If WoW players hit endgame after a bunch of hours spent leveling and EVE players hit it after only a few hours of tutorials, as I suggested previously, perhaps we need to pin down just exactly what we mean by “endgame,” anyway.
Discarding EVE’s approach for the moment, the endgame for traditional MMOs like WoW and EverQuest begins when you reach the top of the leveling curve and ends when you either get bored with whatever it is you do after that point or when some expansion occurs that adds new leveling content, new post-leveling content, or both.
Looking back at the D&D that gave rise to MUDs and similar things and thus also to EverQuest, I don’t know that there was an expectation that there was a level cap at all, at least in the same sense of a hard limit beyond which no character could pass. Some characters (demihumans in the original D&D and many later editions) might be hard-capped in this way, but human characters were not, and at least some marginal guidelines were given for advancing to levels above what might be regarded as the “normal” cap.
For example, the Magic-User class in 1st edition AD&D had spell guidelines all the way up to level 29, although most demihuman characters stopped leveling no higher than 11. Published adventures topped out not much higher than that. And although not everyone played that way, the expectation was that it would take a long time spent playing even to reach the “name” level of 9. Years, possibly. In part this was because leveling was slow, but also because of the increased amount of experience you needed as you leveled up. This particular gimmick became the leveling modus operandi for MMOs, but the point is that there wasn’t an expectation that at some point you would have gotten all the levels and stop leveling. Even D&D 3.0/3.5, which only provided 20 levels of play in the core game, explicitly said you could go beyond that, albeit with a slight paradigm shift as you moved from normal levels to “epic” levels.
Granted that MMOs don’t have a human GM to continue to make up new stuff forever, but I don’t see why the “leveling game” needs to end at all, and in fact, while it would be contrary to MMO players’ current expectations, I hear many people say that the leveling game is fun and the endgame is a bore — and I definitely felt that way in WoW. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear to me that during the development of EverQuest, which created this expectation in the first place, that the developers even foresaw players reaching the original level cap of 50 at all, since it took, in principle, thousands of hours to do so, and they had no idea that people were going to sit around jacked into their game for that amount of time.
It seems to me that this idea is worth revisiting in MMOs. A combination of increased experience required to level, gradual power increases at each level, player-driven game elements and procedural generation to keep content fresh ought to keep players busy indefinitely. Or at least it could be arranged so in practice. Getting back to EVE, for example, there is a hard cap, when you get every skill in the game to level 5, although no one has ever reached it. And after some point (exactly when depends on the player and what they want to do in the game) individual skill increases really don’t matter all that much anymore except for bragging rights, and all that’s left is the gameplay.
On the other hand, if you have the kind of scripted content that we see in MMOs these days, you have to have a finite cap, because you have finite developer hours to create that content. And at the end of it you have to put scripted events (such as raids) that you run over and over ad nauseam. Or slightly more dynamic stuff like scenario PvP, but such things tend to be limited.
So. Is this an actual problem? From the boredom that so many express with the endgame grind of WoW, and from the disconnect that new players feel from where all the game’s action is actually happening, I’d suggest it is. And if so, is the problem in the specifics of the types of content that developers of many current MMOs are giving us at the cap or in the fact that there’s a cap at all?