Expansions, Content Updates, and Your $15!

If you've played an MMO at all, you're familiar with subscription fees. It's the service cost associated with the game. If you've played MMOs for any length of time, you'll be familiar with the expansion features that many MMO companies throw at players, often faster than we can chew through the content. In contrast, one of the biggest pushes in MMO delivery in the last few years is the content update. This occurs when studios update content and features in game without making you pay extra for the content.

When MMOs first came onto the scene we had patches and hot fixes that were more emergency maintenance than updates to content offerings. Now though, few games choose not to recognize what a huge boon to their community content updates are. There are even some studios that offer updates to their games exclusively via complimentary expansions. A game such as CCP's EVE Online has offered their content updates for free to paying subscribers.

Turbine's Asheron's Call has had only two expansions in its nine year run. On the other hand, long running MMO EverQuest, from SOE, launched in early 1999, has racked up an astounding 15 retail box expansions, if you consider the Seeds of Destruction, releasing next week. Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot, launched in October of 2001 (Happy Anniversary guys!), has launched 5 retail box expansions and 3 free expansions.

So, in the end, what's the difference between an expansion that comes in a box that you pay for with or without a collector's edition, a content update that studios push as free content to their subscribers and patches or hot fixes which fix or balance the game without any sort of extra payment or box requirement?

More importantly, what do paying customers desire and require for their monthly payment? Are items such as technical support, bug fixes, as much server uptime as is possible in the industry, server infrastructure (bandwidth, hardware, emergency maintenance), and future development worth your monthly fee? Not to mention your money goes to help the studio fund advertising towards potential players.

How do some studios manage to get by with free, or mostly free content updates and others come out with an expansion every six months? If we're paying for future development, why then do we also have to pay for the features we've been supporting the studio to develop? Do box sales make up for the cost of the development?

Online games with multi-player aspects Diablo 2 and Guild Wars offer their service free of monthly access or subscription fees. While both have expansions, both support their players free of charge, and with an incredible disposition towards maintaining a happy player base. Turbine incorporates constant, consistent content updates for their games, along with traditional retail expansion offers.

Expansions often offer a more complete out of the box experience. You have fewer patches to fix issues because the developers have focused on these lines of code for months! You have more complete and intricate storyline options. Adding new features can be more easily slipped into an expansion that's had months of testing and is less likely to totally break the game. Giving live teams the chance to tweak, fix and balance expansion content rather than designing and implementing systems on the fly.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention that some studios are capable of adding this expansion content as free updates. So the question remains, why? Why do some studios focus on free updates and content and some studios focus on expansions? The real answer lies within the player market. The studios that can extract and demand consistent retail box sales do. Those studios that cannot, don't. It may sound simple, but there's a lot more to it, obviously.

The fact of the matter is some game companies have a market and a player base that can and will pay for the expansions. Other studios have to be more creative in giving their players a reason to continue subscribing. Dark Age of Camelot has depreciated their old expansions, allowing paying subscribers to download and play them free of charge. This is a fantastic way of keeping your content viable while still encouraging people to pay and play newer content.

Most players, however, especially those competing in top guilds for advancement, buy the expansions as soon as they are announced. Some even pre-order. If the game company can charge you for developing content (monthly) and then charge you for the box without even offering a free month as they would for new players, why wouldn't they? What stops a studio from doing it?

Are players going to stop playing? I think the current expansion market for MMOs out there has proven that this pricing strategy is a winner. Few players leave MMOs for other games because of the cost of the expansions, and if they move to other MMOs they're going to run into the same problem. Studios like CCP are unlikely to offer a paid expansion knowing that their EVE player base is unlikely to take that offering lying down.

Let's not forget that MMOs are expensive to develop and customer service, developers, designers, quality assurance and even forum moderator salaries add up. Add to that the cost of planning upcoming features; meetings where nothing is actually accomplished as far as billable product but that help to determine the future development of such items, are a requirement and one which must be part of the process.

Adding to the frustration of MMO fees vs. expansion and content updates is the fact that games such as Guild Wars survive, even thrive, with millions of players and one of the top box sales numbers without charging players monthly! Obviously these folks are making money or they'd have shut down their servers long ago.

Now imagine if every player who purchased an expansion box at launch time, brand new, were to get the 30 days free offered to new players who've not been supporting the game! SOE would owe their longtime customers up to 14 free months of service! Wouldn't that be heaven?

In the end, games are a business and players hold the key with what they're willing to pay. Considering that most players who are taking part in free to play games seem unwilling to part with their money for items usually offered in the micro-transaction shop, what is it about the expansion concept vs. free content and updates that bothers players the most?

I believe it's the perception of value offered by an MMO. For most of us it's our main source of entertainment dollar, as well as a hobby that we don't mind sinking money into. MMOs are relatively cheap, offering both! For some, EQ's 6 month expansion schedule is simply too hard on the pocketbook. For others it's worth the money for the game they love and the hobby they've invested hundreds of hours in.

For the rest, we'll see options, such as Diablo 3, which offer MMO type content without charging a monthly subscription fee, as well as multiple free to play MMO games and studios which are committed to delivering different products and expansions schedules for the same cost as those shipping 2 expansions a year.

Only the individual players can decide if the cost is worth it and ask themselves if they've ever really quit a game over the cost of the often optional expansions. I can only think of one game that's happened with, and honestly, it was only because the expansion content changed the game! Have you ever quit a game, or changed MMOs due to the cost of continuous expansions? Would you?


