Heart of Thorns: An Expansion Beats DLC

Recently there has been a rash of MMOs announcing that they are ditching the traditional expansion pack model in favor of smaller DLCs. In a way, this really shouldn’t be surprising; the game market as a whole has been doing this for years now, so MMOs seem a little late to the party. But I don’t really think this trend is in players’ best interest. While I was brainstorming this post, Justin Olivetti over at Bio Break posted a great article on this trend, so go read his post because he probably summed it up better than I would have anyway. I wanted to echo his thoughts and talk specifically about why I’m glad Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns is an expansion and not just a DLC.

Back in January, in the days when all we knew about Heart of Thorns was an ambiguous teaser at the end of Season 2 of the Living World story, I wrote about why I was hoping HoT was an expansion. The main gist of the post was that, although ArenaNet repeatedly claimed that the Living Story would, by the end, add up to an expansion’s worth of content, it simply didn’t. Eight chapters of roughly half an hour of questing each with roller coaster difficulty and two bland zones does not equal an expansion. Put all of the Living World content together and you have at best a mini-expansion, what some marketers are calling “DLC.” (Isn’t the whole game technically downloadable content?) A DLC which probably isn’t substantial enough for me to pay for (I missed at least one episode of Season 2 and I don’t plan on going back and buying it). I admittedly haven’t read up on the scale of the DLC/frequent chunk updates planned for games like LotRO and EQ2, but when I hear the idea I immediately think of the Living World and how mediocre it felt and am a bit turned off by the idea.

Also there is, of course, the fact that an expansion sounds a lot better than DLC. I’ve tried to explain the Living World updates to friends who play other MMOs, and I’ve almost always been met with something along the lines of “Oh, my game does content patches sometimes too.” No, that’s not the same thing. Well, kinda, but not really. MMO players in other games can relate to a game dumping a bunch of new features and content in an expansion, and players within the game can rally and get excited about it, but a handful of quests and a couple of new zones, regardless of what other features it may or may not come with, doesn’t sound that enticing to someone outside the game. Also I (and other gamers I know) have judged a game’s activeness by how recently they released an expansion, not by how recently they’ve released a smattering of new quests. If a game hasn’t had a real expansion in two or three years and there’s no sign of one in the future, it comes across as a sign that the developers are losing faith in their product.

Perhaps the worst part of the Living World’s reign is that I felt like Guild Wars 2 was in limbo. It seemed like the developers were constantly rushing to keep up with the every-two-weeks pace of content releases, and improvements to other aspects of the game only got squeezed in while they were taking a short break from the Living World. I’m afraid that a game whose business model is to constantly push out small DLCs will be perpetually stuck in this state. With an expansion, the dev team gets to take a big chunk of time to work on meaningful class changes, new dungeons, and, most importantly, balance them against the rest of the game. We’re already seeing evidence of this with Heart of Thorns, most obviously with the new Revenant class, but also some of the smaller changes like the promise of removing the hard 25-stack bleed cap (my necromancer and thief will be so happy when this change sees daylight). Even better, the player base is usually on board with waiting for this, especially if you tease them with things like dev diaries and closed betas, whereas if you break your advertised release schedule players get restless, even if you assure them it’s for QA purposes.

I know a lot of people favor the DLC model and the promise of new things to do more frequently rather than wait for a truckload of new content to be dumped on you all at once every year or so. What do you think? Is your experience that it’s a struggle between quality and quantity? Or do you see it, as Bio Break puts it, as the same pie cut in smaller pieces? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!