Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 10, 2010
 
What if WoW had an expansion every year?

The release date of Cataclysm isn't even announced yet, but it seems many people already have their head deeper in the next World of Warcraft expansion than in the current one. On MMO Champion there is the first Cataclysm talent calculator, and I'm certain that Elitist Jerk will have worked out all the optimum talents, stats, and spell rotations, before the expansion is even released. I find that somewhat sad, but I think it is a consequence of World of Warcraft's biggest flaw: A too long delay between expansions.

I'm not buying all that bullshit about it being impossible to release expansions faster. Previous major MMORPGs had no problem to release expansions once a year or faster. And while certainly twice as many people don't advance a project twice as fast, three times as many people should certainly get the job done twice as fast. With Blizzard having a 50% profit margin, which is indecently much higher than that of even banks or other industries accused of price gouging, the money to speed up development would certainly be there.

And for Blizzard there would be a payout too: For many players a 2-year wait is too long between expansions, thus people regularly quit World of Warcraft, and might or might not resubscribe when the next expansion finally comes out. Add all those lost months of subscriptions together with being able to sell many millions of copies of twice as many expansions, and you get quite a nice heap of money, more than enough to pay for the faster development.

More expansions would not only mean adding more levels to the game with every expansion, but it would also mean more features. Whether that is player housing, or more hero classes, or other features that have been for a long time been discussed for World of Warcraft, with a bigger development team and an expansion every year, we would certainly have seen more features than we have now.

With more expansions World of Warcraft would also be more balanced. Currently major changes, like the Dungeon Finder, are patched into the middle of an expansion, and often unbalance the existing content of the current expansion. Thus the emblem gear from the Dungeon Finder resulted in WoW currently only having a single viable raid dungeon, less than it had at any point in its history. If the Dungeon Finder had been part of a new expansion, the gear reset you always get from raising the level cap would have made it easier to give out rewards for random groups without making the rewards for the existing game unattractive.

Blizzard should really think about speeding up their expansion production in the future. World of Warcraft stopped growing a while ago, and is getting a bit long in the tooth. With more and more other MMORPGs coming out in the coming years, including Blizzard's second MMORPG, World of Warcraft will have to fight harder to keep subscribers. And making an expansion once per year could be just the ticket for that.
Comments:
I prefer them using their profits on another mmo.

I've seen all 51 dungeons. Do you want more? Me, I've grown tired of them, and don't want any more of their "same-same but different".

If Blizzard offered more content along the same lines, part of my reaction would probably be disgust at seeing yet another form of bandages, armour, food, herbs, you-name-it. Remember the times when everything was called "fel"? That fel-t very themepark-ish, whereas classic wow was all of a piece. After the frost period, will we get disruptive manapotions? Cataclystic ones? I don't care.

So, more of the same isn't much of an option for me.

And its always risky to fundamentally change a tried and tested game. So, I think it's a good idea to offer a new mmo which can change some fundamentals of gameplay, e.g. give up the holy trinity of tank/healer/dd or offer more diverse battleground maps, and at the same time let wow keep going at its current speed.

tl;dr: better invest those insane profits in another game.
 
While I agree that annual expansions would keep people interested would you expect this annual expansion to the content patches we currently get for free?

Looking back at Wrath would you have expected to get all the raid content we have seen in the past 18 months squeezed into a 12 month period and then have Cataclysm launched at the point we DID get ICC?
 
Being I've returned to WoW (against my better judgement?) after 2 years, then for me the gap between WotLK and Cata will be very small :P - so I'm not really one to comment this time round.

But I do beleive that if you have the budget, "release when it's done and not to a fixed date". And that in this expansion, perhaps you can argue that the changes being made are beyond the scope of a yearly cycle. Perhaps therefore it should be argued that if you want shorter release cycles, then release smaller expansions? I don't know the answer to that one.

Perhaps they bit off more than they could chew in their ideas for this expansion. Hence the protracted release time. Scope creep...my worse nightmare :D
 
Everquest: 11 years, 16 expansions.
 
I have complained about the phrase "it's only a game" before, but really...

Isn't part of the problem that a huge chunk of people really want WoW to be their primary hobby? Hobbies can take years of your time and you never run out of content. Finished that bottle ship? Make another!

