The Golden Age Of The Expansion Pack.

It was 2001, in case you’re wondering.

Nobody really does expansion packs any more. The expansion pack has always been a decidedly PC phenomenon, and ever since the next-gen console hordes slashed and burned their way onto the digital market the concept of expansion packs has pretty much withered on the vine. If you buy some extra content for a game these days, there’s a pretty good chance it will look something like this

An extreme example. There are some sterling efforts tarred with the DLC brush out there which are well worth the money (Diggle Gods for Dungeons of Dredmor, Rise of the Samurai for Shogun 2, Old World Blues for New Vegas) but on the whole the rise of DLC means paying a small amount of money for a smaller amount of content – a new skin, say, or perhaps some new items or weapons. Easy for the developer to create, easy for the publisher to monetise, and full-blown expansion packs have fallen by the wayside ever since this concept of selling improvements to a game piecemeal became technologically feasible.

I think this is kind of a shame. I don’t necessarily look back on expansion packs as being any better, qualitatively, than DLC – they may have offered a more full-fat experience but they counted more than their fair share of lazy, shallow moneygrabbers amongst their number (Quake mission packs I’m looking at you) – but I do think they offered something that DLC can’t hope to replicate: the ability to roll out a detailed and comprehensive update to a game to everyone who is still interested in playing the thing. The big problem with DLC (particularly for multiplayer games) is that it fragments the playerbase. A developer has to cater for every combination of DLC out there, from the miser who refuses to buy any (hi Jim) to the obsessive who absolutely has to own every piece of content associated with a game (hi… well, me I guess). This is impossible. Somebody ends up being locked out of future updates or features, and this is usually the person who only gave them enough money for the base version of the game.

The reason this is more than a little bit insidious is that high-speed internet has brought us a development paradigm of “release broken, patch to working state”. Now more than ever it’s very much the case that the game you shell out your hard-earned cash for isn’t the final product. You’ll have to wait another year or two while this iterative patching process happens and the game is gradually shaped and polished based on developer experience and player feedback. Sometimes this is the natural evolution of a game – WoW is almost completely unrecognisable compared to what it was eight years ago – but more often it’s because the game was pushed out the door early to coincide with a publisher-dictated release date or marketing window. And my problem here is that while the extra polish is desirable in many cases and necessary in all of them, it can’t be done properly when everybody is running different versions of the game. It simply can’t. It’s a logistical nightmare. Somebody is going to get left behind, and this simple fact makes it less likely that developers will make the serious changes to their game that might be necessary.

What got me on to thinking about this was – fnarr – Diablo 3. Nobody could possibly call Diablo 3 rushed or broken, but it does have some serious balance issues at the higher difficulties. That’s fine. Nobody was expecting Blizzard to get things 100% right at the first attempt, and so they’ll have to refine their game to improve the more vestigial components (crafting) and fix the difficulty of the later Hell levels and the entirety of Inferno so that there are less one-shot player deaths. But the thing here is, Blizzard is one of the few developers left who still uses the expansion pack paradigm, and so they can do this far more easily than if they doled out these improvements piecemeal as DLC. Any vital mechanical changes that ensure the game plays more smoothly can be patched in, while the more drastic additions that might require altering the basic fabric of the game can be saved for an expansion pack to ensure a common base for development and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

If you want some concrete proof as to why this method is a good idea, you need look no further than Diablo’s predecessor, Diablo 2. It’s difficult to recall given the ten-year time gap, but on release Diablo 2 was just as unbalanced – if not more so – than Diablo 3 is now. It took two or three years of patching punctuated by the release of the Lord of Destruction expansion to mould it into its current state of excellence. LoD gave Blizzard the excuse to make fundamental changes to the game that weren’t necessary, strictly speaking, but which improved the playing experience immeasurably and which could be delivered to everyone at once.

What I’m trying to say here is that the expansion pack provides a medium for the really revolutionary stuff – the things that only occurred to you after you’d finished the game, or which seem like a really good idea now that you’ve seen how players react to it – that simply isn’t possible with DLC. DLC is addons and shiny gewgaws, not fundamental alterations to the game structure, and that’s because they need to sell DLC to everyone. It can’t be a comprehensive improvement; the scale simply isn’t big enough. Multiple pieces of DLC isn’t a solution, either; DLC can’t require other DLC in order to function, because that would piss people off in addition to reducing the potential market for it.

