MMOs are constantly changing and evolving over time. It’s in their nature as huge, never ending adventures. Many MMOs start as one game, but over time change their focus, payment model, or even key gameplay features to a point that they feel like a completely different game entirely. In order to maintain an active player base, many developers continuously introduce new content in their games in the form of timed events, DLC (downloadable content), or full expansions. MMOs that stay the same for too long risk players migrating to different titles simply out of boredom or a case of “been there done that”.
But when is enough enough? Is there a point when an online game becomes so bloated, so outdated, or so different from the original vision, that a fresh start is required? Or should developers just keep evolving and refining their game, and never move on?
There are a lot of advantages in moving on to a completely new game. The first is in having a safe new environment in which to experiment with new features and gameplay mechanics. Imagine your feelings if an MMO you’d been playing for a few years suddenly decided to up and change its core combat system. You’d likely be furious. A sequel lets designers change the core mechanics of a game without alienating their player base. A clean slate is also the best option if developers want to try a new engine or other technology.
From a developer point of view, a sequel is also a chance to create new content without damaging the existing content or gameplay loop. Constantly adding new features to an already up-and-running game requires a lot of balancing and compromising, and can lead to disastrous effects if you’re not careful. This can limit the amount of new features developers can add to a game without breaking anything. Plus, working on a new project can really breathe new life into a studio, allowing it to re-ignite the flame of creativity.
However, creating a sequel for an MMO does have its downsides. Once developers move on to the next game in the series, they might neglect their previous creation. Furthermore, it can be stressful and costly for a small studio to maintain two different games. Even if the developer doesn’t abandon the game, the players might in order to devote their attention to the new title. It’s not uncommon for an MMO to bleed subscribers after a sequel is launched.
The most common practice in MMORPGs and online strategy games is the release of frequent content expansions. These are faster to develop than full-blown sequels and have a much lower risk of upsetting long-time players, since they usually don’t change the game too much. They also serve to highlight different aspects of the game, catering on each occasion to a different type of player - new areas for explorers, new deadly monsters to defeat for the achievers, and so on. Many of the larger titles rely on large expansions to keep the gaming experience fresh, while still maintaining their original charm, thus appealing to both new players and veteran ones.
But expansions are not always the answer. After all, expansions can be fairly limited in scope, and will rarely draw back players who lost interest in the game long ago. Most of the time, expansions can be summed up as simply “more of the same.” This is good for keeping active players engaged, but not so good for expanding to new audiences.
However, it is possible that an expansion can hurt even the game’s current player-base. When new content is added, there’s always a chance for older game content to become irrelevant or obsolete. People are naturally attracted to anything new, so a lot of players will flock to a new area, leaving the older ones sparsely populated. In addition, the more areas there are in a game, the more spread out the community becomes, making it harder for players to find other players to play with.
Both sequels and expansions have their advantages and disadvantages. There’s no clear answer on how to keep an MMO alive and updated over the years. Ultimately, it’s up to the players to let the developers know which they prefer. Would you like to play the same MMO, with more and more content being added over the course of several years, or are you the kind of player that enjoys taking advantage of a new expansion before moving on to that next adventure?