WoW, on the other hand, is limited to the content provided to us. Call it themepark, sandbox, whatever: we're stuck with what we have. At the end of the day, it's only a game. And really, six years playing a game is... a *very* long time, annual expansions or not.

Put simply: the game is getting old. We love it, we love our little (dwarf!) toons, we love the cute graphics and the badass monsters, but... it's old. We'd love to be able to keep it as a hobby, and each expansion will give us an excuse to do more, but only to a degree.

And Blizzard? I agree with the others here. They're milking the game since at least a year and half now. They have no reason to invest *more* in the game. On the contrary, all they need to do is help us keep our memories alive and nudge us over into their next love affair.
 
I have to say that I disagree here Tobold. CAN Blizzard pump out expansions every year? Sure they absolutely can, but at a certain point simply increasing the dev team's size, actually hinders development instead of helping it.

Throwing more people at a project, especially in the game industry, is the quickest way to create confusion and a sense of detatchment in a game. Just about any game where the parts and pieces don't seem to meld together well or seem to have very different designs in mind is probably the victim of too many hands tainting the pot.

And when you step back and think about WoW, is the time between expansions really that long? Looking at the game purely from a raiding standpoint I don't think it is. Sure it seems like that way to us "hardcore" players that play the game regularly every day, but (and correct me if I'm wrong here) the last time I heard the average WoW player plays a surprisngly few numbers of hours per week. If WoW is truly made up of these, for a lack of a better word, "casuals" then the time between expansions is certainly not too long for them.

I'd say it's safe to assume that the majority of WoW players won't get to even see a LK encounter until the ICC buff is turned up to 30%, so for those people they need this extra time or else content becomes irrelevant to them.
 
Totally agree. I think a yearly expansion cycle is the right amount for a MMO. Any quicker and the work becomes sloppy and players don't have time to absorb it and any longer and players get bored and content becomes spread too thin.

I can appreciate that Blizzard want to take their time with their products but it does get a little ridiculous at points. 2 years in between WoW expansions is just too long.
 
I disagree. Firstly people wouldn't play WoW for years. They quit sporadically and the break between expansion is good for that. They might burn out otherwise and are certain to check out the expansion when it comes out eventually.

Then, I really want Blizzard to put the money into the next MMO, and I pretty sure it's going to be very expensive. (That doesn't mean that it is necessarily good)

Then: There is a shortage of good developers. Perhaps that's the reason all new innovative MMOs come from Europe: The American developers have already been sucked up by Blizzard :)
 
Content is constantly being added to the game - remember what WoTLK was like when it launched?

Annual expansions is something that marketers everywhere would sign up to.

For the player, I believe this would lead to less ambitious changes (= cookie cutter dungeons) or perhaps they would charge us money for something that we currently get with our monthly subscription.

How many people would have paid £15 - £29.99 for the 'Argent Tournament' expansion last year?
 
@Bigeye

I think the flaw in your theory is that because someone only logs on a few hours a week, then the current content will last them much much longer then a "hardcore" raider.

This is simply not the case, allow me to explain.

No one runs the old raids anymore, there is no incentive to do so, they are harder then a 5man (obviously) yet provide worse or at best equal rewards to the current badge tier system.

So really as a casual player, who didn't have time to raid you have all but LOST the ability to see the majority of this expansion's content. It is reasonable to assume you'll see all the 5 man content via the dungeon finder, and I know on my server Pugging ICC is a common occurrence now. So you'll get to see that. But if you haven't seen Naxx or Ulduar or ToC, its likely you won't get a chance to anytime soon. So really the hardcore got more content.
 
@tobold

Is the idea of an "expansion" really even good anymore?. They all just lead to mudflation, and the irrelevance of older content.

Lets consider something.

The longer a game exists, the larger it grows.

The longer a game exists, the less people exist to occupy the game. Even if subscription numbers grow, servers can only support a limited number of users.

This is one of the reasons I find the idea of cataclysm so much more interesting then a typical expansion, sure their adding new zones, but their also going back and changing all the old content, breathing new life into it.

What risk do you feel they run in doing so however? EQ2 recently removed the ability for new players to start toons in Qeynos or Freeport saying that the zones were outdated, and they wished to revamp them. People are throwing a fit on the forums. Do you think something similar will happen with WoW?
 
