Live Expansions: Future of the MMOG?

With the upcoming release of The Call to Arms, a new free expansion for Warhammer Online, the question of whether companies should adopt the free expansion concept began to percolate in my...

With the upcoming release of The Call to Arms, a new free expansion for Warhammer Online, the question of whether companies should adopt the free expansion concept began to percolate in my brain. The initial knee-jerk reaction billowing out of every boardroom in America may be a resounding, "NO!", but I say that reaction should be ignored. The concept deserves a far closer look and what better venue to do this in than this week's Forever Fantasy column?

Even a mother would have a hard time loving that face. Sheesh!

The idea of giving players a free expansion may be anathema to most, but there are some solid reasons why it's a good idea. First and foremost is the amount of content you can decide to include or not include. When you attach a price to an item, you immediately attach an imagined value, or worth. In doing so, you have guaranteed you will now piss off an unknown number of players (your customers), despite the best effort of every developer in the modern world to do otherwise. There will always be a set amount of people that will never feel they've gotten what they've paid for when it comes to an expansion (or anything else for that matter). There's not enough content, bug fixes, new territory, etc. There is not, and never will be, enough to satisfy this particular group. When you remove the cost from such an expansion though, gamers no longer have the ability to complain about any cost involved (though this rarely stops some).

Releasing a free expansion automatically frees the development team from not only avoiding the displeasure of these players, but more importantly, it also frees them from being required to deliver an expansion of a certain size. There's nothing saying that the team can't make it as little or large as they want. Whether they focus on new mobs, new classes, or new land masses, they can add just what they want instead of having to fulfill someone else's vision of what an expansion should contain. When it's free, no one can complain, but if you put a price tag on it, you'd better deliver something awesome or as history has shown, you're going to have some insanely ticked off gamers pounding on your virtual door.

By necessity, the printing and publishing cost of any new content is a very real and legitimate concern for any game company. In the end, how much of a profit do they actually make? We've all heard how unless a game (or in this case an expansion) manages to sell a staggering number of copies, the return a company makes on it is negligible at best. By releasing free content digitally, it allows the development team to devote more resources to the project. More resources means better customer service, faster bug fixes, and new content more often than we would otherwise receive. I for one am not going to complain about that at all.

Not only does this allow for more resources to continue being devoted to the expansion, but it also allows them time to continue adding and tweaking right up until the last minute. Without having to get a final product out to printers and distribution centers weeks or months prior to the release date, a company can arguably give players a more complete package. Rather than taking the time to install a new expansion (which for some disturbingly non-technical individuals is a supreme hassle) and then having to sit through a long patch, players get it all at once.

Call me Stumpy just one... more... time...

Receiving a new expansion in the form of a patch may seem like a hassle to some, but how many games already have a morning/day dedicated to maintenance each week anyway? It's not like we're not used to having to sometimes wait long periods of time for a patch to complete, especially when those windows seem to continually get extended anyway. And despite popular opinion, the development team would not have to release it all at one time. Sony Online Entertainment has been "pre-patching" games for years now and it works wonderfully. I've never had a problem with it and on release day, it really does speed up the process. It also seems to have the added benefit of preventing their network from being completely overridden with the rush of players.

Depending on the size, some players may call a free expansion nothing more than an over-sized patch, but when you get right down to it, isn't that all an expansion really is? It's nothing more than an over-sized patch wrapped up in a (sometimes) over priced box that you had to wait too long to get because either your preorder was delayed or you couldn't get your car started and had to walk to the game store for your copy. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but is it really? I know that I for one have had to wait an extra day or two to grab a wanted expansion because of various reasons. The last thing you want to do is have to wait extra time to get any new content for a favorite game of yours, especially if you've already played through the majority of current content the game has to offer.

This brings me to one final point. Expansions have a secondary (or primary, depending on how look at it) job of bringing players back. They left for a reason though, so the enticement has to be pretty sweet to bring the majority of them back, even just to test things out again. How many more former players do you think would be willing to come back and try a game they may have enjoyed in the past if all they had to do was reactivate their account and download a patch? Now how many players (that may already feel "burned") would be willing to come back if they have to pay for an expansion on top of the cost of reactivating their account? It's not that a lot of players won't do this, but I'm willing to bet a lot more would come back if they didn’t. So when it's all said and done, I think a company stands a solid chance to make more money just in reactivated subscriptions (even if it's only for the single month to try things out) than they do from trying to sell a retail expansion pack.

What do you think? Do you agree with me? Either drop me a line via email or post on our forums. Until next week, keep it Forever Fantasy.

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