MMO Expansions – What Do They Need to Succeed?

As I’ve been playing LotRO again, I’m naturally interested in the upcoming expansion, Rise of Isengard (RoI), coming next month to a computer near you. But this got me to thinking – on a basic level, what do I expect from an expansion in any MMO? I’d posit that the central points are content, new mechanics, and new life. Let’s look at them one at a time.


OK, this one is blindingly obvious; with any MMO expansion we expect new stuff to do. That comes in the form of new areas to explore, new quests to complete, new foes to defeat, and generally new instances/raids/what have you that we can group up to explore. We get this stuff for free though in many games, as general game updates between expansions; there’s even an expectation that this stuff will be given for free in reasonably large doses, among games like LotRO anyhow.

Consequently, though this is absolutely expected of, and central to, any expansion, it isn’t generally enough in itself to make players happy. The hardcore will tear through most new content in a startlingly fast time, and what took months of developer time might retain a player’s interest for mere days or weeks.

In RoI, we’ve been told to expect three new areas: Dunland, Gap of Rohan, and Isengard. It’s always difficult to have any real sense how much virtual space these will take up, but presumably this will be somewhere between the size of Moria and Mirkwood, in terms of areas added. We don’t yet know how many quests we’ll get, or how many new instances. There’s a new raid, which apparently has both 12- and 24-man versions. We’ll see virtues (one of the ways to customize characters) increase their max cap for the first time since the game launched, and we’ll get a new tier of crafted items.

Is this “enough” content for an expansion? It’s hard to say since there’s still a lot of guesswork involved, but I expect the amount of content will be sufficient to justify the price, once again. My biggest question at this point, in this regard, is “how many new instances and how many new skirmishes will we get in RoI”?

New Mechanics

Players are accustomed to seeing changes in the underlying game mechanics with each expansion. This often comes in the form of new races and/or classes, and additional new game mechanics.

With the Moria expansion, we got two new mechanics: legendary items and radiance. The former was a bit of a mess and needed to be heavily revamped – in a free update – to be passable. The latter system was an unqualified disaster and Turbine removed it later – again in a free update. We also got two new classes in the Moria expansion, taking the total from the original seven to the current nine.

With the Mirkwood expansion, we got the skirmish system, which is in fact pretty danged nifty. They’ve expanded that with free updates since then, adding skirmishes as part of the epic story as well as more basic skirmishes. I’m very impressed with this system overall and look forward to seeing it grow yet more.

With the RoI expansion, we’re getting relatively little in this regard. We’re told that RoI will feature more use of phasing, as well as more use of the mobile quest givers we saw in the Evendim revamp. I’ll break these down individually.

Phasing is a technology implemented in WoW, that’s been working its way around other MMOs of late. Basically, it allows players to see different things based on what their character has done in game. If you let a village get burned down in one quest, then when you return, with phasing you might see the burned husk of the village, while another player standing right next to you (but not in your group) might see the village happy and well. The potential here is impressive, as this allows players to effect (some) change in what is otherwise a wholly static world. Any dynamism and any player agency is generally a Good Thing.

Mobile quest givers are a subtle but clever idea. The idea is, you get a journal or some similar item, which leads you to an area in which you have a quest. The instructions appear as normal and you do whatever you do as normal, but then things change; instead of running back to the camp to turn the quest in to a stationary (and lazy!) NPC, the quest updates itself and you get your reward through the journal (or whatever). The potential is impressive indeed. Imagine entering a new area full of monsters. You’re tasked with slaying some, which you do readily enough. After you’ve killed your Xth monster, you’re told that something has caught your eye, and you should inspect a fallen altar partially hidden behind some shrubs. After investigating, you find a clue that leads you to the source of the problem, and you’re told to find and defeat the boss. All of this might take place within a relatively small area overall, perhaps one overflowing with monsters. Previously, this would take three trips and be the source of some frustration; kill 10 x, go back to camp, turn in quest, get new quest: find clue, return to area, find clue, go back to camp, turn in quest, get new quest: kill boss, return to area, find boss, kill boss.

Right now the static quest system has a lot of problems, not least of which is the utter illogic of it all. If I’ve fought my way into some mouldy crypt, don’t make me leave and return again and again. Let me do what I’ve come to do, all in the same trip. Well, now this’ll be possible.

So is this enough, in terms of new mechanics, to satisfy players? I’m unsure. On the one hand, I do like both of these technologies, and feel that both have real potential to strengthen the narrative in LotRO, which is already one of the game’s greatest strengths. On the other hand, we already have these technologies in game to a lesser extent, so they won’t feel as new to me. In the end, my satisfaction is likely to hinge on how well and how often these are implemented. I’d really like to see some new classes, personally, but I fully understand how hampered the devs are by the lore; there just isn’t room for a lot of new classes in Middle-earth.

New Life

The other common type of update we see in expansions is the breathing of new life into old things. This most commonly involves updates to races and/or classes, and revising of core game mechanics. The goal here for devs is twofold: on the one hand, it’s a chance to make improvements to things that aren’t working as well as they could be, and on the other hand, it’s a chance to let people experience the same content again, in a different way.

The obvious fear with such changes is that they’ll be so sweeping that they’ll alienate the playerbase, resulting in the dreaded “NGE”. If something isn’t broken, it’s usually best not to mess with it too much. On the flipside, if the changes are too timid, they won’t be meaningful, which defeats the second goal above.

