(Never)End(ing) Game

end_game**This post is now the winner of the most unnecessary parenthesis in a blog post title award!**

My attention was captivated recently by a trio of posts over at IncGamers, in which the author makes the bold — if not isolated — claim that World of Warcraft is dying, and he knows why.  A very quick summary of his argument: WoW has a great leveling game and a horrible end game, both of which cater to very different types of players (casual vs. hardcore) and the latter being a product of flawed game design that can be traced back to first-generation 3D MMORPGs such as EverQuest.

This isn’t an article that’s out to bash WoW necessarily, but to put a finger on what’s fundamentally wrong with its end game — namely, how it shifts from a casual-friendly leveling scheme to a hardcore grindfest that involves arena, raids or other soul-sucking grinds — and why other MMOs seem to fall flat on their faces when it comes to the end game.

Oh, how I loathe “end game”.  I really and truly do.  I’ve yet to meet a MMO where the end game consisted of activities and progression that was as fun, if not more, than reaching the leveling cap.  Usually it’s a monumental brick wall designed to keep players “working” at exponentially slower progression (gear, mostly), because most gamers are too attached to their characters to give up on them.  They’ve spent gobs of hours and days getting their guy or gal or (shudder) elf up to this point, equipped them in solid gear, and mastered their skills… for what?  Since devs seem unable to make casual content on par to how fast we eat it up, then they begin to devote uneven amounts of time, money and effort in creating highly challenging obstacles that most players simply don’t have the time to overcome.

I hate the end game because, as the author says, it is usually based on the very flawed assumption that if small group dungeons are fun, then massive raids are funner.  They are not. Oh, perhaps to a few of you, they’re a joygasm of heady proportions, but I see them as a big “DO NOT ENTER” sign to a big boy’s club that keeps out the unable, not the unwilling.  Some of us are simply unable to participate, based on the amount of time that raids demand.  Some of us hate feeling like a small fish in a huge crowd, less of a, individual hero and more of one of many ligaments forming a mega-hero that cares only for the whole, not for the one.

WoW’s arena is even worse, a stupid eSports idea shoehorned into a game where people weren’t exactly clamoring for it in the first place.  That’s when I get miffed at MMO developers who lose touch with what makes their games fun to begin with.  So these activities are so important that Blizzard wants me to skip past the genuinely enjoyable leveling content to hit this wall even sooner?

Since these two activities seem to dominate the “end game” of not only WoW, but most current MMOs out there, then it’s crucial that we — the MMO community and MMO developers — keep hammering away at the huge problem of stagnant, exclusive and repulsive end game approaches.   What are our options for the future?  From what we’ve seen both in currentt MMOs and upcoming ones, here are a few of the newer approaches being considered:

Mass Structured PvP

Developers love PvP because it’s player-generated content that is never the same twice, and players love it for the additional challenge of beating a human opponent instead of a computer.  Win-win, right?  Um, sorta.  Many MMOs have fooled around, with varying degrees of success, with instanced PvP areas, and a select few — such as WoW and WAR — have supported mass PvP as an end game activity to be an acceptable substitute to raiding and whatnot.  The problem is that we’ve yet to see a MMO that has made mass PvP into an overly popular activity.  Sure, some folks love it, some do nothing but, but PvP isn’t for everyone — I’d go as far to say that if you were to poll all MMO players right now, participating in PvP would be a solid minority group.  It caters to some, but more are indifferent to it, which makes it a less-than-desirable activity to pour all your end game resources into.

Player-Created Content

If and when this is ever done right and in such a way that overcomes problems such as exploiting and weeding out bad from good stuff, then player-created content  might well be the face of the future.  Gamers have already proven to be ingenious beyond the devs’ wildest dreams when given tools to be creative — they just need to have that creativity channeled in a way that is beneficial and fun to other players instead of crude and game-breaking.

(Alternate) Achievements

If leveling and developing your character is a ton of fun, and wallowing at a standstill in the end game is not, it’s essential to go back, isolate and bring these happy-go-lucky elements into the end game.  Somehow.

Sure, there have been attempts by several MMOs to offer additional ways to advance and develop your character that have nothing to do with raiding for gear — EverQuest’s Alternative Advancement points, LOTRO’s legendary item system, and so on.  But these carry emotional baggage — tears of balancing issues, heavy sighs of pointless grinds, emo poems of… something.

What I’d like to see — and what we seem to be inching towards — is a marriage between the growingly popular “achievement” systems (XBox’s Achievements, LOTRO’s deeds, WoW’s achievements, WAR’s unlocks) and genuine character development.  I feel the idea behind achievements is solid — it uses currently existing content and encourages players to try new things and shoot for certain goals — but all-too-often it’s there just to be either a “high score” for players to compare or offers a small, cosmetic impact on your character.  LOTRO’s deeds and Champions Online’s perks are heading in the right direction, the latter offering a perk “store” where you can actually spend those points you earned on bettering your guy or gal.

Rerolls

The ultimate coup for game designers is when they offer enough incentive — really fun gameplay might be all that’s necessary — for players to willingly “reroll” as a new character and start the journey all over again.  I’d really like to see more MMOs adopt Kingdom of Loathing’s approach, whereupon hitting a certain point in the game, you have the option to continue indefinitely or to “beat the game” and reroll, only with items and certain skills passed down to your new character.

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6 thoughts on “(Never)End(ing) Game

  1. The problem I have with arguments that assume that WoW’s end game is killing it is that the game built up to 11m active subscribers on exactly this model. Despite the disconnect between the leveling game and the max level activities – which have ALWAYS existed – the game has experienced constant growth since release (at least according to the latest figures).

