**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.
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.
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.
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.