Game design has seen a remarkable amount of change over the last decade. Budgets have increased substantially as team sizes grow ever-larger. The player base is expanding, as well, with video games finding new markets and demographics that previously had little interest. Though it’s not the only change, one evolution of late is in the way game developers add new content to existing titles. This post is in sombre remembrance of what we will affectionately label the “expandalone”.
In terms of the mass-market, up until the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there were really only two accepted ways to enhance a game: expansions and patches. Of course, Bethesda famously ushered us into the era of downloadable content with their notorious – and sometimes rage-inducing – Horse Armor packs. That aside, expansions packs typically came in two different varieties, either those that required the base game to play or those that could be played without it. The latter were appropriately known as expandalones as they were stand-alone expansions. It’s an unusual trend that we now see much less of than before. So, where’d they go?
Firstly, let’s ponder how an expandalone comes to be. Typically, a developer has an idea for a follow-up to their most recent release, but they don’t want to put the effort into an entirely new engine and art assets. The decision is made to take content from the original and scrap it into a proper game of its own. Invariably, this saves a good deal of money for the development team – there’s much less need for creative staff and even coders. Having a working engine already also means fewer issues providing technical support for the new product. In theory, most of the bugs should have been worked out already. So, the product is pushed to market and the discerning video game connoisseur stumbles across it while shopping (see, this sort of thing used to occur in a physical store… before the Internet…). Unfortunately, the aforementioned gaming elite is readily aware that corners were cut, money was saved, and the product in his hands is lesser to a true, new release.
This creates an issue purely from a cost standpoint. Most informed customers were not and are not willing to pay full price for a game that was assembled from the leftovers of another title. So, the charge is reduce. Perhaps $40? This sort of thing went back-and-forth as companies tried to decide what an appropriate price was and consumers tried to avoid cash-grabs.
While many gamers have often seen expandalones as a poor value, there actually has arisen an even greater issue in the last few years: the community. You see, back in the day, your “gaming community” was comprised of the kids that sat at the same lunch table. Eventually we all wandered into the World-Wide Web and got cozy, but even the initial gaming websites, chat rooms, and message boards were nothing in comparison to the social environment of today.
Gaming has evolved, and the players are more powerful than ever. Nearly every new release is quick to emphasize their tacked-on “eSports” features. Built in Twitch streaming, ranked leagues, and endless progression towards weapon and skin unlocks are becoming the norm. Whether you appreciate these features or not, the community is now one of the more important aspects to many that would sit on the verge of a purchase decision. Developers are learning that they need to adapt and respond to this demand. This, finally, is what leads me to the basis for this article.
Almost a year ago exactly, Stardock and Oxide Games released Ashes of the Singularity to an RTS-starved, PC gaming market. The title was the first proper release to sport DX12, and it was designed as a throwback to the massive battles seen in games like Planetary Annihilation and Supreme Commander. Suffice it to say, a lot of people were excited about the potential. Regrettably, nothing great ever came of it. Sure, it was fine enough, but it didn’t have the staying power, so it was left to a small group of players that loved it for what it was.
Stardock slowly released additional content – some paid, some free. Eventually, they decided the time had come for a proper expansion to the original release. Instead of DLC, they opted for an expandalone which they called Ascension. They claimed a wealth of new content to explore at a reduced price. There was supposed to be more than enough to justify the purchase, and the fact that the original game wasn’t required meant those new to the series could jump in with only one expense. As always seems to happen, some people actually bought it, too.
Fast-forward to right now: Stardock have come to realize this release was a mistake. What ended up happening was a divide in the community. In column A we had those who bought the original Ashes of the Singularity and still played actively. In Column B were those that had bought Ascension. Unfortunately, there was no way for the two (admittedly small) groups to interact, so the already small playerbase was now smaller still. It only makes sense, of course, but it seems to be a frustrating revelation to the folks behind the game. In response, Stardock has just recently rolled all of the expandalone content from Ascension into the original Ashes of the Singularity product, eliminated the listing for Ascension, and given the entire package to all customers on both sides. Indeed, the team seems openly upset about having to make this concession – which seems a little naive.
The times they are a-changing. Nowadays, many games live and die by their fans. The largest titles in the world – League of Legends, CounterStrike: GO, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, etc. – have proven that creating a social environment where players can make friends and form rivalries is at least as important as making a good game. Products which fracture a group into two – like the expandalone – aren’t long for this world. To me, it’s a win for the consumer; developers just need to play catch up in some cases.
Have you ever purchased a stand-alone expansion? Would you like to see their return? Let us know in the comments below!