I’ve spent 3 days doing little but playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, last year’s follow-up to Assassin’s Creed II. The game is absolutely brimming with content: a myriad of quests, collectables and achievements to drive the player to the next icon on their map. In the last few years the RPG has become ubiquitous, not in its original form but in its character progression systems, which have infiltrated everything from first-person-shooters to racing games. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood offers what may be the best implementation of this I’ve seen so far; it constantly rewards your progress without ever demanding grinding (unlike the first incarnation of the series, which forced you to do numerous repetitive side-quests to proceed). I’ve logged a good 25 hours in the game, and there’s been nary a dull moment. It is, by most measures, an excellent value for the money, at least relative to other $60 games.*
On the other hand, it’s a $60 expansion pack. There are many tweaks and additions to the Assassin’s Creed formula, but no significant changes. The game uses the same engine, the same animations, and the same combat system as Assassin’s Creed 2. The platforming is identical. Even the setting is similar – Rome instead of Venice and Florence, but Renaissance Italy all the same. The game’s narrative (both within Italy and in the modern-day frame story) makes little progress towards a resolution. There is a huge amount of content in the game, polished to a sheen, but there is nothing startlingly new. This contradiction in value lies at the heart of what we’ll call the “new expansion.”
Expansion packs were plentiful in ‘90s PC gaming, particularly in action and strategy games. The best expansions packs were a win for both the consumer and the developer. The developer got to reuse the same tools, engine, and basic game design, significantly reducing cost: the consumer got a game that was cheaper than a full retail release ($20-$30 compared to retail’s $40), was released relatively quickly, and gave them more of what they already loved. They also spurred sale of the original game, which was required for play.
Changing market forces around the turn of the century lead to a reduction in expansions. Expansion packs weren’t possible on consoles, since they tended to install to and modify the existing game files; no game install, no expansions. The increasing focus on consoles meant that expansion packs were less profitable. In addition, expansions could only be sold to those who owned the original product; this limited the potential buyer, and as such “stand-alone expansions” such as 2000’s Homeworld: Cataclysm started to replace the traditional expansion. This was the first step in the development of the “new expansion.”
Eventually, a few companies tried selling what were essentially expansions as full price titles. 2004’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow was a full retail release, but added essentially no new features outside of its multiplayer mode; the single-player campaign consisted of seven new missions, and would in previous years have been released as a “mission pack.” Yet it sold well enough to justify the full retail release and encourage Ubisoft to start annual releases of its star franchises, which it promptly continued to do with Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia.
It’s simply not possible to make a full-fledged sequel in a year using a modern game engine. The obvious solution is to have different development teams, but it would require and extraordinary amount of work for them to properly follow each other; every time one time made a change the other would need to factor it into their design, leading to exponential feature creep. And so studios started producing annual new expansions with the occasional full-fledged sequel; this has been the Call of Duty model for many years, with Treyarch developing the expansions and Infinity Ward the numbered titles.
But again, they cost the same amount. Why would I pay the same amount for a game with new features as I would for one without them? The only good answers are “impatience” (I want a new game NOW) and devotion; I love the series so much that I’ll take anything I can get. But, all other things being equal, the new expansion is always the worse value for the money.
But, of course, we have sales. Had I paid $60 for Brotherhood I would have been embittered; but for $20 it was a steal, and functioned as one of the best old-style expansion packs I’ve ever played.
And hey – it’s still more bang-for-the-buck than DLC!
*I actually only played $20 for it on the Steam Summer Sale; being a cheapskate I wouldn’t have paid $60. But we’ll talk about the MSRP for the sake of comparison to other AAA titles.