the game; such an expansion should include something that causes outsiders to say "Wow, cool!". Hype is a two-edged sword; an over-publicized update focusing solely on game minutae hurts an MMOG's marketability more than it helps.
And that wraps up another half-baked Ethec editorial, where I've said much in saying little, yet much remains to be said! Fortunately, we can continue the discussion in the Ten Ton Hammer forums or, if you're shy, email me!