Massively Overthinking: How could MMOs combat endgame rushing?

spooky, kinda

Rushers, content locusts, world-firsters: Whatever you want to call them, these folks are both a boon and a bane for MMORPGs. They buy the boxes, drive the hype, bring people to Twitch to watch them speed through a game that was meant to take them months to stroll along. They also generate lag, forum whining, and mass exoduses at a predictable point when the content they’ve zoomed through runs out and they remember they aren’t really endgamers. But the thing is, I hardly blame them, especially when MMOs are literally handing out accolades and achievement points for being first at everything. First guy to climb this random mountain and use the sneeze emote, achievement unlocked!

For today’s Massively Overthinking, I want to tackle this problem from the development perspective. We can’t actually change people’s desire to rush, nor should we necessarily want to. But we can stop making it so dang lucrative. How could MMOs combat endgame rushing? What, specifically, should designers home in on to keep people from charging through and quitting?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I know everyone hates hearing this, but one simple solution for lazy developers is simply time-gate content, like Blizzard has in its raid scene. When a new MMO launches and still relies on levels instead of horizontal progression, keep the playerbase at a decent pace while you prepare content. Horizontal progression? Keep XP/gems/whatever you use to a weekly hardcap.

Now, as a player, I hate this, but it works. What’s especially effective is that if you keep this at a decent pace, it makes people want to keep coming back, but also take time off. That’s good because not only does that help stop people from basically gorging on content until they OD, but it also usually means that hardcores explore a broader amount of the game instead of deeper. That allows power players to better understand other roles, increasing the chance that they can impart knowledge on less experienced players who may main that role. Yes, there are power players who just gonna assume everyone is like them and has unlimited time and brain capacity, but there’s little to do to help those people. It’s best to try to curb their habits rather than smash them outright.

Of course, we could also go with permadeath for endgame content while everyone else catches up. Perhaps make it so that after a certain level or doing certain content before a specified time, players get a limited amount of deaths before their character is lost. Naturally, there should be a warning so people know what they’re in for. This still allows the hardcores to have their fun, but it encourages careful gameplay rather than mindless grinding. Nothing wrong with the latter, but if you know that hitting level 30 means your character can only die three times this week, you might instead go grind an alt. Plus, let’s be honest, permadeath can be fun from an outside view. Hearing about how power players lost their awesome main and seeing the reroll blast past you, a mid-level casual, can be kind of fun. Like spotting celebrities in downtown Los Angeles (you know who you are and WOW, thank you for reading our blog!).

Andy McAdams: In typical “easy to say, hard to implement,” style, I say focus less on the end and more on the journey. Its not necessarily an easy thing to do. The US is culturally wired to say “F*ck all” to the journey and rush straight to the end goal as quickly as possible. But we know it can be done and that it can be sticky gameplay. That’s why games like Star Wars Galaxies, Anarchy Online, EverQuest II, City of Heroes, Guild Wars, RuneScape, EVE Online are all still alive… ish. None of those games places any great emphasis on the max level.

I think generating sticky experiences where the majority of the game is the comes down to meaningful play in the midlevels. If the middle 7/8ths of your game is filled with fluff and tasks and gear that will be completely invalidated when you level up 5 minutes from now – of course people are going to rush to where it feels like the items they work hard for aren’t completely useless 10 minutes after you get them.

Another option is meaningful horizontal progression. Guild Wars 2 does this alright, but there’s miles of improvement to be made. The alternate advancement system in EQII does OK. But why are these systems, which are passable at best, the only options? Think about the promise that the Path system had in Wildstar — that was completely hamstrung by hard pivot to the hardcore cupcake-endgame-is-all-that-matters mentality that ultimately killed the game.

Organic play/procedural generation – why exactly is it that only NPCs give quests or tasks? Why can’t I have a task board where I task an adventurer with killing a mob, looting a dungeon, tracking down an item, delivering a package, finding someone?

I feel like a broken record, though. Developers continue to try to cater to the content locust swarm, instead of trying to come up with ways to make sure the swarm never forms to begin with.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I realize I’m the one who asked this question, but I’m also going to admit that from my perspective, this question is sort of asking how to take the blue out of the color blue. I think devs can bandaid this, sure, but rushing is baked into themepark design, so watching devs apply bandages to the wound without actually cleaning it out first is frustrating.

I’m a sandbox person. This type of achievement-oriented “gameplay” is not what I am looking for in MMOs, so I don’t personally care about it. However, I also like having lots of different kinds of people and playstyles in my games, so I don’t mind when it’s included for the people who really do want to climb every mountain – I want to play with them too. But themepark devs can’t help themselves, and every endgame eventually becomes laser-focused on climbing every mountain and then just adding more and more mountains for mountain-climbers, and that’s when the game stops being a game and starts being a treadmill, and I’m out.

I don’t think there will ever be a way for themeparks to fully solve this problem because endgames and rushing are literally what defines that subgenre. The only way to include achiever content without ruining the game is to include it alongside a whole bunch of other types of content and never privileging any of them over the others. In other words, sandboxes.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m hard-pressed to believe that anything devs would do could curtail the world-firsting, meta-steering, “you must be this tall to ride” gatekeeping asshats who play MMOs. There will still be the self-serving rush of winning the race no matter what incentivization is taken away. In fact, I’m pretty certain this behavior was already a thing before it was officially acknowledged or rewarded, so why would developer adjustments change that now?

That’s really all I have to say on this matter, frankly. Other than I despise this mentality with the hatred of a dying sun if that wasn’t already obvious.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have thought a lot about this. There are always going to be overachievers in games who want to be the first and best, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I don’t think it should garner rewards above and beyond having the best or flashiest loot in the game, though, with the same available for other people who show up two years later when the first wave is off conquering the new expansion or content update.

There need to be more rewards for the underachievers playing the game. I am thinking about unique rewards from all-level one-time-only events. Why not more special rewards/achievements for the crafters, merchants, collectors, and quest nuts in the game? Perhaps more duration-based achievements and rewards. If there could be a way to work in some kind of social awards, that would be cool too. (That could just be rewards for guilds who complete some tasks together, or whatever.) It might be fun to have some random reward systems for people who reach some kind of hidden milestone– Spend 300 hours outside in the rain? Magical umbrella! Lose 25 duels? Jester hat!

Let people rush to the endgame and quit, if they want. That doesn’t mean the game has to be over for everyone else.

Tyler Edwards: I think the best thing would be for everyone — players and developers alike — to just ignore these people. They’re only a minority of players. Unfortunately they tend to be the first and loudest voices to speak about any new releases, so they get to dominate the word of mouth, but really they’re a tiny niche of players whose experiences have little to no relevance to the rest of the world.

I genuinely think people like this did far more damage to Anthem than any mistakes on BioWare’s part. I’ve sunk a hundred hours into that game and am nowhere near reaching a point where I’ve run out of meaningful progression, but the go-go-go crowd burned through it all in a few weeks and started shouting from the rooftops that Anthem had nothing to do at endgame. If you treat the game as a second job and run out of things to do after two weeks, that’s not the developer’s fault.

Then you get the cases where developers are so scared of these people screaming that there’s nothing to do that they build the whole game around being as time-consuming as possible so no one can ever complain that they’ve run out of content. I’m looking at you, World of Warcraft. There’s nothing left in that game that hasn’t been turned into a miserable grind for the sake of content longevity.

The endgame rush mentality is extremely harmful. Developers need to stop making design decisions based on their unreasonable demands, and players need to stop making buying decisions based on their skewed perceptions.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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