Expansion packs are one of the best parts of being an MMO player. There are few more exciting times than waiting for a large and luscious content drop the likes of which only come once a year -- or less. More than anything else, they breathe new life into games and reinvigorate players like it was Christmas Eve and they were the twelve year old waiting for morning. They’re great, y’hear? But there’s a problem with many expansions that becomes more apparent with each passing year: verticality is a devil’s kiss.
I started thinking about this topic towards the tail end of Blizzcon. Blizzard had just announced the awesome Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft -- to be released roughly when ten players are left kicking the servers. I hadn’t been interested in WoW since the few months following Mists of Pandaria, but the prospect of returning to Outland had me not only intrigued but excited. There was a lot of good coming including another 10 levels and a level cap of 100.
When I saw that in the official trailer, my jaw about hit the floor; not because it was some surprise that we got here but that, hot damn, that was a lot of leveling to do. The “old world” was now the old, old, old world. Someone at Blizzard must have agreed with me because the very next thing that came up was “skip the crap!” with an instant boost to 90. So all those other expansions were worth nothing then, is that what we’re to infer? So many man hours, so many good stories and great content thrown out the window like the baby with the bathwater. Don’t do that, by the way. Bathwater goes down the drain.
At some point, loot gets a silly too. In 2035 we will be roughly level 24468 with 1.5 billion health for healers and a picture of a brick wall for tanks. DPS numbers will be so high that you need two monitors to use Recount. That’s the path WoW took us down. Silly, ridiculous inflation the likes of which now call for “item squish,” a system that lets you keep big numbers on your gear but pretends they’re a whole lot smaller. It’s a mechanical retcon brought on purely through vertical expansion.
There needed to be some kind of solution to these issues, I’m not arguing that. Vertical expansions eventually become barriers to entry. All of those levels become a gigantic wall for new players and those who dare climb it join a gated community of players who have been there and done that. If I wasn’t already playing, there would be no way I would sign up for WoW knowing I needed to level 100 times just to not be alone! The only problem is, throwing away three quarters of the game is a pretty lazy solution. And item squish? Let’s all put our fingers in our ears and say I can’t hear you! when someone points out that +800 bracers are ludicrous in a game that starts in +1s and +3s.
These are endemic problems to vertical design. I’ve been considering buying Helm’s Deep for Lord of the Rings Online. If I was paying cash instead of Turbine Points, there would be no chance. All of this upward expansion usually means that levelers get left in the dust. Opportunities for cool, old world revamps and thrown to the side for the new shiny. New players, in LotRO for example, can look forward to new zones, new quests, and new group content. Those of us who haven’t already left four expansions in our wake can look forward to empty zones and an overwhelming pressure that we need to hurry up or miss out. In fairness, there are usually cool additions to mechanics, such as the class revamps and big battles system, but even these tend to underwhelm until you’re at the proper level to experience them. (Note: This is a general statement, I have not played through Helm’s Deep.)
Image Credit: Contains Moderate Peril
Vertical expansions segment players into haves and have nots. If you’re in a subscription game and haven’t purchased the latest content, you’re likely to be left feeling like a hobo at the governer’s banquet. In free-to-play, segregation is much worse. Ironically, it is so baked into the model you usually feel it much less. I don’t know if there is a lesson in that but there is one here: negative pressure is still negative. Convincing someone to buy an expansion because playing existing content is such a drag will bite you. Just ask Azeroth, Northrend, or Pandaria.
So while vertical expansions do cater to the oh-so-delicious need for more power, they also undermine the need for a vital, living world. More power has resulted in more problems. For those of us who have been through old world WoW more times than we can count, an instant 90 doesn’t sound so bad. But is just-skip-it-and-pretend-these-numbers-aren’t-so-big the best solution a team of talented designers could come up with?
Expansions aren’t just for adding new levels and zones, they’re for expanding the existing game. This is a genre that has always been about going deeper, not going higher. I like leveling up; it’s probably my favorite part of playing MMOs, but I don’t like seeing beautiful, rich worlds turn into ghost towns and yesterday’s news. Can theme parks already in this hole pull themselves out? If not, my money is on more instant high level characters in our future. And how much shorter will those 90-day tours be when leveling is taken out of the mix?
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. You can find him every two weeks in The Tourist and Player Versus Player columns, and on the official podcast, Game On: ESP Edition.