The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's first expansion being released on multiple platforms as well as Mass Effect 3's first single-player add-on announced, it's been a busy week for the biggest role-playing games in recent months. Yet, my reaction to each piece of news was quite different, despite my similar feelings about both games. Hearing that I could finally play "Dawnguard" on my PC got me excited that there'd be more Skyrim when I got to it, because that was a game about exploring and finding new things. Mass Effect 3's "Leviathan," on the other hand, held no appeal for me. The entire third game was an emotional ending (although not always inspiring good emotions). Maybe I'd get excited doing another quest built into the middle of the game if I ran a new Shepard through all three games, but there's no appeal for me now.
I spent last weekend playing the Dragon Age: Origins expansions, which I'd left on my hard drive for far too long following the completion of the initial game. As I worked on my "Awakening" and pressed through more of Dragon Age's add-ons, the difference in form crystallized in my head. Role-playing games have specific issues to deal with involving add-on content, and by trying a wide variety of different strategies, Dragon Age: Origins demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of those plans.
Give the player more stuff: This is one of the most common add-on strategies, especially when combined with pre-order bonuses. It's also one of the most annoying. A role-playing game is built around the slow development of your characters. This includes their levels, their equipment, and in some games like Dragon Age: Origins, their relationship with other characters.
Selling this development for money or pre-orders ruins that development. Dragon Age: Origins' "Blood Dragon Armor" still has some statistic requirements, so it's not a total cheat, but it's still too much of a shortcut. On the other hand, the "Feastday Gifts" add-on made one of Origins' most important components a breeze for me. Your fellow party members have a relationship statistic, and conversation choices, actions, and gifts can affect that, up to 10 points at a time. The special gifts, on the other hand, improve your relationship by 50 points at once. I ended up totally bypassing the work of building those relationships – arguably the best part of the game – by giving away those Feastday gifts. By the time I'd realized what had happened it was too late; I had reaped the rewards of my good relationships with everyone.
These character-improving items strike me as fundamentally unfair. I'm to the point where I start simply destroying them in games where I can't avoid them. The only thing separating these cool-item add-ons from simply buying new character levels is that they look pretty.
Add New Quests: Two of the Origins add-ons, "Warden's Keep" and "Golems Of Amgarrak," simply give you a new location and new quests to do. "Warden's Keep" is nothing special, but it succeeds in giving you a new location to travel to while playing Origins, a decent challenge, and an expansion of the world. On the other hand, "Golems," which takes place after Origins and can only be accessed from the "Other Campaigns" menu, is a disaster. Detached from the main quest and the main characters, "Golems" has to stand entirely on its own – and it doesn't.
This helped me realize something critical about adding content to RPGs: it has to fit within the game. Dragon Age: Origins is an epic, multiple-character-based RPG. It's not perfect, and not every quest is a model of storytelling, but by building the characters and world over the course several interconnected quests, under the aegis of saving the kingdom, each quest can feel bigger than it would be on its own. The weaknesses are papered over by the larger context. In "Golems Of Amgarrak," there is no larger context. It stands on its own, without a connection to the troubles of Ferelden, and without the characters who make Dragon Age: Origins so interesting. On its own, the weaknesses are all that's apparent. "Golems" might have been a decent quest had you wandered through it with Morrigan and Shale, as "Warden's Keep" was. Instead, it's a waste of time and money.
Return to changed areas: Returning to old areas for future content is both potentially cheap and effective for developers. Such was the case with "Return To Ostagar" and "Witch Hunt," both of which involved taking the characters to previously-visited areas. "Ostagar" served as an elegy for one of the story's defining events, allowing the player and other game characters to examine the battle and treachery that led to the death of the king. On the other hand, "Witch Hunt" feels cynical; an attempt to make a Morrigan-based story on the cheap.
There are two major differences between these add-ons. "Return To Ostagar," like "Warden's Keep," exists within the context of the main Origins quest. "Witch Hunt" stands alone, making its weaknesses more apparent. More importantly, though, "Ostagar" is the proper size for the scope of its content. Returning to the battlefield, fighting some Darkspawn, and finding what my characters were looking for feels right for the hour or so of content featured in the add-on. "Witch Hunt" instead purports to answer the questions of what happened to Morrigan after the end of Dragon Age: Origins, arguably that game's biggest unresolved question. It's not big enough to answer that, so it feels like a bait-and-switch. It feels like a purposeless cliffhanger.
Expand the characters: The two most successful add-ons, "Leliana's Song" and "The Stone Prisoner," expand the world through its characters. Leliana was one of Dragon Age's least effective characters, so giving her historical depth – via a fairly comfortable "heist movie" form – was entertaining and low-key. If there had to be small, cheap add-ons, "Leliana's Song" was on the right track. "The Stone Prisoner" gave Dragon Age: Origins arguably its best character, Shale, and a quest to match it.
Release a traditional expansion pack: Additional content for role-playing games used to take the form of discrete "Expansion Packs." Ultima VII had "Forge Of Virtue"; Baldur's Gate II had "Throne Of Bhaal." These were fully-fledged extensions of the game world and sometimes main quest, lasting for hours, and even including some overall game engine improvements. In short, these became essential parts of the game experience – Ultima VII's sequel, Serpent Isle, assumed that the player had done the "Forge Of Virtue" quest for the Blackrock Sword.
Dragon Age: Origins had "Awakening," the most audacious piece of the game's add-on puzzle. It's a miniature game on its own. And yes, it's buggy, it's too short given its scope, and its foray into Cronenberg-esque body horror doesn't entirely fit Dragon Age's prior tone. But because it tries to tell a complete story, on its own, utilizing the full capabilities of Dragon Age gameplay, I'm willing to forgive so much more in Awakening than I am in a tiny quest.
Happily, it's starting to feel like RPG developers have learned this lesson. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion kicked off the "DLC era" with its controversial horse armor, but Skyrim is taking a different path, with fewer, large expansions combined with free releases to maintain player interest. As the Dragon Age: Origins experience indicated, this may be the best possible method for RPGs to deal with continued game expansions. Because, after all, role-playing games thrive on scope.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.