WoW Legion: Content Patches over Expansions any Day! [#Blaugust 8]

In January 2007 millions of World of Warcraft players turned their gaze towards the Blasted Lands: after two years of living in vanilla Azeroth, the Dark Portal was about to open. After too many runs through Molten Core, Blackwing Lair and Ahn’quiraj, it was finally time for the Burning Crusade – also known as “back when WoW was cool”.

According to the timeline on WoW wiki, the wait time between a freshly launched installment and the announcement of the next one, consistently lies around 10 months on average (TBC being the freak) due to winter launches and Blizzcon happening in fall every year –

  • Vanilla WoW, November 2004; October 2005 TBC announcement
  • TBC launch, January 2007; August 2007 WotLK announcement
  • WotLK launch, November 2008; August 2009 Cataclysm announcement
  • Cataclysm launch, December 2010; October 2011 Pandaria announcement
  • Pandaria launch, September 2012; November 2013 WoD announcement
  • WoD launch, November 2014; August 2015 Legion announcement

The average lifespan of a WoW expansion is around 20 months. Only vanilla WoW and WotLK made the playerbase wait for longer than that. Looking back, I am shocked how soon into the glorious TBC Blizzard already announced WotLK.

Considering Blizzard have been running like clockwork for 10 years, my launch date speculation for Legion is September 2016. Given that they’re down to 5.6 subscribers as of now, I wonder what else they’ll come up with to span the second half of Draenor. Expansion hype or not, it won’t keep more and more players from unsubscribing until the next expansion is actually here. Poor guilds.


Oh and I still don’t like expansions

In 2011 I wrote a lengthy rant (with very srs charts!) on why I dislike expansions in MMOs. While GW2 or FFXIV have made some progress on that front in the past few years, it seems no AAA-title can withstand them forever. WoW has always been notorious for its extreme play-cycles, with mad content rushes after a patch and profound pre-drop/-expansion malady that has players methodically unsubscribing. This vexed me a great deal as raider and guild organizer in the past, because it became increasingly difficult to keep a schedule going during the second half of an expansion.

“I want to feel part of the world I play in. I want to be included in a continuous and ever growing story. I want change happening all the time, not every 1-2 years in traumatic leaps. I want stable and lasting fun, not a curve that goes from player fatigue and long wait times to over-excitement, before tumbling back down into the valley of tears. I don’t want to regularly un-subscribe from the MMO I am playing because it’s delivering content in situational peaks.” (Syl)

Besides impacting negatively on social stability, WoW expansions have always had more negative side effects. They affected the game’s economy, rendered our gear and trophies obsolete (green is the new purple! even for legendaries) and deprecated a major part of the previous world and content. That last one is a particularly sore point for players like me.

One the other hand, regular and smaller content patches don’t exhaust their audience and don’t reset their status quo in the world over night. They don’t hit guilds with simultaneous player exodus over and over. And there’s also less pressure and therefore less potential disappointment riding on patches. Didn’t like a particular chapter or felt bored with it? Well, the next one isn’t far off!

So really, what can expansions do for MMOs that a patch cannot? Okay – there are a few things, in fact Spinks (who is dearly missed!) has written about the differences between expansions and patches five years ago on her blog. And I agree with her: expansions have a more fundamental power to reset/expand a world or introduce a new one. They’re a marketing tool for bringing players back and maybe recruiting a few new ones. The extra cash from selling copies and CEs might make up for 40% of your subscriber-base leaving several months before each time, I don’t know.

I can’t help but feel these apparent benefits aren’t what they seem at first glance; not if expansions basically act as a “correction” of your own business strategy. If they bring back players you lost along the way due to how you’re handling content in the game, that is not a very good argument pro expansions, even if it does the job in that case. As for continuously introducing new worlds and abandoning old ones, what does that say about the longevity and depth of your work?

The WoW expansion model is its own enemy. Blizzard can’t turn back and change their strategy of so many years and they’ve bred their very own audience since day one, so I understand that they’re stuck with it. However, their example doesn’t do a very good job advocating for expansions in MMOs and thus I remain as ever, respectfully on the other side of that fence. You could say I am not prepared. Again.


  1. Asheron’s Call (my first ever MMO) had free content (and fix) patches EVERY. SINGLE. MONTH. They also broke the game for a few hours every single month but come on, it was 2001 and we all lived with it*.