@ Xash

So wouldn't shortening the amount of time a player has to see content make that problem worse? Imagine if all of the WoTLK content was squeezed into 1 year. This average player would barely get to see half of any raid before that content became outdated.

Simply pumping out xpacs faster is not the answer here. There is no way we could expect to even play the entirety of BC or WoTLK in a single year. So either expansions become episodic, containing 1 or 2 raids every content release (Blizzard would have a field day making money off of us like this) or we run the risk of making content obsolete much quicker then it already happens.
 
For many game companies adding a raid dungeon like Ulduar or ICC would be making 'new' expansion, btw.
 
I think you're being melodramatic. This isnt an example of wows "biggest flaw". I mean come on. Biggest? of all time? Bigger than the next biggest? Do you have its flaws ranked in order? Or was it just a nice way to draw in your readership with a captivating sentence or two? Well, it worked for me, and here I am :)

Whether or not this is a flaw, and whether or not it's wow's "biggest", an alternative suggestion is that it shows how devoted a huge number of players are to the game. They play so much, they analyze the game so much, that they are able to consume content to the 9th decimal place way way faster than Blizzard are able to product it.

Everything blizzard do in wow is extremely high quality, and I wouldnt want that sacrificed for lower quality content, released more often.

What bullshit exactly have you declared you won't buy? How do you know what happens at blizzard? You're just a blogger with a street-side opinion, are you not? You're napkin business models just painfully reveal how much of an amateur you are.

Thousands love the game. Thousands analyze it to bits. Maybe this is not a sympton wow's biggest flaw, but a sympton of its biggest success?
 
They'll probably start releasing expansion every year the moment that their profit is going down. Until then, I'd expect them to continue the same.
 
I'm not buying all that bullshit about it being impossible to release expansions faster.

Why the sudden change of heart, Tobold?

In posts past you've always assumed the position that developement team sizes can reach a critical mass of effectiveness, so I'm left scratching my head as to why all of a sudden you think that simply throwing more money, or bigger developement teams would somehow make a difference?

Blizzard is in the difficult position of maintaining existing lore, while making sure that new zones and content mesh well with existing content/lore.

A majority of people have commented on how the Burning Crusade/Outlands zones just didnt have the right feel when compared against Vanilla zones, while Northrend and WOTLK content fell more in line with player expectations and a general sense of just "feeling right". I find it difficult to believe that getting the Burning Crusade expansion any faster would have negated any of the negatives associated with it.

Cataclysm is going to change a lot of things in the existing content, and simply designing an expansion and rushing it out the door - to provide "more content, quicker", stands to cause a major backlash from players, due to mudflation and the effects of raising the level cap and gear progression where talent builds/specs are concerned.

Instead of content expansions, I would rather see the implementation of world events, random quest driven events/boss encounters that allow players/guilds the ability to earn usable gear and items for a limited time much like the Naxx invasion from a few years ago. It makes more sense to use existing zones and content to implement events such as this, where content can be released in smaller chunks, while having a greater impact on the playerbase overall.
 
How could they get expansions out faster?

Hire a second team. Get them working on art ASAP for the expansion after Cataclysm.
 
While it may be true that for many players, the time between expansions is too long, I suspect that for "many" players, the time between expansions is not long enough, the problem is, not everyone "consumes" the content at the same pace, and I strongly suspect that those of us that read/comment/write on blogs are likley to be the faster consumers (for want of a better phrase) - so of course, the general opinion of people on blogs will be that its too slow, but I doubt we represent the masses very accurately

imo Blizzard do just fine with the timings, I LIKE having a gap inbetween, to try out new games and such
 
While it may be true that for many players, the time between expansions is too long, I suspect that for "many" players, the time between expansions is not long enough, the problem is, not everyone "consumes" the content at the same pace, and I strongly suspect that those of us that read/comment/write on blogs are likley to be the faster consumers (for want of a better phrase) - so of course, the general opinion of people on blogs will be that its too slow, but I doubt we represent the masses very accurately

imo Blizzard do just fine with the timings, I LIKE having a gap inbetween, to try out new games and such
 
We are of course, overlooking that Blizzard is the only developer that actively chooses to constantly delay products - and is the only one who ever really gets away with it - in the name of quality.