Becky "Tovin" Simpson
Senior Editor, ZAM Network


Post Comment
# Oct 20 2008 at 7:02 AM Rating: Decent
138 posts
I am glad SOE decided to cut back to only 1 expansion a year. I personally would rather have a big expansion that has a lot of time put into it over a smaller expansion that was rushed out the door.
Rylaar - 100 Ranger - Bristlebane - EQ1
Trylon - 100 Cleric
Iamken - 92 Enchanter

Fyfe - 95 Troubador - Unrest - EQ2
Rylaar - 95 Ranger
Quinleigh - 95 Fury
Dalarn - 95 Inquisitor

Rylaar - 90 NE Hunter - Khaz Modan - WoW
Rhylaar - 90 Troll Hunter - Shadow Council - WoW
well worth it
# Oct 19 2008 at 1:50 PM Rating: Decent
It seems to me that when compared to other forms of entertainment / hobbies this is still an extremely good deal. So we pay an extra w/e$$ amt every coupla years...amg it is not such a big deal. Do you have any idea what it must cost to run an organization as large as blizzard? I am more than happy to pay for the quality stuff they put out. I you can't afford it ..take your broke **** home.
We make the game + you wanna play = pawn your 360
# Oct 18 2008 at 2:47 PM Rating: Decent
28 posts
Blah, blah, blah. Babble, babble. Who cares about you, we're going to exploit you until you stop paying us. Then we'll sucker you into paying for the next "new" thing, MMO, whatever. GIVE US MORE MONEY!

Next up: pay by the spell!
Nice Read
# Oct 18 2008 at 10:33 AM Rating: Good
Most expansions are $20-$30 range, Blizzard charges full price for their expansions cause they know they can get away with it at least at the moment, BUT the quality of that $40 was imo worth it, hopefully that will be true for Lich King.

I played EQ for years and hated their model of expansions every 6 months, it made the game world larger while the population didn't increase, and most were only for those at the max level. That's the SOE model, knowing that if someone was in a raiding guild all members would buy whatever they released.

City of Heroes seems to have done many things right, free content, and while they have in game advertising, you can turn it off, but it actually fits into the city environment. I played Planetside to and the one expansion they had sucked so bad I quit soon there after. People were rarely went to the new zones so it was a waste. I wasnt around for the ingame advertising, but an option would be nice, and CoH asked the community about it prior to implementation, while I'm sure SOE just did it...

I don't mind paying as long as I get quality in the expansion and the gameplay
Leaving an MMO
# Oct 17 2008 at 10:04 PM Rating: Decent
I left SOEs' Planetside a few years ago when sony decided to put advertising in game on top of the already $12 a month sub. fee.Myself and several other players left due to the advertising.
Expansion content changing a game,preposterous!!
# Oct 17 2008 at 9:42 PM Rating: Good
Geee could that game have been SWG.....after the "Combat Upgrade" it became a different game...they then follow that with another "upgrade" that dumbed it down even further!!! SWG was a game you had to "learn".....it took a while to learn the ins and outs and truly master playing it a a normal level, let alone an elite level.

Nice article....lots of great points....but to change any of the ways expansions/content is let out, I don't think anybody is really going to let theior almighty $$$ do the work.We are all too addicted to our games and social interactions in game. :)
~nod nod~
# Oct 17 2008 at 9:07 PM Rating: Good
Just want to say what a nicely written article this is.
# Oct 17 2008 at 8:52 PM Rating: Default
tl;dr version: Blizzard has some idea what they are doing. Who knew.

# Oct 20 2008 at 4:24 AM Rating: Decent
143 posts
Xpacs will be an investment b4 long
# Oct 20 2008 at 4:23 AM Rating: Good
143 posts
To the original comment poster, the money it costs to run an organization as large as Blizzard's is MORE than covered by the monthly fees they collect. Expansion is just gravy on top, like when the gas stations raise the price a few pennies, they could charge less, but people will pay so they charge more, until people stop paying then back it up a little.

This article was a nice one with good ideas. RE the question, I left Ultima Online because they were rolling out expansions and the content wasn't getting any better. New land and more housing options, with little space to place, huge amounts of lag and graphics getting worse. i guess at the time the 3D was one of the first when it was released, and it was a novel idea, but the execution was horrible and that is what drive me away. At the time I had 3 accounts, was a 5 year vet and was making a few hundred dollars a month selling stuff to those too lazy to go collect it themselves. I left SWG when they released their first expansion as there was not enough working great content to make me stay. I enjoyed the game at first, but it grew old and the holocron grind probably contributed to that.

Guild Wars was fun, but I guess not paying for the game got me playing less. When I pay a sub fee I feel the need to get on and play a bit more. Is probably very similar to my 360 sitting there collecting dust while I grind out dailies in WoW. Played Diablo and Diablo 2, but the hackers and cheaters drove me away from that quickly. I don't see myself getting into D3.

My only complaint with the expansion in WoW, is having to buy previous expansions to keep up. Unless they can add some 60-70 content, new users will have to go pickup a shopping cart full of retail versions or download GBs of data and then a weeks worth of patches. I can't with a good conscience refer anyone to the game knowing they will have to go buy the game TBC and WOTLK to play. I got on WoW late and after much resistance to friends telling me I should, picked up the expansion for $10, and then had to get the game.

If they have multiple retail expansions and want new users to come in, they should include everything 2 versions and back (so with WOTLK would be the original game and WOTLK and buy TBC, then the next retail expansion would be original game, TBC and Xpac and buy WOTLK), to me this would be reasonable. I can say that if something like this is not in place, I will not purchase the game for my kids in the next few years, when I feel they are old enough to have their old accounts. And if I were a new player and was told I had to buy the game and 2 Xpacs just to play to end content, I wouldn't even consider it any further.

The free month of play would be nice and fair as well, but we all know life isn't fair (toss in some ret pally comment after 3.0.2 here)...

Edited, Oct 20th 2008 8:20am by SumDuud
Post Comment

Free account required to post

You must log in or create an account to post messages.