So as most of you now, we're currently in the last miles of our next, more than long overdue, UO expansion. I'm not going to discuss the details of that specific expansion here, but I wanted to share my thoughts about expansions in general and my issues with them; namely the fact that they make old content obsolete and raise even higher the barrier to entry for new players.
One of my biggest problem with expansions is that they usually rhyme with new lands and dungeons. How is that bad? Because new expansion doesn't mean new players. While they tend to bring a certain amount of new players, they're usually aimed towards player retention, so your currently bored players have something new to chew on. The influx of new players isn't significant enough to offset the exodus of existing players into the new areas.
In a game like UO, it just means that perfectly good systems are going to waste. The impact on our players is fairly minimal. But in a level-based game like WoW though, it's a different story. Looking at their latest expansion (which had quite a few really good things in it), I couldn't help but sigh. Another skill cap increase, meaning a noobie will have 80 levels to grind through before they can start playing with high level friends. New uber epic gear for level 80s to strive for, meaning once noobie manages level 80, his gear will still be too weaksauce to play with his friends in the cool instances. Even though they reshuffled the points required so that it takes you the same amount of time to reach 80 as it would have taken to reach 70 before the expansion, there are less people around to help you level or do those low level instances because everyone is in the new lands. So noobie is once again SOL.
Then look at resources and crafting materials. All the new cool recipes involve new mats that drop only on the new mobs. Why ever bother with old mobs then, especially since the old recipes using the old mats are trash compared to the new ones? Granted, they have the whole Achievements system put in, which seems to be all the rage these days with every game (I'll make a blog entry specifically about that at some point). But that only makes you go back once then never again.
I took WoW as an example because most people know it or of it and it covers the majority of the issues I find with expansions. But UO has had many of the same issues through its various expansion. I'm not against adding new lands. I just find that generally it's not done in the most efficient way. You shouldn't sabotage your own previous designs by making it useless or obsolete. I don't think the size of the playground matters as much as the quality and the number of the things you can do in it. I don't believe in having perfectly fine game systems just go to waste because we're pushing players towards the new shinies.
If an old system has become a little stale, give it a bit of a face lift. Even if you create new areas, mobs and resources, you should tie them to the old lands. Your new uber recipe should use mats from both worlds. You don't need to create an entire new dungeon with mostly useless critters just to have a new epic encounter. You could simply add cool new features to an existing dungeon that will grant you access to a new boss, and only create a new area in that dungeon for the boss' lair.
Instead of spending months/years building new regions so old ones can be abandoned, I would rather see all that time devoted to making new art assets and new badass creatures. As a player who just bought an expansion, when I receive the new "sword of ultimate pwnage", I want to see a wicked cool sword with awesome effects. Not the same old, rehued rename lame sword I've been using the past 5 years. Having a sexy looking new world populated with the same tired renamed/rehued creatures with a bit more stats is quite the turn off.
I was discussing this with a friend who said he wants new lands with an expansion because he gets tired of seeing the old places. My response to him was that if he's having fun, he won't care whether the land is old or new. Players aren't a grasshoppers swarm that needs to move from region to region once all sustenance has been drained out of it. It is our job as designers to make sure food doesn't run out in any given region. Period.
In my humble opinion, expansions should be about optimizing existing content and adding more content that will enhance player's experience. Not creating new areas to be cannibalized.