    I have nothing against expansions but I do find it weird for have a static game with a mundungous game-changing explosion every couple of years and pretty much nothing in between.

    *by which I mean bitched and moaned on forums until the game was back up and fixed.

    1. Of course you did! 😛
      Myeah I didn’t write this above, but I have the suspicion that big-ass expansions also give developers a chance/excuse for mediocre content delivery beforehand. Instead of having to keep patches up, you can withdraw and tell your audience that you’re “working on something really big” in order to placate them. It’s like buying yourself time.

  2. The gap between expansion announcement and launch has been shrinking, with Pandaria taking 11 months and WoD 12.

    I’d tip Legion as more likely to be July next year than September.

    Still a long time to keep people interested.

    1. There’s been mild fluctuations like that for several things but nothing that would warrant shrinking in my book. By and large they are consistent. A different statistic that would show a more extreme difference is the number of content patches – there, WoD is a very obvious plunge.

      I agree September is long but I don’t see Blizzard doing a summer launch, either.

  3. I love expansions. My ideal timespan between them is 6 months as was the norm with EQ for many years. I’d willingly take no additional content at all between expansions if we could have one like clockwork every half a year.

    Of course, though, while EQ pumped was enjoying two expansions every year we also got many, many content patches between them, including live events and storylines, new holidays and plenty of brand-new zones and instances. That’s the quantity and quality of content flow I learned to expect and it was exactly right for me. Nothing since then has even come close to providing that amount of interesting, high quality, absorbing content month after month, year after year.

    I like to have a full expansion to look forward to for MMOs I’m playing all the time. I want the next one announced within a few weeks of the last one launching. We used to have that as the norm. It’s quite pathetic what we have been trained to accept in recent years.

    Free, live content is all very well and I enjoy it for what it is but I’m much happier if there’s something I can buy. A proper expansion should also come in a box, with a booklet and a map. I want to be able to look at them lined up on my shelves and take them down and read them when I feel like reminiscing. Why companies have gone to this endless drip-feed of “free” content I cannot fathom. They seem not to like taking money for real content any more, only for things that used to be described as “fluff” and which we expected to get for free.

    It’s all back to front I tell you!

    1. “I like to have a full expansion to look forward to for MMOs I’m playing all the time. I want the next one announced within a few weeks of the last one launching. We used to have that as the norm.”

      That sounds more like patches to me then. 😉 I guess it depends on our definition of these things, an expansion Blizzard style isn’t something they could feasibly do every few weeks. So my comparison is between their extreme and what’s otherwise known as content patches.

      And for all I know about EQ2, it had more sandboxy elements than WoW, already with the great housing. Stuff like that is a big help in spanning downtimes until the next patch.

  4. You and my boss share the same view on this; he doesn’t understand the attraction of Expansions over content patches either. And I do agree, to a point. Content are far more attractive.

    To the player.

    One thing that is often overlooked in this argument is that expansions usually net them another 50 US bucks each. I have a hard time seeing where Blizz or maybe I should say Activision – would give up that revenue gladly. Oh, there are other ways to get it, I’m sure. But what would they be?

    1. That’s partly my question though – how does that ‘extra revenue’ compare to losing 40% of their subs halfway through because they insist on this model? I’ve no idea, am speculating, but expansions have mostly brought existing players back since Blizzard peaked at the start of Wrath.

      Where it definitely also makes sense for the developer is that they’re simply under a different pressure to come up with new stuff all the time. They can let the game float for months because hey, working on that shiny expansion. Maybe they simply prefer working this way.

      1. That’s partly my question though – how does that ‘extra revenue’ compare to losing 40% of their subs halfway through because they insist on this model?

        That’s a very good question, and one that’s going to be hard to figure out because they’re so opaque.

        But that’s why I mentioned Activision. Kotick doesn’t strike me as a gamer CEO, he strikes me as a bean counter CEO, and that means that the Blizzard division probably has some meaningless goal over its head like “must ship x boxes per year or else”, as if it was a regular game company making regular games.

        But that’s just complete speculation on my part. I’m thinking the revenue off the boxed games isn’t that big a thing, either, compared to lost subs. But I don’t have the math for that in me on a Sunday morning.

      2. Well if it was only returning players paying for the boxes, that probably wouldn’t make up for their subs. But then everyone needs to buy the expansion, not just them – so maybe that’s still why it’s worthwhile. Then again, it’s not just losses due to subs but potentially more than that, yeah I can’t do the math either. 😉

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