Remixing the Expansion Business Model

There’s a marked difference in how Blizzard managed content additions before and after the release of Burning Crusade.

First of all, the game launched with exactly two true raids: Molten Core and Onyxia’s Lair. While other raids were patched in over time, there wasn’t anything resembling a single driving narrative for the game; all of the raids were self-contained, or perhaps drew on narratives that were previously established in 5-man dungeons.

Now, narratively speaking, this worked to the advantage of World of Warcraft, because it gave the impression that outside of the cold war conflict between the Horde and the Alliance, there was an entire world of other threats to combat:

  • The manipulations of the Black Dragonflight, namely Onyxia’s games in Stormwind and Nefarian’s proxy villainy with Rend Blackhand’s WC2 cover band.
  • The menace of Ragnaros in the Molten Core.
  • The rise of the Qiraji threat in Silithus.
  • The threat of Hakkar the Blood God in Zul’Gurub.
  • A rematch with Kel’thuzad and the Scourge in Naxxramas.

Now, if you turn around and look at how content has been managed in the expansions, you can see that they all work on a more focused level:

Burning Crusade

The focus was another bout with the Burning Legion to tie up the Illidan/Kil’jaeden/Kael’thas narratives from WC3. The focus was on the new Outland continent, with only a couple of deviations that took place on Azeroth. And when it comes down to it, the only narratives that had absolutely nothing to do with the Illidari throughline were Karazhan and Gruul’s Lair.

Wrath of the Lich King

Like BC before it, Wrath’s intended purpose was to tie up the Arthas narrative from WC3x, and to showcase Northrend as a new location. Blizzard had heard the feedback that Illidan had been oversold as the game’s big bad only to a) never really show up to menace the player and b) wasn’t even the actual big bad of the expansion, since Kil’jaeden ended up sneaking into that spot. As a result, Wrath was even more focused on the Scourge/Arthas narrative and really only deviated from that with Ulduar in 3.1.

  • The added wrinkle was that Yogg-Saron’s narrative was meant to have a stronger relation to the Arthas story, but the connective tissue never really showed up well enough.
  • And yes, this is ignoring the Malygos and Sartharion raids. The Nexus War and the detour into the Obsidian Sanctum were both not really well-served by how they were implemented, so even though they didn’t play into the Scourge narrative, they were inconsequential.

Cataclysm

Cataclysm’s focus attempted to emulate Wrath‘s in terms of making Deathwing the definitive villain of the expansion, but Blizzard opted for Deathwing to be a distant, Godzilla-like menace instead of the personal antagonist that Arthas personified. The problem in Cataclysm, however, was ultimately a lack of focus; in the course of revamping Azeroth, the five endgame zones ended up being spread out across the world with very little cohesive story tying them together. The raids, however, all carried forward a fairly fixed narrative that either confronted Deathwing’s servants/allies or (in the case of the ZA/ZG revamps) demonstrated a completely tangential story of how the Zandalari were coping with the aftermath of the Shattering.

Mists of Pandaria

In probably the best example of an expansion providing an entire microcosm of content to work with, the focus of Mists was both unraveling the mysteries of Pandaria and seeing how the truths uncovered therein played into the greater conflict of the Horde/Alliance War. It is really the MOST focused expansion we’ve seen in that respect, since all of the raids played important roles in the narrative and none could really be called “tangential” to the overall plot, and aside from the three remix dungeons (Scarlet Halls, Scarlet Cathedral, Scholomance) and the Brawler’s Guild, there’s very, very little content that’s unrelated to the story.

The reason for the review is to set the stage here: in each case, Blizzard is asking players to lay down at least $40 and maintain a $15/month subscription in order to enjoy an expansion. The expectation, given the timeframes that we’ve come to expect from WoW, is that this investment is going to result in a certain timeframe invested in that content. And it’s in Blizzard’s best interests to make sure that the content is coherent, cohesive, and engaging, since that will help players feel justified in their initial investment and confident that their monthly sub is also being well-rewarded.

The bottom line is that Blizzard is asking for the full price of a AAA title for the expansion to a ten-year-old game. They need to deliver a AAA title, but that title can’t take the form of Blizzard’s pre-BC content patches. There’s really only two scenarios for that, neither of which are really viable for the game.

Scenario 1: No More Expansions, Free Content Patches Only

If we wanted to emulate the pre-BC model perfectly, that would mean that Blizzard is churning out new content patches, which don’t always contain additional gameplay like raid tiers. Some of the 1.x patches added 5-man dungeons (Dire Maul and Maraudon were added in this way), some added world boss encounters, others added instanced PVP (recall that WoW did not have Battlegrounds at launch) and still other patches didn’t really add any notable content at all, since they were class review patches.

While we saw this played with a little bit in Cataclysm and Mists, (4.1, 5.1 and 5.3 come to mind), the big response we’ve seen from players is that if the patch doesn’t contain their preferred kind of content, their engagement takes a bit of a hit. Raiders who like clearing raid content don’t like coming back for a patch that doesn’t have a new raid in it. So Blizzard would either need to be constantly producing smaller patches that incrementally add all kinds of different content so that players always have a reason to come back, OR they’d need to produce larger patches that have all kinds of new content. However, both options would need to be done on the same limited budget, because since Blizzard doesn’t charge for content patches and only gets subscription dollars in this model, it means that there’s never a big payday coming that would pay for things like conceptual art and cinematics.

Ultimately, if you throw out the big expansion model, you throw out the huge revenues that Blizzard is able to generate off of those expansions, which in turn has a dramatic impact on how much content Blizzard is able to generate for the game. That in mind…

Scenario 2: Mini-Expansions

If we’ve established that expansions have to happen, maybe it’s a matter of scale. What if instead of paying $40 for eight questing zones, five raids, two new battlegrounds, and one new arena over the course of two years, you paid $15 for a tier of raiding and 1-3 questing zones every six months?

There’s still the similar issue of ensuring that each mini-expansion has content for everyone in it. The revenue problem is likely still an issue, because a single sale of a product at $40 likely generates a great net profit than four separate $15 transactions that all have their own individual overhead costs.

Another issue is player retention. If you get a player to invest big money in an expansion, they’re more likely to make an effort at playing the game, and are more likely to pick the game up again later in the expansion if there’s no additional investment needed. Sell a player on a whole new world of gameplay and (if your marketing is done well) they’ll buy the game for just one feature out of six. Offer an expansion that only offers one feature, though, and players who aren’t interested in that feature straight-up don’t buy it. And every time a player actively chooses not to invest in the game, the greater the possibility that they won’t return.

Probably the biggest mark against this concept, though, is that it’s going to feel like Blizzard is nickel-and-diming the players. Players talk all the time about wanting more content faster, but if that were to actually become a reality, would players still be so willing to buy a new AAA title every 12 months? Or buy the next DLC for the game, even if the idea of a troll raid is markedly unappealing? Is that sustainable for the players of a sub-based game? I hardly think it’s even feasible for Blizzard to produce the content that fast and maintain their current level of quality.

Break It Down

I agree with the principle Doone set forth in his commentary: having a bunch of disconnected threats helps build the fantasy that the world of Azeroth has a lot of dangers for our heroes to face off against. I think if Blizzard had chosen to maintain a pattern of having one-off raids or building up threats across multiple expansions (i.e. to an extent they’ve done with the Zandalari, but I’ve suggested before that they could do better) then maybe having a less-restricted model would work, but now that we’re five expansions in, I don’t expect Blizzard to really shift things dramatically until WoW goes into sundown mode.

… make a note, I need to talk about sundown mode.

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