Imagine being in the late 90’s. Your game is a hit, perhaps unexpected, perhaps not, but anyway you find yourself wanting to monetize on it. Internet is still budding, DLC isn’t even an acronym yet, and if you tell someone about “microtransaction” they’ll look at you weird. But that doesn’t mean companies didn’t already have a way to make money on a successful game. They were just called expansion packs.
Aside from the obvious chance for a quick sequel, which might have been unfeasible depending on the time available, any developer could just put together a few levels and sell them to the players. Sometimes they could even simply license other people to sell levels for their games! The most curated of these expansions could change a game radically: look no further than Malice for Quake. If they didn’t feel like going through that much trouble, they were usually just level packs with a few different models as a token effort.
But one problem arises: these expansions often weren’t nearly as good as the original game. Not even officially licensed packs were safe from this rule. Reasons are varied: for example, they were often more difficult – the logic being that a player who buys the expansion has already finished the main game and thus wants a bigger challenge. But using Scourge of Armagon (picture above, except that the final boss is the only easy part of the game) as an example, they often went overboard with it. Sure, put me in a room full of Fiends with just a nailgun at my disposal. Perhaps it was an attempt to go back to its Doom roots, but Quake isn’t as well suited for that kind of gameplay.
Another issue is just how gimmicky many of those levels feel. Understandable: if your players have already seen all a game has to offer, you can only surprise them with something new, and everyone will have differing ideas about them. Unfortunately, many of these gimmicks are just that, gimmicks. And adapting the levels around them feels incredibly forced. There is one cool bit in SoA where you have to escape from a spiked wall trap, but that’s just about the only one I can remember: and in 15-something levels, it’s not a lot.
Presumably, people wanted to play more of the game so badly, they were willing to put up with this. And to be fair, among the really bad levels included in the packs, you would sometimes find a gem. It was quite rare though. But without internet, one could only rinse through all of the levels on the disc and hope to at least get their money’s worth of it, and relive some of the magic of the original game. Despite being officially licensed, Scourge of Armagon doesn’t scratch that itch.
I remember even at the time, reading through games magazines, that it got mixed reviews. Still a youngster full of hopes and dreams, I was crushed by this: how could more Quake not be an amazing thing? They must have been biased – maybe they hated Quake to begin with! Despite that, I never picked up the expansions for one reason or another, so I couldn’t see my folly. I do now, all too clearly. I have better hopes for Dissolution of Eternity, but going in with tempered expectations will help.