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What should an expansion pack expand?

September 19th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

As hard as it is to believe, there haven’t always been expansion packs. Every now and then a sports game would put out a stadium disk or roster patch, but the early 90s were largely bereft of such cash grabs. The first expansion I can remember being excited about was the Campaign Disk for SSI’s Age of Rifles (1996), and it only added some campaigns and some random combat options. Not exactly thrilling.

Now, it seems, every major strategy release gets an expansion pack. A lot of minor strategy titles get them, too. I’ve been heavily playing two new expansions over the weekend (stay tuned for comments at a later date) and have been mostly underwhelmed by both. They are aren’t bad games at all. In fact, if either was included as part of the original game they would have made it even better.

But it raises the question of what expansion packs are for. What makes one a success and one a failure? Note that by “failure” I am not judging the games by sales. Any Sims expansion will sell a million copies whether it is as good as Hot Date and Unleashed or as lame as Superstar or Making Magic. By “failure” I mostly mean “Was this worth my money? Has this changed the game for the better?” So by failure, I mostly mean “Did it fail me and my petty expectations?”

Hey, gaming is very personal.

A good comparison is the two expansions for the two best RTS of the last few years – Rise of Nations and Age of Mythology. RoN expanded with Thrones and Patriots. It gave the player six new civilizations, new wonders and four new campaign maps. It integrated seamlessly into the RoN game world. The campaigns were excellent and breathed new life into a game mode that was not very replayable after the third or fourth time.

Age of Mythology had the Titans expansion. Lots of new stuff here, too. A new (if short) campaign, a new superweapon, and a new faction (Atlantis) with new gods. This meant new god powers, some of which would regenerate over time. But the whole package was a lot less compelling than what RoN had to offer.

In many ways, AoM is a superior game. Ensemble had to balance not only four wildly different factions, but also 48 different deities. The rock/paper/scissors stuff was doubly cyclical since you not only had units and their counters, but the hero/myth/mortal dynamic as well. And it works. Regenerative god powers was a neat concept and the Titans looked cool.

I’m not alone in my opinions here, either. Though the Gamerankings differences are negligible (Thrones gets 88, Titans 85) , Gamespot, Computer Gaming World and Computer Games Magazine all had the Rise of Nations expansion ahead by a comfortable margin. Gamespot had different reviewers for each (Jason Ocampo for Thrones and Greg Kasavin for Titans) while CGW and CGM had the same guy cover both (Di Luo and Tom Chick, respectively).

Don’t get me wrong, Titans is not a bad expansion. It’s hard to imagine what a bad expansion even is, since where gaming is concerned, more is usually better. It is not, however, as good as Thrones.

Why not? Well, the Atlanteans are not a compelling race. Their gods are simply an older Greek pantheon and so lack added exoticism. Ensemble didn’t want to introduce gods that most players would be unfamiliar with (how many gamers know their Sumerian gods? Maybe Aztec? How about Chinese?) but the result was a feeling that these new people were just more extras from a sword and sandal movie. The titan superweapon meant that almost every game ended the same way and whoever got the titan out first would usually win. The Atlantean counter-unit specialists made the RPS concept more transparent, but the battles more annoying. In some ways, the expansion took some of the mystery and fun out of a game that I really, really like.

Rise of Nations integrated the new stuff perfectly. There was never a sense that you were playing against a race that hadn’t been planned from the beginning. The new racial powers were quite powerful but did nothing to overwhelm or diminish the assets that the orignial cultures brought the table. Though, empircally, Thrones added more stuff it did less to change the fundamental game. It expanded; it didn’t rebuild.

This can’t be seen as a hard and fast rule, though. Take the Conquests expansion for Civ III. The chilly reception that greeted the original game (at least in some quarters) was almost completely destroyed by the rapturous applause that resulted from Conquests. Some of this joy, undoubtedly, was spurred by bugged and disappointing Play the World expansion, but for many Conquests made Civ a whole new game. The Bioware RPGs have expansions that usually introduce new campaigns as long as the originals. The best of the Sim expansions do more than add new material, they add new worlds and life options for your dolls, sometimes radically changing the game (Hot Date and Sims 2 University did this.) Cossacks had two expansions, and neither added anything of note beyond a couple of new European armies.

So, as usual, no answers here. Feel free to fill the comments with reflections on the best and worst of expansion packs.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Anonymous

    In my younger days, I thought the two main components of game ($50) development to be the story ($25)and the engine ($25).
    An expansion pack took an existing game ($50) and carried on a new story from elements of the old ($25 – $5 saving from having background already done = £20) while also adding a few new tweaks to the engine (throw in an extra $5), which made the reasonable asking price for an expansion pack to be about $25 or $30.