Regardless of one's opinion of WoW after having burnt out on it, or never really got into it - it is a very well made and structured piece of entertainment, and lets not even start talking about their other games.

I for one am willing to wait for that kind of thing.
 
Blizzard is just milking it, they're spending their resources developing the New MMO, Diablo 3, whatever else they have in the works, WoW is the best game that's ever been made but it is not a young game anymore. It really peaked with Wrath and though I believe Cataclysm will be great we are on the downward slope of an MMO's life expectancy.
 
From an engineering standpoint it is difficult to cut development time in half by adding more staff. New people are not familiar with the work, coordination increases geometrically as the number of engineers increases, and you'd also need to do things like doubling the size of your senior staff which you may or may not have the personnel to do. The senior engineers that understand everything going on on the project cannot maintain the same granularity of understanding when the project doubles in size, and that will affect quality.

Blizzard would have another issue -- that they already have many of the best MMO people in the industry (and probably almost all of the best that want to work at Blizzard). It's hard to imagine how they could increase staff size by 150% or so (or whatever they'd need to increase throughput by 100%) while maintaining the quality of the game.
 
On the other hand, plenty of games charge prices for expansions that expand little, certainly the ammount of content in any two or 3 of BLizzard's content patches is equal to an average games expansion.
 
One thing I think you're missing out on is the level of polish on all Blizzard's games. I know everyone has brandished the "polish" factor over and over but, truth be told the only other company I've seen with such polish is Bioware and Square Enix although slightly less consistent from game to game.

That level of polish can be seen in Starcraft 2. About 2 years ago, PC Gamer or one of the PC magazines showed screen shots of the units. About a year ago they did yet another preview of the unix and the art and abilities had changed dramatically on some units. And even more has changed since then now that the beta is out. In every iteration the units were fine and would have been well received but "Blizzard" was not happy with it for whatever reason. I'm not a game developer but I am a programmer and such changes are not part of any development cycle, its unique to Blizzard, and you can't argue with results.

To do a new expansion every 12 months and still maintain the usual Blizzard polish would be very tough. Plus you're not factoring in the burnout rate of the staff. If every Oct-Dec was crunch time at a company, even with a huge incentive bonus, your developers would burn out very fast. Which leads to higher turnover and defeats the purpose of lowering development time + affecting quality.

Note: I'm Not saying I wouldn't love to have a new wow expansion every year. But this way, I can get other games into my gaming diet. :)
 
Do you like polish?
 
Have you read "The Mythical Man-Month"? It's a seminal text for developers and project managers, required reading for everyone in those fields, and it handily debunks the idea that adding more people to a project will always speed it up.
 
More expansions would be welcome. Although I don't mind taking year long breaks from WoW. It makes sure that I see other games, not burn out and I'm always happy to return to WoW after a long break.

So I'm quite fine with an expansion every two years. The quality remains very high for these expansions and I doubt that they could keep the same level when they would create an expansion every year. Besides that, they're adding great new features like dual spec and the LFG tool in between expansions. Freely.

On the other hand, it's been 6 years since they've created a *new* game. Giving us a new game every two years and an expansion every two other years would be just fine with me.
 
Have you read "The Mythical Man-Month"? It's a seminal text for developers and project managers, required reading for everyone in those fields, and it handily debunks the idea that adding more people to a project will always speed it up.

That is exactly the bullshit theory I was talking about. If this was true, you could speed up any development by FIRING developers. If it would be impossible to speed up the development of expansions to one per year, then how come that most other games do it, and did it for a decade?
 
So how do the yearly expansions in other MMOs compare to WoW's expansions?

I'm in no hurry for WoW expansions. I like the way I play now. I get to the new level cap with a couple of my characters, dink around for another month or two, and then cancel. Then maybe a few months later I get the itch again, re-sub, and get another character or two to the level cap.

The last thing I need to is to play WoW 12 months a year. So I'd rather Blizzard takes their time and makes sure the new content is of high quality.

If anyone's in the Cataclysm beta, I'm betting it's release quality right now compared to other games, but it will still be some time before it actually launches.
 
No, the Mythical Man-Month simply debunks the notion that you can do anything faster with more people. The classic humorous example is that 9 women can't have 1 baby in 1 month. (For non-complex work like mowing lawns, the man-hour concept does hold true though.)

