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MMOs And Expansions - Solving The Story Barrier Of Entry

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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We talk a lot about The Elder Scrolls Online here at MMORPG, and for good reason. Since their One Tamriel release, the team at Zenimax Online Studios feels as though it really knows its design philosophy and has only improved since then. The release cadence ESO uses is something I wish more MMORPGs are able to follow. With the release of The Dark Heart of Skyrim this year, ESO fans are seeing yet another year full of content from dungeons to more story DLC, hallmarked by the release of Greymoor, the centerpiece chapter for ESO this year.

The part of The Elder Scrolls Online’s plan that makes me wish more MMO makers followed, however, isn’t so much the release schedule. Every development team is different, working at their pace to ensure the best quality product. Some stories, such as those told in Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers may not have been possible if the Square Enix team was pushed to release a massive expansion yearly. However, the part I would love to see other teams emulate is how players, no matter their experience with the MMO previously, can pick up and play right away with the new content.

Barrier of Entry

For many MMOs, expansions are the continuation of a grand campaign, one that the developers and storytellers behind the experience have building up to for years. Prior DLCs, expansions and story updates support these releases, giving both a sense of depth to the world, but also the feeling as you’re playing that the story is ever moving forward. Understanding why Sylvannas burns Teldrassil carries more meaning if you've followed her journey rather than starting right with Battle for Azeroth.  

The Lord of the Rings Online, while it had the overarching War of the Ring storyline that followed the Fellowship of the Ring throughout the Third Age, has told a great story over the last twelve years, building to its current events in Minas Morgul. Indeed, enemies that we met over a decade ago are playing a role even today, adding a level of world building that makes the story in LotRO feel as though it could fit right alongside the stories told by Tolkien himself.


Final Fantasy XIV is the same way, with its story being the driving force of every major activity in the MMO. World of Warcraft has been building its story since before the MMO even launched, using he storylines found in the RTS series as the cornerstone of its MMO success. However, with each of these examples, and myriad other examples in the MMO world, one thing is in common that sets ESO apart: the stories told in expansions depend entirely on prior knowledge to fully enjoy.

On one hand, that’s a good thing. It helps to be invested in the storytelling of an MMO you’re going to spend dozens, sometimes even hundreds of hours, playing makes perfect sense. It gives greater meaning to everything you do within the game world. However, it does make joining an MMO years later as a new player more difficult as you’re constantly needing to catch up to the rest of the playerbase.

I’ve felt this multiple times over in the last few years now as I’ve branched out from playing just LotRO. When I first played World of Warcraft, it was during the Legion expansion. I was completely clueless as to what was going on. Sure, I could have started from the beginning and leveled my way to the content, but at the time I didn’t buy the expansion so I could explore Goldshire. I bought to play with a good friend of mine. I used the boost to instalevel my Priest (which was my first mistake choosing a class I had no business playing since I’m a terrible healer), but the amount of times my friend had to remind me of why we were doing the quests we were on, as well as the story surrounding the expansion made the experience feel like a chore in spots.

Creating these overarching, year long stories isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons why MMOs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV are so popular. The ability to talk about events that happened years ago, such as the Cataclysm or FFXIV’s Realm Reborn event make these games feel like cultural events in their own right.

However, something can be said for allowing for an easier barrier of entry to newer players picking up these games for the first time years down the line. This is where ESO, in my opinion, excels and sets itself apart as a good, casual MMO experience.

A Story Set Apart

With its first major expansion, Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls Online allowed new players to the MMO to start right at the beginning of the new content. There was no need to start with the Vestige storyline that launched with ESO, rather you could start exploring Morrowind itself, exploring the new content that you bought the expansion for. The story itself is self contained as well, meaning that while having prior knowledge of the grand story in ESO would help with some beats, such as when Caldwell is introduced in the Elsweyr storylines, it’s not required to enjoy the experience.

ESO might be the only MMO that could get away with something like this thanks to its content not being gated by level either – Champion level characters can quest with lower level toons and both sides will still benefit overall. However, as a result of this questing style, it’s a lot easier to recommend ESO to a newcomer versus someone who wants to play Final Fantasy XIV. I’m learning that in real time as I work through the Stormblood content having only experienced Heavensward and A Realm Reborn in cutscenes.

While this type of design doesn’t work on every project, I would love to see more mainstream MMOs embrace this a bit more. And in a way they do. While it isn’t as set apart like ESO, if you started Battle for Azeroth as a new player there is enough of a recap to at least get your bearings at the outset. But it isn’t a perfect place to start your adventures in Azeroth. And I’m not sure if it’s even possible for these decades-long MMOs to adopt something like this to help bring in new players regardless of where they start their journey. However, as more MMOs are coming out in the coming years, my hope is this is something they at least discuss. Being able to pick up and play at any point and not feel like you’re behind right from the outset is something that endears ESO to new players – and returning players like friends of mine alike.

What do you think? Do you think more MMOs should make the storylines in their expansions more accessible, or do you like the current way expansions are handled? Let us know in the discussion below.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore