Endgame: Where MMOs Go to Die

Every MMO has an endgame. The pundits don’t tell us that, but it’s often assumed to be true without consideration of the alternatives. When we start talking about declining interest in virtual worlds, there are a lot of assumptions being made based on the overwhelmingly dominant model that comes out of DIKU and EverQuest and World of Warcraft. The whole idea of an endgame, endemic to these games and their many inbred cousins, is a result of a shortsighted design methodology, and it’s harmful to the genre we love.

Linear, programmed content is, by definition, finite. When we rely on developers to create the content for us, we will eventually, inevitably run out, no matter how content-rich those paths appear to be at first glance. Once the wall at the end is reached, developers at least understand that there has to be something to do – so we get slow-grind activities with artificial caps like daily quests or crafting with combine limits. It’s either that or nothing, right? Nothing to do means that players will leave, so the dominant model has crumbs that we get to pick over once we’ve finished all of the more interesting gameplay that’s harder to design.

The problem with this is transparent; players will always, always work through programmed content faster than developers can push it out. Some players will take longer to devour content than others, but even the most torpid are faster than the devs. Content consumption is fun and relatively fast; creating content is slow and painstaking. Making programmed content the centerpiece of the game gives players the false expectation that what the game is really about is experiencing the clever things that developers have lovingly designed for us. Once we’re out of it, there’s only the crumbs left, and maybe the fun of filling in the corners by going back to have a look at anything we may have missed. The amount of content available isn’t even important; the fault lies in excluding creative and emergent avenues of gameplay while the intended gameplay is limited, because developer resources are finite as well.

This doesn’t make developers “bad at what they do.” If what they do is create great content, then there are plenty of examples of fantastic gameplay available in dozens of different finite-content titles. Star Wars: The Old Republic will (it seems likely to me) set the bar for the largest amount of terrific but linear gameplay, at least at launch. Even the best stuff, though, can only be played through so many times before it gets stale. Once they’ve done it all and want to see something new, what do they have? A waiting game while Blizzard or SOE or Bioware frantically tries to get the next batch finished, and some grind that not much development effort goes into, and that’s not nearly as much fun, to keep them busy in the meantime.

I’m going to make the non-intuitive leap and say that grind can be fun in itself, but when the idea is that the “real” content is the hand-crafted stuff and the game isn’t about the crumbs, the grind results in mass boredom and players leaving. More players leaving than coming in results in, at best, zero growth, and more probably in a dwindling player base, which gets worse as time goes on. Because this kind of gameplay seems to always be designed as a ladder, new players find themselves farther and farther behind when they start, which is a disincentive to start in the first place. And the problem is aggravated when the expected gameplay path is designed to be moved through quickly, as most studios are doing right now, again following the WoW model.

The alternative is of course non-linear gameplay, and the best-known examples can be found in EVE Online. EVE has tutorials and missions, but by and large “content” in the conventional sense occupies only a tiny corner of the virtual space. Gameplay is instead created by players interacting with the environment (mining, exploration and planetary interaction) the economy (trading, manufacturing and invention) and other players (piracy, PvP and the whole corp scene.) A lot of this could be called “grind” but EVE players aren’t set up with the expectation that gameplay is something that developers give them. And where’s the endgame?

If you want to make the case, as many do, that EVE’s endgame is nullsec and PvP, then a newbie wet behind the ears can be out there tackling and shooting in a week or two. You might say that EVE doesn’t give rookies enough guidance to know this without help from other players, and there’s something to that, but the point is that it’s the player who decides when they’re going to change the way they play and make the jump into what passes for “endgame” – and some never do, content to mine and run missions and manufacture in Empire. If you think that nullsec isn’t the endgame, then this logic becomes even stronger – then there isn’t an endgame, and 0.0 is just one of a number of avenues to try out and explore.

The EVE method is far from perfect; as has been pointed out by many, it’s not especially noob-friendly and the learning curve is famously steep, and CCP errs on the side of permissiveness when it comes to player actions that would be considered griefing elsewhere. This, the repetitiveness of some of the gameplay and PvE combat that’s often somewhat dull sours some people on the game, but, and here’s the important thing – those folks are in and out and don’t affect the long-term numbers much either way. The players who stay do so because they feel far less limited in EVE’s open environment than they do blasting through the linear progression of a WoW or an EverQuest. And EVE, unlike almost all other virtual worlds, has continued to grow.

At some point in MMO development history – and I blame EQ for this more than WoW – the existence of an endgame became something that was somehow understood to be inevitable, despite examples that it needn’t be so. It’s not inevitable – it’s a trap that studios are lured into because they lust after a slice of WoW’s big-money pie. Endgame means exactly what it says: when you reach it the game ends, and anything beyond the wall is just denouement while you wait for more game to arrive. It’s a corner that developers are directed to paint their game into from the start, and as long as the market expectation is that to make a virtual world you need $100+ million and a simulacrum of the genre’s most popular game, this will continue to be so.

6 responses to “Endgame: Where MMOs Go to Die

  1. A short addendum: I hate “series posts” – the kind I have to number as part 1, part 2 and so on, because the posts will typically end before I’m finished. So I haven’t presented the last couple as such, but as disconnected articles that can stand alone. Nevertheless, and I mentioned this yesterday in the comments, there is a narrative thread winding between them, and this one represents the end of the first “arc.”

  2. A fair summary. I don’t think it’s particularly the nature of the end-game that causes problems so much as its mere existence.

    Developers frequently point out that the great majority of players never even reach the level-cap, much less complete all the available content. I just don’t think it’s true that “even the most torpid are faster than the devs”. I have been in several guilds in various MMOs where guildmates played pretty regularly, let’s say 20+ hours a week, for many months and never even got half-way to the level cap.

    Those people ended up leaving for all kinds of reasons but I never heard one of them claim it was because there wasn’t enough new content. I have heard a few people give their reasons for leaving as being the overwhelming amount of content, however, and their despair at ever getting through it all.

    For this kind of player, and they tend to be the ones I play with in-game, the end-game is like the after life. They may have heard it exists but they don’t really believe in it and anyway they are far more interested in the life they’re actually living to give it much thought.

    For a very vocal group of players, however, the end-game is more like the carrot on the stick over the donkey’s head. They want it, they have to have it, but no matter how hard they run after it, it never seems to get any closer. They start talking about it in the tutorial. “Is this game any good? What’s the end-game like?” They try to burn their way through content to get to it as though they were clearing waste ground with a flamethrower. “Where’s the best place to do 10 to 14?” “Any PL groups going?”.

    By the time they get within sight of the end-game they are already jaded, bored, fed up. They feel tricked. They’ve wasted weeks doing stuff they didn’t enjoy to get to the good part and now they don’t think the good part is going to be much good anyway.

    I don’t think for a second that these folks would be happier with a more sandboxy game. They’d hate that even more. Whereas the quieter, pottering players in the guilds I join would probably enjoy a sandbox very much. Only sandboxes all seem to come with PvP and PvP is an anathema to them.

    I think that a pure PvE sandbox with AAA build quality and polish could be very successful. At least as successful as EVE or Rift. No-one seems to want to make one, though. In the meantime, the players who would play such a game are making do with all that vast amount of sub-end-game content in theme park MMOs instead, knowing that they’ll never get to the end of it.

  3. @bhagpuss I think that part of the reason that the vocal group that reaches the level cap draws resources may also stem from their tendency to be the group that unsubscribes till the next expansion if not kept busy. Those who haven’t reached level cap are more likely to either keep subscribing as they toodle happily along or leave for good. But the unsubscribe when the content runs out group can be a sort of double-blind Pavlov’s dog.

    Add new content, and they immediately come back. Which in turn provides numbers that say the playerbase grew when the new expansion came out. Which provokes more similar expansions.

    I think the thing about the endgame crowd is that their main drive is to WIN (insert Charlie Sheen joke here). MMOs by their nature are games that cannot be won, because they’re not supposed to have a finish line in a persistent world. So the level cap becomes a defacto finish line for the people who want to WIN the game. In a sandbox, these types tend to gravitate towards PVP, because they can WIN by beating other people.

    Back in my MUSH days, two games I was on had very good hybrids. Both sci-fi games. Like EVE, there were safe areas for the social/merchant players and multiple PVP-oriented areas where the social/merchant types could still go whenever they liked, but knew the risk they took doing so. And both games made the exact same mistake that severely damaged their game: there came a moment that they bowed to the combat-oriented’ folks need to feel like they were winning rather than just stuck in endless border skirmishes, and allowed an attack on and ultimately destruction of the space stations that were the central social hubs. Which made all the social players feel that nowhere was safe anymore and the admin didn’t value them like they did the combat players and a number of them left. Which highlights two problems of the PVP sandbox that tries to let players affect the world: 1) You have to put an artificial limit that keeps either side from overrunning the safe zones of the other, leaving endless wars that can never truly be won. 2) The risk of one side becoming overwhelmingly strong, resulting in no one wanting to play the other side, resulting in no one to fight.

    FPS games overcome that second problem by server rules that switch people to the other side to balance the numbers, or in a few cases fill in gaps on one side with bots. The latter is the only option that would work in a game that wants players to invest in their characters, though.

  4. Excellent post. I’ve always had this idea that the best end game is no end game at all. Eve is a great example, and you make all the valid points. For me, the journey has always been more fun than the destination when it comes to mmo’s. Put a Haunted Forest or whatever on a map and I’m gonna go there. I don’t even want to know beforehand what awaits me… I just want the sense of adventure. I want the unexpected, but that’s usually hard to come by these days. Devs are scared to take new steps. To go in different directions. I would love to see a game do away with experience points and levels, ala Eve… but even so, to keep the content fresh and dynamic requires letting the playerbase create the real stories. As you said, devs can’t create content at the same speed that players run through it. I say, create games with less borders and watch how imaginative the players can be.

  5. The problem isn’t so much lack of content or any particular player running out; it’s that in a game where all progress is linear, the player lacks the ability to set their own goals outside of paths pre-defined by devs who get to decide what avenues of advancement are appropriate.

    For example, I’m currently playing LotRO, which is both about as straightforward a themepark as you’ll find and at the same time about as varied in terms of available in-game activities as themeparks get. It’s a great game but it’s mercilessly linear. I have the ability to set little fun goals for myself (the current one has been “get to Moria” for quite a while,) but you’re always working within the narrow limits that the game has set for you. In this environment the content is inevitably going to get stale.

  6. I’ve known very few people that have actually played all the content and then left the game. Most everyone has quit because ‘everyone says the game is dying’ – left to play ‘the newest game’ – left because friends left to play something else – left for real life reasons – or got tired of the way the devs were treating the game and players (which is most often why I leave a game). Subscription games have a fatal flaw, always needing to keep people from leaving, where even a small problem can end up seeing a mass exodus of players, most never to return. The Guild Wars model (boxed game and expansions, with minor cash shop) allows people to take a break from the game and come back any time. Once I quit a game I’m very unlikely to return, for a whole host of reasons, yet I always go back to GW. Freemium and F2P games also have this option, gambling on making enough from the cash shop instead of upfront box sales. But all types of these games need to have a variety of things to do, while releasing new features and content at a reasonable rate, if just to give players the perception that the game isn’t dead or dying; it is even more important for a subscription game to do this. The real problem is the players and their expectations. 🙂