    So the articles you site are basing their entire chain of logic on a fallacy….. the end game that IncGamers purports is killing WoW has never been an impediment for growth, so why would it suddenly and magically become such?

    Now… that’s not to say that the sudden shift of game play isn’t undesirable to players who ENJOY the leveling up process, but as a recent thread on Keen’s site has shown (http://www.keenandgraev.com/?p=2706), there is no particular consensus on whether the level treadmill is a well-loved activity, or a seemingly necessary evil.

    I believe that a truly successful game will offer a wide variety of end game activities to players IN ADDITION TO the option of starting all over if you so desire. Endless leveling should be one option for people who enjoy that schtick, but including all of the things you mentioned (pvp, raids, achievements) plus more (economy/crafting, player politics, etc) is key. There are so many different types of players out there, and a company that offers compelling activities for the largest number of them will generally see the most success. That company may not have the best pvp system, or the best achievement system (etc), but is they have adequate systems in place then they should see success.

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  3. I do agree with your general sentiments, Syp. End-game is not a lot of fun. Sure, raiding is fine at first, but for a lot of folks, running the same content night after night gets repetitive and old.

    Here’s the thing though: WoW’s current raiding setup makes it EASIER to get into raiding than ever before. The devs saw that raiding was extremely difficult to get started on in Vanilla/BC, considering that you had to first spend quite a bit of time gearing up outside raid instances in order to jump into raiding. They sped that up a lot in Wrath, making heroics easier and having the “starter” raid (Naxx) dropping items the same level as heroics, and making raids available as 10/25-mans, rather than 40-mans. So in one aspect, it’s not as big of a roadblock as it used to be. If anything, people are complaining that the end-game is “dying” because it’s too easy and doesn’t offer raiders the same calibre of rewards that it has in the past.

    On the other hand, now gear has become a bigger issue than ever before. People don’t want to “waste time” with folks who aren’t as geared. It’s gotten to the point that a lot of times you have to link the achievement showing that you’ve completed the raid/instance before they’ll invite you. So even though Blizz has removed obstacles, the players have created new ones.

    Here’s the thing though: most of the people I know that ADORE raiding have backgrounds in other types of games, especially FPS’s. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but consider the correlation between WoW growing to 11 million subscribers on the Raiding/Arena model, and how many of those players had never played an MMORPG before WoW. Raiding and Arena are a competitive aspect of the game with the best tangible results (gear). It appeals to the more hardcore and those players are the ones complaining about the “dying” WoW.

    So where does that leave the RPers, the World Explorers, the Immersion Fiends, the (dare I say it) Casuals?

    I think your ideas are good ones. Player-created content, alternate achievements (I love WoW achievements, but right now achievement points aren’t actually used for anything except bragging rights). Rerolls are sort of in place in WoW, with Heirloom Items that are Bind on Account and scale according to level.

    I just can’t help but think that there should be something MORE… something more immersive in the world to do other than killing the same dragon week after week for a chance at an epic helmet.

  4. My preference is obviously different than yours since I am a huge fan of the EQ style endgame but many of your points I can agree with.

    I would not purchase a game that did not include raid content. Of course I don’t see raid content as black and white like many people do these days. There should be raids of different sizes. My guild loves the two and three group raid system. That is large enough to make the challenge feel epic but small enough to stay tightly knit. Raids should also offer easy, regular and hard modes. Absolutely every player should potentially be able to do every raid. Only the reward should differ.

    Even though I’ve long since hung up my gloves when it comes to “competitive raiding” I also think there should be contested mobs for that demographic. A finite resource with a finite reward. Putting a few, hyper difficult dragons out there does not require as much design time as creating an entire hyper difficult raid instance. Is there a real necessity for “trash mobs” before every raid target? I think no.

    Putting contested mobs back in games also adds flavor to the world. You could accidentally run into raid mobs in EQ1 and that was awesome. At least everyone would occasionally see them.

    As it stands I agree that most end games aren’t that stellar. Raids are too exclusive when only the rewards should be. Raids also tend to include unnecessary time and money sinks.

    Despite that, I have to say again, if I hit max level and my only option is to go get achievements on my own to “better” myself I’m not paying the monthly fee. Raids have never been about loot to me (more on this soon on ES). They’re about the social environment and a close group of people over coming a huge challenge.

  5. I really like sandbox end-games. I like being able to experience any part of the game I want at any point, but just become better at doing it as I move through my character’s progression. I loved it in Ultima Online, and I am looking forward to it in Mortal Online. I don’t think that PvP *has* to be a part of that, but it plays a big part in my personal enjoyment of the game.

    I remember loving the leveling in EQ and WoW, and part of my initial burnout came from running the same instances over and over in World of Warcraft.

    I have high hopes that other, future games (TOR in the best of all worlds) will avoid the raiding end-game as the only viable model and actually present a world in which we can live and care about a single character’s progression. I am not the kind of person who really loves alts, so the current MMO model for replayability that WoW propagates is really not my cup of tea.

    Despite all that complaining, I played WoW for four and a half years, and there was a reason. It was fun. I just think I outgrew that kind of fun and finally realized what I actually want in an MMO. Now I just need to find the game that does that for me.

  6. Ferrel, actually that isn’t the case about contested mobs. FFXI has them, they are called HNMs, but in order to keep them rare, they are popped only once per real life day up to once per real life week.

    It’s possible to go without seeing one the entire game unless you actively look for them due to that. HNM guilds camp them and keep track of their timer, and bot them often instantly on pop. They also are nowhere near any area players visit other than to camp them, so no one stumbles upon them usually.

    As for raids, no, they generate so much drama and hassle. Lotting rights and being forced to play your healer instead of your DD are two of the things that make them suck.

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