    Now, that’s obviously a rather childish view, not least because the main part of development costs these days is marketing, but it still seems to me like it should work on some level, seeing as the developers *are* just working a new story into an old setting and engine.

    Now that was fine back in the old days when the world was young and everything had that “new car smell” to it but in this more cynical age, things are rather different.

    Do you remember how TV series would run for a season and then just end? The story had been told, issues resolved, the auctioneers have moved in and sold off all of Jim-Bob’s farm equipment and what-have-you. And then, because the viewing public had come to love and admire Jim-Bob so much in his struggles to keep the farm, a second series was foolishly commissioned which showed Jim-Bob months later, having moved to the big city, gotten in with the wrong crowd, doing drugs and living on the streets and all of a sudden having absolutely nothing to do with anything that happened in the first series, confusing the adoring viewing public immensely and leading to plummetting ratings and career death for all involved.
    Do you remember when that used to happen?

    Now, of course, we have a different system. Nobody ever ends a damn TV show.
    Oh, sure, there’s a failure to commission a fifth season, and we fans are all left wondering if Janet will ever marry the handsome doctor who she’s been wildly oblivious to for the last eight years, but that’s hardly an ending that’s just where the camera stopped watching them.

    Today’s TV executives plan for the second season by never actually ending the first. I haven’t actually seen a TV series “end” in the last ten years that didn’t have “Star Trek” in the title.

    Do you remember the first time that happend to you in a game?
    For most of you, it will have been at the end of one of the works of renowned sequel-whores Blizzard.
    So it was for me at the end of Diablo. There I was at the end of the sixteenth dungeon level, having seen off demons beyond counting, faced horrors to confound the imagination, descended from a desecrated church in a small village into the catacombs beneath, down into the very bowels of Hell made present on Earth, faced and defeated the host one of the Lords of Hell itself, one of the original evils of the world. Suddenly it’s all over I’m looking at the corpse of a young man, posessed by Diablo, but now freed of his influence in death. By his side is the soulstone, cause of the troubles and countainer of the essence of the creature I have defeated.

    And then my idiot character shoves the stupid thing into his face!

    Meaning that Diablo has a new host, more powerful than the last, tempered by an absolute bastard of a dungeon, ready to take on the whole world. My actions in the game have resolved nothing and all I’ve done is to make the problem worse! Maybe twenty of my hours went into finishing that game and to be told at the end that it was nothing more than a setup for a sequel… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

    Four years it took them to make a sequel! And if they hadn’t, then I would have had wasted the money I’d paid for Diablo forever!

    So there I am four years later. I’ve been to the store, picked up my copy of the game, played through to find that this time I was facing THREE Lords of Hell, both Diablo and his brothers Bhaal and Mephisto. I’ve hacked my way through the remains of Tristram, across the sands of Lut Gholein, through the jungles of Kurast and a million godawful irritating midgets and the first Lord of Hell, Mephisto, down into the bowels of Hell again (perceptive readers may note that in four years I’d got an awful lot more jaded), faced Diablo for a second time and then THOSE BASTARDS DID IT TO ME AGAIN! A HUNDRED BUCKS I’VE FORKED OVER FOR THIS MINDLES, ENDLESSSLY CLICKING CRAP NOW AND STILL THEY HAVEN’T LET ME FINISH! I’LL KILL THEM ALL! WHAT THE HELL DO THEY THINK THEY’RE DOING?

    And that was when I first created the term “sequel-whore”. Maybe not uniquely, but there you go.

    And that’s just the way things work these days, in pretty much any creative industry. Writers don’t write books anymore, they write trilogies, series, or do whatever it is that Robert Jordan thinks he’s doing. TV series never end, they just stop filming. And games don’t even let you defeat the end-of-game boss.

  • Anonymous

    They just keep adding a little bit at a time, just enough to keep you interested, just enough to set up a new game, without ever really finishing the story that was started in the game before. Maybe giving you just enough closeure of events from a game or two ago to keep you playing.

    Who remembers the time they killed the never-fought-before big badguy of the first game as a sub-boss in the third? Answers on a postcard please.

    Sometimes Jim-Bob will win big in the casinos and buy back his farm. Sometimes they’ll let you see Janet’s glorious wedding to the handsome doctor. Sometimes they’ll let you fight that big bad boss and save the princess.

    But these days, I wouldn’t put any money on that being the end of the story.