So what are we left with now that the expansion pack seems to have been supplanted by DLC? What do we have when developers don’t need to sell you a CD in order to give you more than a couple of hundred megabytes of patching? It’s not pleasant. Anyone remember Elemental? The first one was so bad that they’re having to make it again. I’m not sure an expansion pack would have particularly worked in that case because the stigma attached to it was so great, but it certainly would have been more elegant than having to remake the entire game. Napoleon was basically an expansion pack for Empire that fixed all the problems which the CA had the cheek to sell as a full-price game. Even Blizzard are more about standalone episodes these days than they are iterating a single product, and it’s only the upcoming release of Gods and Kings for a game which needs it (Civ V) which provides a single dying ray of light. The expansion pack is dead, and the DLC maggots infesting its corpse are not an acceptable substitute. Golden age ended.

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12 thoughts on “The Golden Age Of The Expansion Pack.

  1. The recent expansion/DLC for Frozen Synapse neatly lets you start games with all the new features with people who don’t have the content. So you can still experience all the goodies even if you didn’t pay for them. Is this sustainable in other games? I’d say yes. If I want to play Diablo 3 : Oh no wait there’s actually more evil Expansion then if I can only do it by piggybacking on a friend’s game and I can’t play as the new classes but I can see you being awesome as them then a) i’m going to want those classes more and b) when you AREN’T online I can’t play the expansion and that inconvenience is going to encourage purchase.

    I think it’s a great example of having faith in the additions you’ve made being worth the asking price.

    • hentzau says:

      The flipside to your Diablo 3 example is that you’re then asking the consumer to download a bunch of content they haven’t paid for and can’t use themselves. But then I think a lot of strategy games (CoH?) do that anyway.

  2. aosher says:

    Gods and Kingzzzzzz

    • aosher says:

      No seriously, strategy games still get expansion packs aplenty. Why is this genre immune to the decline in the format?

      • hentzau says:

        Low production values, I guess. Do you need fancy graphics and animations? No. Voice acting? No. Writing? No. I guess that’s something I failed to consider when writing this piece; generating content for a modern game is, on the whole, a *very* complex business.

  3. Adam Benton says:

    But many developers stop supporting the basic game when the expansion pack is released. Civ IV was no longer supported after 1.6, when the expansion came out. Yet there were still bugs and stability fixes on later patches, they were just never applied backwards.

    Whilst I get what you’re saying about drastically altering the gameplay an expansion pack isn’t needed for that. Just look at TF2, which is just as unrecognisable from its original form as WoW is yet they haven’t released expansions.

    I’d rather keep improvements to the gameplay separate from content updates so people will be able to play a good quality game regardless of the amount of money they invest.

    • hentzau says:

      Point taken, but the TF2/WoW route is largely unavailable to developers who aren’t sitting on huge stacks of cash. If they want to make any large-scale changes to the gameplay past just tinkering under the bonnet here and there then I think an expansion pack is the only real way to go.

      (Also I thought Civ IV got an appropriate amount of patching after BTS came out, but maybe that’s just me.)

      • aosher says:

        If we wanted to play Civ 4 multiplayer right now, we still wouldn’t be able to. The level of support the game got post-expansion was shocking.

      • hentzau says:

        Yeah but I think Firaxis have kind of demonstrated that multiplayer isn’t a priority for them. Like, at all. ¬_¬

  4. Masked Dave says:

    Skyrim DLC is supposedly going to be a large expansion pack style thing rather than bitty little things (they are leaving those to the mods).

    The Enhanced Editions to the Witcher and Witcher 2 are sort of expansion packs meet patches, delivered for free. And in those cases (especially Witcher 1) they probably couldn’t afford to do it properly first time around.

    Then we’ve got the new Batman DLC coming up which looks like it’s a proper expansion pack. A follow up story to the main game but still in the setting of the first, featuring the side kicks of the main protagonist and antagonist.

    But then you seem to be mainly talking about multiplayer games, which there used to be a lot less of.

    • hentzau says:

      If that’s true then the Skyrim DLC should be the ideal. Unfortunately this is Bethesda, they of the infamous Horse Armour DLC and whose previous DLC “expansions” for Fallout all took place in isolated environments that were pretty much hermetically sealed off from the main game (and thus were entirely separate from it instead of augmenting and enhancing it). I’ll believe it when I see it.

  5. jiiiiim says:

    Boooooo paying for things.

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