Saturday, March 12, 2022

They don't make expansions like they used to

Per my last post, I have been playing through some of the original EQ II expansions lately.  I remember when they came out they weren't considered particularly large expansions.  However, by modern standards they are quite meaty.  For example, I played through Kingdom of the Sky last month, and I am now in the middle of the Rise of Kunark, the second and fourth expansions for EQ II.  Rise of Kunark consisted of five new zones, a new 1-20 starting area and four new high level adventuring zones.  It was released a few months after Burning Crusade for WoW, which included two new starting zones and seven new high level adventuring zones.  So at first glance, it seems pretty meager for the era.

The Kylong Plains, one of four high level adventuring zones that came with the Rise of Kunark Expansion for EQ II in 2007.  The map is actually a lot bigger than it looks, each of the four main areas is about the same size as a normal MMO zone. For the last month I have been playing through some of the early EQ II expansions, and it's remarkable how much more content they have than some expansions I have been playing in more modern MMOs.  

Now of course this ignores the fact that by this time EQ II had released three previous expansions, to the 0 that WoW had put out.  The zones themselves are also absolutely enormous.  Playing through Kunark took me roughly three weeks weeks of evenings, and by the time I hit 80 and move on to the next expansion there are also still going to be huge areas I haven't yet set foot in.  However, Kunark vs Burning Crusade is really a debate for 2007.  What has really struck me as I have been playing through these expansions from over a decade ago is how much developers have degraded the meaning of the term "expansion" over the years.  

Back in 2007, if a content drop wasn't at least a good solid few weeks of entertainment for most players, you didn't call it an expansion.  For example, in EQ II SOE used the term "adventure packs" to distinguish smaller hunks of content from mainline expansions. They likely did this because (a) they didn't want to confuse their customers and (b) because they would have gotten crucified in the court of public opinion if they had tried to call something like The Fallen Dynasty an expansion. It only contained one new adventuring zone, two new group instances, one solo quest series, one tradeskill quest series, and 20 quest series of trials in the group instances.  Clearly that's not an expansion!

The Fens of Nasthar. This was actually the first zone from Kunark I got going in, and because I didn't know what I was doing I managed to royally jack up my faction here.  I am kill on sight to every NPC in roughly half this map (though the ones in the corners absolutely love me).  Games were a lot less likely to hold your hand in 2007, but at least they didn't skimp on content.  This map  does not remotely convey what a big zone this is.  Just flying from one corner to another on an NPC mount is a "go make a snack or something" moment. 

How much things have changed.  Legacy of the Sith is the ultimate case in point. The latest "expansion" for SWTOR came out last month, and reactions to it were not good.  A lot of the negativity has focused on things that are pretty subjective, like whether the new UI is any good or not or whether changes to classes and gearing have improved the game or made it worse.  However one repeated criticism that I think is a lot less debatable is that Legacy of the Sith doesn't have enough content to be called an expansion, clocking in at about two hours for most players.  It really has me scratching my head and wondering whether this is the smallest update that any MMO publisher has ever had the temerity to call an "expansion." It probably is, but in the modern MMO era it certainly has some competition.

So what even is a proper expansion? First off, if new content doesn't have have any actual new areas where players engage in whatever the normal gameplay loop is, I don't personally think of it as an expansion. New mechanics can help distinguish an expansion from a normal content drop, but if there is nowhere new to go the world hasn't really been expanded. The first MMO that I can think of that tried to get away with calling something that was clearly not one an expansion was Dark Age of Camelot.  The second "expansion" for the game, called Foundations, added nothing but housing and consignment merchants.  I don't consider that an expansion at all because it doesn't really add to the world, it's just a bunch of new mechanics.  Of course even at the time Mythic released Foundation they charged nothing for it, and always referred to it as a "free expansion" to distinguish it from paid expansions like Trials of Atlantis and Catacombs that did actually have a lot of new areas to adventure in.  So if that's not a good comparison, what are some bottom of the barrel examples of actual past expansions?

Kunzar Jungle.  This is definitely the smallest zone that came with Kunark, and it still has at least five quest hubs that I have found so far.  I haven't looked it up, but I think the first hub I did had around 20 or 25 quests.  There were five main NPCs giving them out, each of which had between three and five quests.   By the time I finish out the first two hubs, I will have hit 80 and be ready to move on to the next expansion, Sentinels of Fate.

Standing Stone Games certainly has to make the list.  Recently they have taken to charging for content drops that they would have given away for free with a sub in prior years.  They refer to these as "mini-expansions" rather than full expansions, but when you can pay up to $100 for collectors editions that seems like an inconsequential semantic difference to me.  A paid expansion is a paid expansion, and it needs to have a good bit of content.  The two content releases I am referring to are War of the Three Peaks in Lord of the Rings Online and Saltmarsh in DDO.  Regardless of what you call them and being the start of my list, they were actually both decent sized updates.  War of the Three Peaks has been compared to Evindim, which is a zone that can easily last you a solid week of evenings.    Saltmarsh consisted of  one wilderness area and ten quests.  That doesn't sound like a lot.  However, a quest in DDO is set in an entirely separate instance so in reality it's something like 11 new play areas.  One quest in DDO can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour.  Altogether I would guess that both "mini-expansions" contain roughly 10 or 15 hours of content if you really see everything.  Small, but not egregiously bad.  They only look bad in comparison to what has historically been done in both games.

Another example that comes to mind is the final content released in Secret World Legends.  In a move that many of us are still bitter about, when the original Secret World didn't do as well financially as Funcom hoped, they spent a year revamping the game so that they could re-release it as Secret World Legends.  SWL was designed to be easier to get into compared to TSW, and was released as a free-to-play game.  To help get players to move to SWL, Funcom released a new South African adventuring area. It is the smallest adventuring zone in the game by a wide margin, probably taking about six hours to play through at most.  In consisted of essentially two areas, a prison camp and a mansion.  What was there was good, but it was way too short and ended up being the last major piece of content ever released for the game.  Not a great expansion, but it was also added to the game completely free, whether you subbed or not.  It was also billed as the first content drop for a planned full expansion if SWL did well, which unfortunately never materialized.  

The Jarsath Wastes.  Save to grab this screenshot I will not have set foot in this zone before I move on to the next EQ II expansion.  I would imagine you could take at least three characters through the 70-80 content in EQ II and do very few of the same quests. Both Rise of Kunark and Shadow Odyssey cover this level range, and I have not been to any of the zones from the latter.  Not to mention content packs in this level range I have payed no attention to, each of which SSG or Bioware would refer to as "an expansion" in the modern era.

Another notable modern entry into the "should this really be called an expansion?" subgenre was the previous SWTOR expansion, Onslaught.  There was a lot of grumbling at the time about how short it was.  Despite this, it was still a good 3-6 hours per faction, and well worth playing through twice to see both sides of the story.  It also launched with two new sets of daily areas that were pretty entertaining, so on the whole I was ok with it being called an expansion.  Six hours for an initial play through plus new dailies for gear was not bad, and certainly larger than a normal update for the game.  However, clearly we can also see a the bar for "expansion" getting ever lower. 

Which of brings us back SWTOR's latest expansion, Legacy of the Sith.  For me personally this release has finally crossed a line that I think is pretty absurd.  Calling one zone that takes two hours to see an expansion is unprecedented as far as I know.  If they had called it a "10th Anniversary Update" or "The Legacy of the Sith Adventure Pack" I suspect they would be getting a lot less flack.  But they didn't, and they are not being called out purely on semantics. Bioware called LotS an expansion, they paid some inordinate amount money for a trailer for it, and chose to hype the hell out of it for months leading up to the release.  That really comes across as conscious effort at deception.   I know a lot of players subbed before it even came out in anticipation of it, and I feel bad for them if that is really the only thing they subbed up to see.

In addition to the new high level zones, Kunark had this new 1-20 levelling area, a new race (Sarnak) and a new capitol city.  I recall there being a bit of back and forth between EQ II and WoW players, because Burning Crusade launched around the same time.  It had two new races, two new starting areas, and seven new high level zones.  I think the days when we will be arguing about which of two competing MMO expansions with weeks of content is really bigger are well behind us.

In my mind the absolute extreme lower limit for something to reasonably be called an expansion is at least a few evenings of new content for an average player.  If almost anyone can get home from work and play through a content update in a single sitting, it is absolutely not an "expansion."  Calling a content drop that small an expansion is like calling a pair of socks a new wardrobe, or a large refrigerator box a house.  At that point you are so far outside of the accepted meaning of the term you are using that you are obviously intentionally deceiving potential buyers.   The entire debacle with LotS has really shaken my faith in Bioware.* 

So how did we get to the point that a major developer of a highly visible game feels justified hyping up two hours of content for several straight months as an "Anniversary Expansion."  We got here the same way we almost always start in a good place and end up somewhere that nobody likes.  Someone pushes commonly accepted polite boundaries a little, gets away with it, and then the next person pushes them a little more.  Since there is no clear line in the sand that upsets everyone, eventually we end up in a place that almost everyone agrees is terrible.  But at that point it's too late to go back.**  