Clearly the converse is also not true: you cannot speed projects by taking people away. Therefore there is an optimum number of people for any given project. as to whether Blizzard's WoW team is there, I have no idea...
 
Adding people to a project usually increases the speed in the long run. There are heavy diminishing returns (coordination), though.

In the short run, adding or removing people, usually slows a project (that isn't trivial) down.

How long it takes to get into the long run is determined by many, many factors: For example, you might need to put more people into leadership positions, which can go terribly wrong. Most people don't like to be a leader (and only think they would like it).
 
And while certainly twice as many people don't advance a project twice as fast, three times as many people should certainly get the job done twice as fast.

From Fred Brook's classic Mythical Man Month:

Communication overheads increase as the number of people increases. The number of different communication channels increases along with the square of the number of people; doubling the number of people results in four times as many different conversations. Everyone working on the same task needs to keep in sync, so as more people are added they spend more time trying to find out what everyone else is doing

So adding 3 times as many people might not make something happen twice as fast. It might make it take longer. The real trick is attempting to make an expansion be as many totally separate pieces as possible. However doing that too much means you lose a cohesive feel.

With a low staffing level you have one team doing the boss and trash pulls for an instance, and one team doing the instance map. Any map change means one meeting. Any mob change that requires a map change ("we need the room to be small enough that a 25 man raid can't all stand 1 yards apart") requires one meeting.

With a higher staffing level you could have one team per boss mob and one team per trash pull and one team for the map. However if the map changes you now have a lot more meetings. Say 5 bosses and 6 trash pulls, that gives you 11 meetings. Any of those meetings might cause another map change, cascading to more meetings. You could try having each team having a single rep and one meeting, but then that rep has a meeting with their team, which and those meetings can trigger another meeting. It doesn't save anything. (and no, you can't have one giant meeting with everyone on the 12 teams all at once, nothing gets done in meetings of that size! Or rather they really only work for broadcasts, not discussions).

Maps and mobs are not the only interactions. New spells or talents could effect any encounter, and to a lesser extent any map.

That is only one way adding more people to a project can slow it down.

(that is not to say more people don't help in some cases! It is the rare game where the programmer is the best person to also do the artwork. Testers are useful. Having a team per instance could be a win. Sometimes a team can make a tool that makes other teams far more productive. Sometimes you can have a two team swap method like Intel has for it's CPUs, or Netscape once had for browsers. To some extent more meetings don't eat all the progress more people can add -- but there is a limit. Unfortunately with software that limit is frequently much lower then people think!)
 
Seems to me that the real way to speed up development of expansions is to have two entirely separate teams working on two expansions simultaneously.

So if your development schedule is 18 months per expansion, one team will be 12 months ahead of the other team. In six months expansion one launches. Twelve months after that, expansion two launches, and team one is twelve months into the third expansion. Now they get to take a full year.

This would be expensive, but feasible, don't you think?
 
That is exactly the bullshit theory I was talking about. If this was true, you could speed up any development by FIRING developers.

Interesting. That's a completely illogical statement.
 
"That is exactly the bullshit theory I was talking about. If this was true, you could speed up any development by FIRING developers. If it would be impossible to speed up the development of expansions to one per year, then how come that most other games do it, and did it for a decade?"

The man-month theory simply says that adding more people doesn't always speed up a project. Its basically diminishing returns. Depending on how big the project is, adding an extra person may in fact speed things up. But unless the work can be divided well enough, doubling the number of people will not make the project go significantly faster. There becomes a lot of overhead, trying to coordinate everyone and keeping everyone working on the project according to the plan.

How come other MMOs can release updates yearly and Blizzard can't? No idea. Maybe the other MMO's updates weren't as complicated? Maybe Blizzard tests their expansions more thoroughly so it takes longer? Unless you know the intimate details of both companies ( blizzard and the yearly-releaser) then you can't ever really know.

I think the most likely answer is, because they don't want to. It would either be not worth it ( the benefits of yearly expansions vs the costs, both monetary and changes needed to the company), or they feel that the way they're doing it is best ( marketing, strategy, etc).

Would I want yearly updates? Yeah probably.
 