We’re seeing a lot of class updates with RoI. I’m not sure yet how drastically things will change, though it looks like a few classes are getting massive overhauls. Hopefully this will meet both goals above.

The other major changes coming with RoI are a change in the way base stats work, and itemization of skirmishes. Each deserves a little discussion.

Base stats in LotRO are vitality, might, agility, will, and fate. Those stats currently can only go to 650, which is the “hard cap”. People who play in groups with members of the Captain class often use a “soft cap” now; Captains can give everyone in their group a +50 buff to all their stats, so the “soft cap” of 600 plus the 50 point Captain buff brings base stats to their max rating right now.

With RoI, there will be no more stat caps. The actual effects of this change are as yet hard to completely predict, since we don’t know how the new itemization will work. Removing the stat caps really only affects players at max level, since it’s not really feasible to have stats at the cap before then. With this change, e.g. tanks at max level will be free to pour more points into Vitality than they are now, yielding higher amounts of Morale. Practically speaking, this should free people up rather a lot, at the endgame, to use different mixtures of equipment. Right now, if you have 650 vitality, you wouldn’t bother to use a piece of gear that could raise it beyond that. With RoI, this won’t be true any more.

The itemization of skirmishes has a great deal of potential in my view, but it really depends on how fully the devs implement it. In short, a skirmish is a short (usually 20-40 minutes) repeatable battle with a daily quest. You complete the battle, each of which has its own plot and foes and scripted events, and your rewards are skirmish marks, a generic currency used to barter for gear. With RoI, we’ve been told that skirmishes will be itemized, meaning in addition to finding skirmish marks in the chests dropped by bosses… we’ll also find ‘real’ gear. Actual pieces of armour, weapons, jewelry, etc. would be most welcome indeed, on several levels, in addition to the barter currency.

My hope is that the itemization is thorough, and individual by skirmish. That is to say, I’d like to see each skirmish have a small pool of itemized drops that we can see, divided up by level range. It wouldn’t do after all to have a lvl 30 piece of armour drop in a lvl 70 skirmish, or vice versa. Individual itemization seems important though as part of this process; if the skirmishes are collectively itemized, people will find the easiest one and just repeat it endlessly. With individual itemization – especially if the itemization is split up by group size – there would actually be a reason to run skirmishes other than one’s personal favorites.

So is this enough “new life” for LotRO? I expect so, but again it’s hard to say. There haven’t been as many details as I’d like yet, but I remain hopeful.

4 comments so far

  1. Bronte on

    For me, an expansion, especially one that is priced, should have some direct correlation to the content in the original game. For instance, if the original game gave you 15 areas to explore with their own quest lines, dungeons, items and bosses, an expansion with 3 new areas should cost only a fifth of the original. Now this is a very anal, very simplistic, very rudimentary example, but I do hope you get my meaning. I just don’t see how adding only 5 new levels with a few new zones and a bunch of items deserves a hefty price-tag in the same range as a full-blown new title.

    • foolsage on

      Hmm. That’s an interesting point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an expansion priced relative to the original release; should they be? Expansions are always in my experience considerably smaller than the initial launch, but are often as expensive.

    • Tesh on

      It’s kind of hard to price that way unless the base game has a very sticky price point. Gamers expect prices to drop over time, as they usually do, but that would mean an expansion as a proportional fraction of the base price would have to either hang off of the original price or be smaller to reflect the new, lower base price.

      Then again, I’m of a mind that a game that charges a sub shouldn’t charge at all for expansions.

  2. ledgerhs on

    I’d always ask these three questions: What is the source of fun? What didn’t work? How to add depth while maintaining a fair level of accessibility?

    I think this simple trio will prevent most of the mistakes that have been making headlines in the MMO industry of late (EVE, Cataclysm to name a few).

    I’m not a huge advocate of rehashing/revitalizing old content for games that have their source of fun in linear character progression. It breaks the illusion of power to have the same foes you obliterated a year ago suddenly re-emerge as equals. Old content has it’s value at determining who your character is right now and even if they’re not playable content anymore for max level characters, they still contribute to the immersion on another level.

    If the game is more open ended and character progression is only used as an addictive tutorial mechanic, the expansions should never render previous content obsolete. It think it’s just common sense.

    I understand that for most of the major MMO makers, their MMO is their flagship, and as such, they want to make it as diverse as possible to attract as wide audience as possible. I don’t think it’s okay, though, to add a new game play feature that takes significant development resources, especially if it doesn’t improve the game as it is, but just adds another, alternative minigame to it. In short: I don’t think players want a platform of minigames (We have Steam already), but rather a solid gaming experience that’s true to it’s core mechanics and game play. I don’t want a tetris daily quest in my MMORPG, which leads to the next paragraph.

    Sometimes a new addition contradicts the ‘source of fun’ completely. A good example of this is the Diablo 2’s rare item hunt game and how runes spoiled it completely. Another good example is how WoW’s ARPG side has been violently brutalized by the character excluding non-combat/vehicle quests. It’s gone to the far extremes where you end up playing these minigames most of the time, rather than playing the game(character) you wanted to play. This makes WoW a totally different game to what it was initially upon release.

    Depth is always welcome. One should never “streamline” an MMORPG by removing depth, as that’s surely gonna drive a lot of players away. Yet, this mistake appears from time to time under the excuse of making the game “more accessible”.

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