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.