Overall Rise of Kunark added an entire new continent to EQ II (Kunark  in the lower right hand corner).  On argument I have seen floated for the disparity between modern expansions and expansions of this era is that new content was easier to make back then.  While I am sure that costs have gone up, I am extremely skeptical that's the primary explanation.  As an example, Rise of Kunark has a ton of new art assets and new geography, all of which were built by hand.  It also has an absurd  number of snippets of voice acting, and two versions of it.  One that is gibberish (before you can understand NPCs), and the other is all in English (for after you have deciphered the language of a given NPC race).  I can't find hard numbers for RoK, but EQ II launched with 130 hours of spoken dialogue (that's 5.4 straight days) recorded by 266 voice actors.  RoK is not something that a small team could have whipped up in a few months, it represents a substantial investment of resources in any era. It's also not as if EQ II has ever made insane amounts of money.  I firmly believe that MMO studios simply aren't folding as much of their income back into new content development as they used to in the 2000s.  

Over the years a lot of developers wanted to have all the hype and free press that comes with calling a new piece of content an expansion, without having to actually make an expansion.  But this whole thing isn't just their fault.  We the players have let MMO developers get away with calling smaller and smaller content updates expansions, so it was inevitable that they would keep pushing the trend.  In a way I can't be mad at SSG and Bioware for doing what almost anyone would be tempted to do in their shoes. The reason that this trend bothers me is not that I think the English language should never change.  Nor am I really upset over the semantic distinction between "expansion" and "content pack."  I am upset over the the implication that a lot of developers seem to think their players are naïve children that will believe anything they are told, all facts to the contrary.  "It's an Expansion, no really!"  

In 2007 SOE was afraid to call a mere week or two of content, Fallen Dynasty, an expansion.  In 2022 EA/ Bioware released a mid-sized content patch, called it an expansion***, and the thing that players got most upset about overall was the UI changes that came with it. Now that Bioware has seemingly gotten away with calling one evening of new content an expansion, I imagine other developers will feel free to do the same. We have now firmly reached the point where you can't believe anything a developer tells you about a content release until after it's out.  Now that's not exactly a new trend.  If I'm honest,  we've been here for a few years already.  For me Legacy of the Sith just happens to be a particularly absurd case-in-point from a developer I used to have a lot of affection for. 

*Not that they have the most amazing track record.  

**Edward J Watts has argued convincingly that this was how the Roman Republic fell.  However, I do not mean to imply that the inspiration for this whiny post is in any way comparable ;-)

***I think it's worth noting that Bioware claims that they will be steadily expanding their "expansion" over the course of the year.  Some commentators have even given them a bit of a pass on LoTS being so tiny based on that claim.  I'm no phone psychic, but I am skeptical.  If Bioware really was sitting on an ambitious planned release schedule for the rest of 2022, they would be pretty daft to have told us absolutely nothing about it after the backlash that LoTS got.  


  1. Excellent post. The expansions from the early years of the mmo era could literally have been released as games in their own right. Kunark, Luclin and even Serpent's Spine from EQ specifically could be full games very easily, as could the Kunark and Faydwer expansions in EQII. They'd have been smaller than the actual originals but they'd still be bigger than plenty of full mmos from later years.

    The EQII adventure packs were sniffed at a bit at the time but then othing in EQII has ever been unqualifiedly popular with the playerbase. They all ended up being fairly well liked, though, and they all have easily as much content as some so-called expansions in other games.

    I wonder if it's true that companies simply don't reinvest as much of the income from the game these days or whether it's that the games used to make more money. The EQ games almost certainly had ten times as many players back then. Also, I think SOE is a very difficult company to parse when it comes to funding (Possibly even more than Daybreak!). We have no idea how much of the costs were carried by other divisions of Sony - it was certainly said at the time that Sony barely even new SOE existed while it was part of whichever subgroup Smedley reported to. It got moved to another division later and it did seem that a lot changed after that. I used to know the details but it's all a bit of a blur now.

    I think the annual EQ and EQII expansions, while formulaic, do still qualify as genuine expansions, especially since both games also do a couple of substantial, free content updates each year that other games would happily call "expansions". I generally get three to six weeks of steady play out of an EQII expansion these days, followed by consistent use of the content for another 4-6 months. That seems like a very reasonable return on the cost.

    The GW2 expansions are also proper expansions. There's a good few weeks' content in all of them but more importantly they have almost limitless replay value. By contrast, the new SW:tOR "expansion" sounds much more like one of GW2's Living Story updates, which take a couple of sessions to finish. Those, of course, are free.

  2. Thanks! I certainly agree that some companies are still doing proper expansions. ESO, WoW, GW2 and FFXIV for instance. In proportion to what I assume their budget to be, DBG is still doing a very good job with EQ and EQ II.

    However, the kinds of huge expansions that are practically a new game seem to be getting rarer, and the ones on the small end that don't really earn the term "expansion" seem to be getting a lot more common.