5 differences between an expansion and a patch

It will sound strange now, but when Blizzard announced the first expansion for WoW, a lot of players were surprised. The game was settled after all, and new content was being added every few months. They’d added several raid instances, battlegrounds, new 5 man instances and various other bits and bobs since the game went live after all. Many players were happy with this, and would have happily seen it continue indefinitely.

Or in other words, the MMO model was already one in which players expected to see regular infusions of new content. But sometimes that can be drip fed via patches, and other times you get a big boxed expansion. And now, with the rise in popularity of item shops, perhaps there will also be more options to buy content piecemeal.

For the developer, the expansion makes sense. Another box on the shelves at retailers, another product to promote to get the game back into buyers’ sights, maybe something also to lure in new players or returning ones.

But how exactly is an expansion different from a series of content patches? An expansion doesn’t always bring more levels, and ‘free’ patches can include new zones (LOTRO has done this with Evendim and Forochel, WoW did it with the Isle of Quel’Danas), content, or even new features (such as the WoW dungeon finder).

The definition of an expansion can vary from game to game, but here is what they tend to have in common.

1. Big marketing hype cycle, aimed at new and returning players. The expansion either offers a good route for new players to get into the game or lots more to do for old players who left from boredom. To lure in new players, new classes or races may be introduced, or newbie areas reworked.

2. Thematic expansion. More than just a patch of unrelated content, an expansion usually includes more lore, themed zone/s and related content. It should expand the story significantly somehow. This might mean a huge amount of  lore  which is completely unrelated to anything currently in the game (DaoC did this with Trials of Atlantis, and Mythic did the same again with the Lands of the Dead ‘live expansion’ for WAR).

3. More scope and content than a free patch. This varies with game, but expansions usually are more of a big leap forwards than a patch. In some cases, particularly when the level cap is increased, the endgame effectively gets reset. It’s common for an expansion to bundle in several big new in-game systems, class revamps/ new abilities, and other shake-ups. This also means that an expansion can herald a change in direction for a game, maybe even a big change in direction.

4. Introduces bugs rather than fixing them. Patches fix bugs, expansions introduce them. Most expansions are followed soon afterwards by a patch to sort this out.

5. Some old content gets deprecated. This can happen also with a patch but expansions are usually more alluring to players than current content. In particular, grindy endgame content falls into disuse when a new expansion comes along. (This is going to be different in a game like EVE.)

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4 thoughts on “5 differences between an expansion and a patch

  1. Point 4 is sad, but true.

    (Boxed) major expansions are definitely important for the developer and the players alike. It needs much more *bang* than a new zone to bring players back or make them interested.

    Most MMOs (DIKU-Muds, EQ/WoW style esp.) need some kind of progression to live. But the amount of content that gets made obsolete is staggering. Let’s pick WoW: Molten Core/Blackwing Lair, Ahn’Qiraj, all TBC raids, somewhat already the entry level Naxx raid in WOTLK. Now think of older Dungeons – only thanks to the LFD tool Maraudon, the Caverns of Wailing, Dire Maul etc. get played at all.

    Horizontal progression that allows players to play more than the current set of raids has often been mentioned. The idea being tons of equal level and equally rewarding raids, lots of choice. The problem here is there are not enough people to play and focus on all of them. Not even in WoW with cross-server-LFD. Before the “daily heroic” in TBC was a first attempt to channel players into doing a certain dungeon together.

    … and now I finally want to make my point. ;)
    Must an expansion always add totally new stuff and leave old parts of the game rotten in the dust? Cataclysm is already a bit like that, it changes the world. How if player actions could influence the change of the world, what new dungeons/factions/questlines would exist, which old ones would get removed?

    But creating somewhat dynamic content seems to be a very difficult thing to do.

  2. I’m with Longasc, it’s a great shame that so much obsolescence comes with expansions. In fact arguably you’re not actually “expanding” at all, merely re-locating.

    The one that’s tried for horizontal expansion that isn’t a sandbox is Age of Conan. Fans are arguing that it may be a one-off. They didn’t raise the level cap but they did add Alternate Advancement which works very much like extra levels (you grind exp for more powers). Still it has managed to come in and not obsolete the old content. Sure, that content will now be easier for people with lots of AAs but it’s not obsolete and lots of people still want to go there.

    I have my doubts about whether they would be able to repeat the trick in a second expansion.

  3. The thing is, no one does monthly content patches anymore. If you remove point 3, which is self-referential, the rest of the list applies to the mega-patch cycle that everyone is using these days, whether it’s quarterly or every six months.

    I think that point 1 is actually a key driving factor in this. When WoW had monthly patches, the majority of the playerbase would be disappointed every month because this month’s patch focused on Warriors and 5-mans, and everyone else had to wait til next month. Condensing the patch cycle down to patches every six month gets Blizzard much more hype when a patch does land than even their market position would otherwise demand.

    I’ve long argued that the largest growth market for WoW today is former WoW players, and this strategy seems tailored to make sure that, when they DO catch a former player’s attention, there’s something in that feature list that the player in question cares about.

    • I think point 3 affects our expectations. If a game announces an expansion and it doesn’t include any new systems or gameplay additions, then I think there’d be rumblings unless the rest of the content was very comprehensive indeed.

      Players expect an expansion to keep them busy for longer than a patch, whether that means larger areas and more quests, learning how to use new abilities, figuring out new minigames, etc etc.

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