One of the most criticized and praised elements in more recent “themepark” MMORPGs is the concept of “endgame.” A themepark MMO is a static world that remains largely unaffected by player actions. It can be described as a backdrop where players are “led” through quests (with many pointers and hints making it difficult to fail at the task.) Players critical of themeparks joke about games being “on rails” like a rollercoaster ride at a themepark. Eventually—the time varies depending how frequently the person plays—the character completes most of the quests and reaches “max level” or “level cap,” and endgame. This is simplified, of course; there are often additional ways to reach max-level besides questing, including player-vs-player (PVP) battlegrounds, crafting, and instanced dungeons.
For many players, endgame is where the game truly starts—themepark MMORPGs often place “epic” high-level, challenging instances called raids in this part of the game; these are essentially large, instanced dungeons or zones containing the most difficult challenges and monsters in the game, requiring large groups to complete (10-, 25-, and 40-man raids are typical sizes). Raids tend to reward players who succeed with the highest level gear—equipment, weapons and such, and often some sort of elite recognition. Many of the guilds that form within an MMO are focused on running raids.
Players who like raiding tend to be committed gamers, and describe this content as epic, and the only part of the game that truly challenges them. They work to be the best-of-the-best, and want to be known for their achievements. Detractors call endgame (and themeparks) the bane of the MMORPG industry, pointing to endgame as the reason why gamers rush through the actual questing (often a very large part) of the game, and then complain there’s not enough to do at the end. The other criticism of endgame is that it tends to lead to what is called a “gear grind treadmill,” where more difficult raids result in the creation of a new set of epic gear, necessitating creating more, higher levels of progression and gear, starting the cycle all over again.
There are some dynamics at work here:
- Committed raiders tend to want to play epic, difficult player-vs environment (PVE) content. Their numbers are a smaller, but they are very vocal and potentially a very loyal part of the gaming demographic.
- Casual players tend to prefer to “the journey” and are there to explore the world and experience the game’s story. They are typically the largest part of the demographic, but have the least time to commit to the game. They can also play for extended periods as long as there is enough new content and story, but can also be “game hoppers” when they have finished the story.
- Ultima Online, one of the first MMORPGs, focused more on sandbox- and PVP-style play; players of those earlier games tend to prefer open world systems for crafting, economy housing, and adventure creation. Using these systems, players shape the world in addition to the developers. Sandbox players often find themselves crying in the wilderness in today’s themepark-heavy market.
- These play styles are very different, and often lead to religious or political wars, as each side points to their style as the One True Way.
- The leveling and gear progression concept itself promotes the idea of “elite” players, who believe themselves the “best of the best.” They can point to the level number, or the gear, or the achievement, and make that claim.
- World of Warcraft is a raid-heavy, leveling game, and has the largest number of subscribers (over 10 million), so many players come to new games expecting the same type endgame raiding.
Reconciling the Clans
Themeparks, Raiding, Leveling, and Endgame are all closely tied. But looking closely at what motivates each of these groups is where the game designer’s answer and challenge lies. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be an “elite player,” or with wanting the symbols of achievement. There is nothing wrong with the player who wants to enjoy the journey and principle story. There is nothing wrong with a player who prefers PVP, or who wants an open economy and the ability to shape the world. The problem in most current MMORPGs is that they have chosen one over the other.
But reconciling all these motivators is not easy. You can see various games attempting to make strides in certain directions, but not able to bring them all together into a single game. Neverwinter is working on The Forge, which is a set of tools for players to create their own scenarios and adventures, but is still chained to a themepark setting. The Secret World has introduced a level of critical thinking to their questing that has been long neglected, but also has the limitations of questing replayability that come with any themepark (Star Wars: Tales of the Old Republic has similar troubles.) Guild Wars 2 has created larger scale, open PVP and dynamic events, personal story and “no endgame,” but suffers from lacking the epic content raiders seek. EVE Online and Darkfall have created systems that allow players to manage their own economy, and encounters, but suffers from some lack of direction in overall story.
Sony Online Entertainment has just announced possibly the most ambitious sandbox MMORPG in recent history with EverQuest Next, promising the most fully-featured, open world game yet. The interesting part of an interview with SOE President John Smedley is his recognition that a themepark, by definition, will quickly run out of content as players reach level cap and the end of the ride. For the developer, it becomes necessary to quickly create endgame content to satisfy the people who play through quickly. And that means raiding, which quickly divides the population of players. Consequently, the game loses players and the game’s life is shortened.
So what are some things a game like EQNext or any other game do to satisfy all these play styles? A few ideas:
- Build a living, breathing world that can be affected – give us weather, animal and monster migratory patterns, player economies, usable/craftable objects materials, land that can be settled. The Elder Scrolls Online seems to headed in the right direction here.
- Build an event system into the world—these things happen perhaps in an area where players are congregated, and give players the option to participate. Guild Wars 2 is on the right track here, but more variety and thought is needed to make these events more compelling (see The Secret World). Events need to have permanent impact—hurricane Sandy shows us what kinds of things an event can do to our surroundings.
- Allow opt-in, open world PVP, but build a true prevention, enforcement and punishment system for gankers and griefers
- Continue to provide meaningful, thoughtful story quests, dungeons and epic challenges that require more than just kill and fetch 10 rats. Make us think and use the world around us. The Secret World is doing this right.
- Give players the tools to build their own quests, dungeons and raids, and tools for players to rate that content so that the best floats to the top. Neverwinter is doing this right.
- Use a skill-based, horizontal progression system rather than a level-based, gear grind system. Give us a huge pool of options and gear to buy, but let players find their own right combination of skills and gear. Place an upper limit on the most powerful gear in the game, but provide lots of it—variety of abilities and gear should be the progression for players who play for the epicness. The Secret World’s ability wheel is worth taking a look at here, but there are other ways to make players feel their character is progressing than by level and gear.
- Provide other rewards for succeeding with epic content besides higher level gear—guild bonuses, unique cosmetic items, achievement badges
- Introduce epic content at all levels of the game—challenge is challenge; you shouldn’t have to wait to reach level cap to get to it. World of Warcraft has possibly perfected the raid as far as interesting challenge goes. Remove the gear grind, and build these epic challenges so they can happen throughout the game.
The rise of themeparks has not been a waste of time. We’ve learned many things about creating epic challenge in game, about the need for a compelling backdrop, and about the need for direction, progression and story in game. But we’re reaching a point where many players have become disenchanted with the level and endgame grind. And developers are learning that questing-centric progression cannot sustain a game long-term—they simply cannot keep up with the speed at which players play through the content. Without building in costly endgame raiding for a smaller percentage of the population, we need to find another way. Here’s wishing the best to EQNext and the other games rising to the challenge.