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.)