Unfinished Business

 

A STUDY OF THE EXPANSION PACK

My game of choice and leisure at the moment is 2012’s excellent FTL: Faster Than Light, a highly recommended space ship management simulator that forces the player to constantly make judgment after judgment in managing a spaceship in a galaxy at war, all in a bright, happy, pixelated interface. Of course, 2012 was a long time ago, maybe even years ago, but the game has had life breathed back into it in the form of a recently released expansion pack.

What is an expansion pack, exactly? It’s a release of additional content, not necessarily (though usually) new, that is considered supplemental to the original game release. It is not a new game, but it is not necessarily a part of the old one. It’s taken a variety of strange and controversial forms over the thirty-ish years of its existence. In ancient times they were large add-ons to computer games like Xanadu, often completely standalone and playable without the base game. Later, in an era dominated by a mass-produced console market, expansion pack was spelled without a C, as seen above, and was a genuine piece of hardware designed to alter the capability of a console device. For some games it was a bonus, for others a requirement.

Time has passed, however, and with new technology comes new acronyms. DLC, DownLoadable Content, has become one of the chief characteristics of the modern expansion. Some are large additions to the story, others standalone adventures, but the modern world of gaming now echoes with whining regarding small DLC. New, bold economic strategies hold together much of the increasingly outlandish overhead of creating massive, ambitious games. The idea of small, cosmetic DLC, additional in-game items and characters, and even in-game currencies laundered through cold hard cash make up the idea of “microtransactions,” which allow large games to be made free to play, or even paying games to make additional bundles of money.

Want some modern examples? Pick up your smartphone (I know you’ve got one, you monster) and head on over to the app store. Look under “Games.” Now download some of top rated free ones, and play for about twenty minutes. You’re back? Good. I’m guessing you’ve been propositioned to turn your money into energy points or smurfberries or whatever about thirty times. This is how free games are viable. The cheap among you will resist this with no little bitterness, but the eager, desperate, and downright spendthrift among you will join the cash flow heading to the developers. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.

Yet that’s hardly the whole of the modern era. Large expansions in the old style are still being released. Diablo III, largely a disappointment to the zealous fans of its predecessors, has managed to regain a great deal of prestige from its newest expansion Reaper of Souls, and even though it’s $40, it continues to sell and receive strong reviews. In recent history, games like Civilization V and Don’t Starve have managed to reformat their games with new content that alters the core experience, creating fresh new ideas. As for FTL’s expansion, it’s notable for being a completely free update applied two years after the initial release.

In some cases the expansion is a cash grab, for some it is an attempt to reorganize and try again, and for others, merely an excuse to finish the game they wish they had made weeks, months, or even years prior.

pwasted@synthesis.net