It's a gamer's dream come true: you pay for a shiny new product, then weeks, months, or even years later, all of its subsequent content, from level packs to characters and costumes, finds its way to your hard drive free of charge. Is this a small slice of nirvana? Perhaps, but there are two things that we must first consider before we can truly assess how great it would be to never again pay for an expansion pack.
Number one: What is an expansion pack?
In the old days (read: before the Internet became a viable means of distribution), sometimes developers would have a successful release for which they weren't yet ready to bring out a sequel. In many cases, this would lead to an expansion pack, which was a purchased add-on found in stores alongside the original. It generally required the buyer to also purchase, or already own, the original game. Modern DLC is pretty much just the fracturing of this process, breaking the content down into smaller, less expensive purchases that generally allow players to pick and choose what they want. Also, while expansion packs usually extended the life of the game's playability, DLC runs the gamut from new missions and areas to purely cosmetic additions, such as costumes, or even the modern equivalent of cheat codes, unlocking items and weapons that players might not have already earned.
That isn't to say that modern games don't have full-fledged expansion packs. I seem to recall a retail expansion for Tomb Raider: Underworld on the Xbox 360, as well as a few for cult-hit King's Bounty: The Legend, though I believe those are standalone products. How about Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II? That had the Retribution expansion. By and large, however, the practice is limited to (ironically) the most internet-dependent genre of all: MMORPGs. World of Warcraft alone, to point out the gluttonous hippo in the corner, currently has four expansions on shelves with a fifth announced and in production. These aren't standalone products, each building upon the others with the newest requiring the accumulation of its predecessors to function. Let's not even start on the original Everquest, which literally had over a dozen expansion packs.
This talk of MMOs, however, does bring us to the second point that must be addressed: MMOs themselves.
In a way, many MMOs serve as practical examples of getting expansions for free. Players generally pay a monthly fee, yes, but that is ostensibly for server upkeep, since the game is played using, in part, hardware maintained by the developer or publisher. In spite of this, the modern practice is for the company to offer incremental upgrades to the gameplay experience, or even new features and areas to explore, available to anyone who is already playing or who starts playing the base game at that time.
City of Heroes stands as a prime example of this, initially conceived with a two-month cycle on its "issues," which were content updates that introduced more possibilities into the game's existing world. They would go so far as to redo animations, add entirely new regions to the game, create new power sets, or entirely revamp the way the game was played. The game is now free-to-play, and the vast majority of that accumulation (up to and including most of the content from the title's retail expansions) is open to everyone without them having to lay down a cent.
Creating expansion content gratis, however, is more or less the company working for free, particularly for games that have a delineated end point. An expansion for one of these demands less of a time investment from the players, and still costs money for the development team to create. That said, if one is offered the choice between a $40 MMO expansion that assures one at least another month of playtime, versus a quintet of $10 DLC mission packs for a Bethesda RPG, each of which really only adds a couple of days of gameplay (at best), which are you more likely to buy?
Let's pose a different question: what if you were offered each of these for free? What would you think when the company's next standalone project came down the pipe? In other words, if expansion packs were free, and still substantial, would they serve as a means to guarantee brand loyalty? Is brand loyalty even a thing in this day and age? Do people buy a game specifically because it's from Ubisoft or Capcom? EA or Activision?
If expansion packs were a part of the development cycle, and factored into the original budget for the game rather than their own beasts that had to be recovered from the gamers—even if they were entirely new projects embarked upon when a game succeeded, but made as a gesture of goodwill—I think that they would develop a sort of brand loyalty in gamers. Expansion packs would become a different kind of currency, with which developers would bargain for gamers' attention spans and for their support on their subsequent projects. Again, I return to the City of Heroes example and to NCSoft, which has a soft spot in my heart because every couple of months I could expect them to make positive changes and additions to a game for which I had already paid them. When I see their name pop up in reference to a new title, I perk up and take notice.
Free expansions would create an infrastructure of gambling, since developers would be producing content on which they'd know they'd be unlikely to directly recoup their expenditures. But gestures of goodwill are big with gamers. The Team Fortress 2 community explodes around Valve's content updates, when they occur (the substantial ones; not the additions of new hats). People like free stuff. It's the surest way to a person's heart, and to their loyalty.
That said, people naturally adapt to regular stimuli. If expansion packs were continually released for free, they would become less an exciting bonus and more a matter of course, an expected and necessary act by the developers of the game. It would become less a means of expanding an experience that gamers enjoyed and more one of eliciting a specific and predictable response from those very gamers.
Freely distributed expansion packs entirely redefining both player and developer expectations? It could happen.
By Shelby Reiches
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*