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How much should an expansion cost?

Matthew Rossi

We've talked about this briefly in a recent Breakfast Topic, but that's not the same as actually standing up and taking a position on an issue, and I (specifically, I, Matthew Rossi, not all of WoW Insider) do have a position on this one - namely, that this expansion will likely contain as much if not more gameplay, art assets, and overall design work as any game coming out, and that frankly the last couple of expansions have been under what they should have cost.

I didn't come to this decision in a vacuum, either - I come to it as someone who does not want to pay the price as established. I'm extremely penurious. almost outright parsimonious when it comes to money. I don't like spending it. So when I heard how much the expansion was going to cost (the day the pre-orders became available) I immediately balked at it. It's only ten bucks more to buy Titanfall, I said to myself, and that's a completely new game. And then I read this post by Kim Acuff (who often comments here at WoW Insider as Ember Dione) a developer on Skylanders, and I started to rethink my position on the relative cost of the expansion, how much it should cost, and the validity of the whole "as expensive as a new game" discussion.

Because here's the fact - each WoW expansion has effectively been a new game.

There was a recent WoW infographic that covered a lot of subjects. One of the things it covered was how much in-game text each expansion has added to World of Warcraft - that includes quests, item descriptions, and so on. The amount added per expansion has grown - Burning Crusade added less than a million words (WoW launched with 1.5 million words and had 2.2 million after BC) but each subsequent expansion had added more than the one before it. Wrath of the Lich King added 1.1 million words, making WoW's total 3.3 million, and Cataclysm took the total up to 4.8 million, meaning that it added 1.5 million words. Likewise, Mists of Pandaria added another 1.5 million, for six million total words. That means that both Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria added as much content as vanilla WoW did apiece. And that's just text - it's not covering art assets, mechanics and systems changes or redesigns, or music. Each expansion has had a full soundtrack, and since Wrath the use of voice acting has gone up and up, meaning that there's been a lot more VO directing as well.

In essence, for at least three expansions, we've gotten as much or more content, at as much or more total work, than the original game and in half the time. It took four years for World of Warcraft to go from its first development stages to launch - it took three years from the launch of vanilla for The Burning Crusade to come out, and less than two for each subsequent expansion. That means that we've gotten as much or more game as originally took four years to produce every two years, and we've paid less than we did for that original four years even as prices across the board - prices for every single aspect of the game's development from art to music to scripting to coding - have all gone up.

The fact is, it's not amazing that this expansion costs ten bucks more than Mists of Pandaria did - it's amazing that Mists of Pandaria cost the same as Cataclysm, or Wrath of the Lich King. It's amazing that the price of expansions has remained as steady as it has. Furthermore, the argument that you're paying this much for an expansion to a ten year old game when there are new games out now doesn't really fly when the amount of work being done to update the character models and modernize the gameplay is as much (if not more) as it would be to design a new game from scratch anyway. The cost of a new triple A game is staggering, and Blizzard is effectively making a new one of them every two years, and doing so with constraints other game developers don't have.

An expansion has to fit with the game as it is already established - we've already seen how difficult it is to make significant changes, even necessary ones, to the game and how it plays. WoW's expansions generally have to work on older computers. There are systems in place that simply can't be easily changed (like backpack size) that were perfectly adequate ten years ago - a new game wouldn't have all these legacy issues that need to be addressed and dealt with, while coming up with as much or more content as the entire first three years of the game's existence, while fundamentally altering those aspects of the game that are seen as detrimental to its success.

The simple fact is, the reason Warlords of Draenor costs almost as much as a new game is that it is almost a new game. It's certainly as much, if not more work as a new game. Here is just one example of the process of making this expansion - it's a table read for the voice actors.

That being said, I'm both cheap and far from rich, and the fact is, this game being the price it is affects me - it means I'll have less money after I buy the two licenses for myself and my wife. That means spending between $100 and $140 to play Warlords, and that's not including the subscription fee because I would have had to pay that anyway to keep playing. It's still more money I'm spending, however - any time a game company makes the decision to increase prices, there's going to be objections, especially when a company has kept its price points consistently low for almost a decade. Reaper of Souls is coming out this month and it's ten bucks cheaper than Warlords. Now, it's also true that RoS is hardly anywhere near as much content as Warlords will likely be - it's one act vs. the thousands of quests we get per WoW expansion, nearly as much if not more game than the original game they expand upon.

It's still worth comparing, however, because Reaper of Souls has a new class, new gameplay modes, and a new storyline - we know what we're getting. But with Warlords of Draenor what people are paying for right now is a free character boost to 90, a pet and mount, and the expansion which won't be out for months yet - fall is at least six months away. And we don't know a lot about what we're getting - we know about garrisons, we know about new character models, and some PvP changes, and a few tantalizing story tidbits that don't add up to anything like a full picture. It's understandable that people look at Warlords, see the lack of a new race or class (personally I'm glad we're getting neither, but I understand the concern) and see that stuff like the item squish and healing redesign are coming, and say 'okay, but what are we getting?' What's being added, exactly? It's hard, because a lot of that stuff that's being added - that over a million words of text - is stuff that Blizzard would prefer we experience by playing it. It's easier to get people excited by saying new class or new race than saying two years worth of new story and game, because that's simultaneously expected and intangible. It doesn't look as nice on a bullet list on a box side.

That's why I believe strongly that Blizzard needs to start dropping some steak with the sizzle - tell us what we're getting, what's new and how it works. Show us how garrisons will play. Show us new spells and abilities, new zones, some new dungeons, new gear models and the new transmog system. We've had a lot of effort put into managing our expectations, and that's great. Now start building some. The price for Warlords of Draenor is probably quite reasonable, but if you want us to pay it, it's time to tell us what we're buying.

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