How sad is this… it’s easier to find time to comment at work than while on “vacation”.  Heh.

If there is any concept related to MMOs that I despise more, I don’t know what it would be.  (There are quite a few things that come close, tho, admittedly.)

The “end game”.  A kludged convention of convenience used to putty over a gaping hole in the typical MMORPG design… and usually pretty poorly, at that.

Let’s just start with a few basics.

1) There is not a single company operating such a service anywhere on the planet that actually wants the player to stop paying… I mean, playing.  Having an “end game” kinda implies an “end” to play, right?  (Yes, I do realize that, in terms of current implementation, the end game is actually a desperate attempt to prevent an end to play…)

2) If the “end game” is drastically different than the “regular game”, three questions come to mind.

  • First, why did the developer want to go and spend the money to make two games, instead of just one?
  • Second, was it really necessary to make the players who want to play this “end game” slog through a game they possibly/probably didn’t want to play (the “regular game”) to get to it?
  • Third, if a player actually likes the “regular game”, are they really going to want to stop playing it at some arbitrary point, and play a different one instead?

3) If the “end game” is not drastically different from the “regular game”… well, it’s not really an “end game” at all then, is it?

(more loony raving after the jump)

What the end game “solves”

So, why do most current MMORPGs have an end game?  Simple.  Because a core aspect of their design needs an end.

The regular game in most MMORPGs revolves around “advancement”, an artifact of the de facto definition of computer RPGs.  (Clarification: in the original pen-and-paper RPGs, character advancement was one of several features of the gameplay, not the core feature of it.)  RPGs in the computer gaming realm focus on building up a character, becoming more and more capable and powerful as the result of the activities undertaken in the game. 

There comes a point when that advancement simply must be stopped… allowing it to continue would make the character so much more powerful than any of the challenges already developed that there would effectively be no game.  The character could defeat any or all of the existing challenges without even trying, potentially even by simply standing there in certain systems (for example, in the realm of combat, imagine an ever-more-powerful damage aura combined with an ever-more-unhittable defense rating, or perhaps an ever-more-damaging automated “counter-attack” ability coupled with ever-more-utterly-impenetrable armor.)

The end game concept “solves” this issue by placing caps on such advancement, and introducing an alternative style of play largely tuned to the level of power those caps represent.  Typical examples of this have been the “raiding” game and the PvP/RvR game. 

In the raiding game, a game of social organization and strictly synchronized activity is offered as an alternative to the advancement game.  Success is based primarily on an ability to form a group capable of performing strictly defined roles at precise moments in time.  Systemic rewards are small, randomly offered boosts of power via “epic gear” or a similar mechanic, but these are largely offered simply to provide enticements and/or excuses for players to undertake the task in the first place.  The primary rewards for the activity are actually in the generation of a reputation for competence with other players, and the satisfaction of a difficult challenge met and overcome.

In the PvP/RvR end game, the challenge and excitement of facing other players as opponents is offered as a replacement for the advancement game.  Success is based on an ability to guess an opponent’s tactics and respond to them more effectively than that opponent can do in return.  Often, small group tactics and even minor strategic considerations can come into play as well.  Rewards are very similar to the raiding game: minor random systemic rewards as an enticement, with the significant rewards coming from reputation amongst other players and the satisfaction of meeting difficult challenges.

Note that neither of these types of play would necessarily have to wait for an “end game” to be viable.  And to be fair, some MMOs have started to offer these styles of activity as alternative activities in the mid and late stages of the advancement game in a limited fashion.  The particulars of the current prototypical advancement game often get in the way, however, requiring strict limitations on who can participate and so on.

The problem (as I see it)

There are actually several aspects that all conspire to create the problem here.  Most of them are artifacts of the original D+D system that inspired the genre, and have never been re-evaluated in the fresh light and different set of challenges of the MMORPG concept.  (DDO provided an objective example of some of the ways the pen-and-paper ruleset can fall a little short in direct translation to the realm of the MMO, although it’s biggest issue was unrelated, admittedly.)

At heart, however, the biggest part of the problem is simply a matter of scale.  In typical-MMO-clone-2475, a first level character has 20 hit points.  A 50th level character has 5000.  A first level character has a +0% to hit.  A 50th level character has +500% or more.  The first level character has stats in the low double digits; a 50th level character has stats in the high triple digits.  And so on, and so on, and so on.

Players have now been trained to expect massive improvement on a virtual host of abilities and resistances with each level they obtain… in addition to new abilities and additional opportunities (for example, equipment that is only usable above a certain level).  And thus, even ridiculously powerful challenges quickly become simple and straightforward… with a couple extra levels under the belt.

It’s not just class-level systems, either.  Skill-based systems can easily suffer the exact same fate, although if they are properly defined, they can extend the effective lifespan of the regular game significantly by providing more than one avenue of advancement to be conquered.  Class/level systems can and do achieve a similar effect through alternative advancement models like AAs, Realm points, epic equipment, and so on. 

Some games also extend the lifespan of the advancement style of play by offering multiple paths of advancement, as opposed to only the combat-focused vanilla class/level/XP model.  Vanguard’s crafting and diplomacy systems are somewhat of this flavor.  Horizons’ original crafting model (it’s been a while, may have changed), with a completely separate class/level system for crafting vs. combat, was a better example.  Skill systems should more naturally accommodate this, but it still requires that supportive gameplay options be implemented.

Solutions?

Typically, there are two alternatives that present themselves.  One is to simply largely eliminate, or at least reduce, “advancement” as an element of play.  “Skill-based” gameplay, for example, whether that skill be reflex-based (i.e. “twitch”), or more cerebral (puzzle solving, for example), are examples of this.  There is no obvious need for a second “end-game” under such a paradigm.

The other option acknowledges that “advancement play” is an enjoyable style of play in and of itself, and seeks ways to instead achieve results that still provide the desired reward structure, but in ways such that the typical range of challenges remain challenging across a far long period of time.    There are precious few examples of such a philosophy, although the “end games” of certain long-running games like EQ and DAoC offers hints at some possible alternatives here.  (Some of the lessons of DDO apply here as well, I should add.)

My question for the audience at large: are there other possibilities?  Also, does anyone else have an issue with the “end game” contrivance, or is that just me?

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