I think the most likely answer is, because they don't want to. It would either be not worth it ( the benefits of yearly expansions vs the costs, both monetary and changes needed to the company), or they feel that the way they're doing it is best ( marketing, strategy, etc).

I agree. Doubling the man-power might double the speed, but it most likely won't double the profit. Thus, not good from business point of view.
 
It could be that Blizzard really is slacking and could actually add more people to this particular problem, we do not know how close to diminishing returns they are in the production line.

However, it is a standard in the production industry that at a certain point, more people does not equal more/faster/quality production.

It has been proven over and over.
 
How much does Blizzard make, profit, each year?

If you made that much money, would you change your formula? CEOs that are good CEOs probably wouldn't. I wouldn't either.

WoW addicts are going to pay/play regardless. Even if you constantly pushed out new content, people would still get burned out and overwhelmed by it all.

I'd take a look at the numbers of people playing WoW and the numbers of every other "successful" MMO and compare them; also compare profits.

Sure, Everquest craps out 1.5 expansions per year, but do they have nearly as many paying customers as WoW? Of course not.

So, success is relative, or, Don't fix it if it ain't broken.
 
I'd rather pay $40 every 2 years than $30 every year on top of the subscription cost. I think Blizzard releases during one expansion what most MMOs release in two. We essentially get ToC and ICC/Ruby for free, content most games would charge extra for, this "slow expansion" pace is only a problem for someone who primarily solos or does 5-mans.
 
Games that release more frequent expansions have less polish and/or less content.

I think 16-18 months would be a good target for an expansion the size of WOTLK. About 3.5 months seems to be the point at which most players are very done with a given tier of content. However atm Blizzard is on track for more like 22 months and something like 9-10 months in the ICC/RS tier, with ICC for 6 months and 1-boss RS for perhaps 3-4, and before that TOC (bleh) for 4 months.

That's too long to stretch the content, doubly so when it's summertime. It's not a huge deal to casuals like me, but it has to be unpleasant watching your guild die to attrition.
 
I went to double check on the WoW site - there's been a grand total of over a dozen content patches since the Vanilla release. Now whether or not you'd call each patch a full expansion is one thing, but considering that
- Vanilla only included Molten Core
- Blackwing Lair was patched in
- the big ol' PvP patch, pretty much a game changer
- ZG/AB were patched in
- Emerald dragons, Silithus and the AQ raids
- Naxxramas
- Burning Crusade release
- Black temple patch
- Zul'Aman and Sunwell
- Wrath of the Lich King
- Ulduar patch (note: not even 25% of the players have finished this patch)
- ToC/ToGC (again: not even 25% of the players finished ToGC25)
- ICC10/25

and a new expansion is due out soon. And you still have the stones to complain we don't get enough new content? You even got most of it for free where other companies would've made you pay a nominal fee for it.
 
Smaller, less expensive yearly expansions. Fewer content-oriented patches.

I've said this before: 5 levels/patch/year.

Current PvE content will be very very difficult at current level. Last year's content at new level cap will still be challenging, but doable, especially after a few months of gear collection.

Expansions 75, 85, 95 etc. will be more PvP, tradeskills, etc. oriented, but with some PvE content.

Expansions 80, 90, 100 would be more PvE with big new raid dungeons for the elite to race to the end with some serious effort.

Should not take more developers to do this.
 
I hate how Wow leaks out content gradually after an expansion is released. How is it that you could not kill Arthas until more than a year after WOTLK was released? Ridiculous. A player should be able to reach the end as quickly as they are able to. Deathwing should be a killable mob on the day Cataclysm is released. What Blizzard should do is release a FULL expansion once per year, but each expansion should include less total content(So they can finish making it within a year). It is not right to expect a player to play the same game all months within a year. I am sure that is Blizzard's goal and that has affected when content is released. But Blizzard insults its playerbase every time it releases incomplete expansions and expects them to play for over a year, just being strung along. That is why I refuse to be involved in Tournament of Champions. It was filler content designed to string the players along until Icecrown Citadel came out. It is false content, not part of WOTLK at all. Garbage.
 
If Blizzard released expansions every year, nobody would ever play, because we'd continually exist in periods of pre-expansion burnout.

IMO, Blizzards cycle of expansions and patches works well.
 
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