Yesterday, I wrote a whole column about how WildStar had some really great stuff in it. I did not mention its endgame at all. And part of that was because what originally got me thinking about this was the quote that Bree pointed out the other day about the game, something from Jeremy Gaffney on the game’s endgame. I’ve snipped the relevant part right here:
There are several ways to set fire to a hundred-million dollars and lose it. Probably the best way is not spending time developing your endgame. Leveling is awesome, but it goes by quickly and then people leave.
That got me thinking a lot. I’m still thinking about it right now. Because I don’t need to tell you that the story ends with Gaffney having spent a whole lot of money developing a game and then having it totally fail to take off, thus inadvertently proving his point insofar as delivering the wrong stuff at the top of the game can literally doom your title. But why did this happen? Why was it that the game developed a totally different endgame from what had existed up to that point? And why does this seem to happen so consistently?
Let’s talk about that.
I’ve argued before that there are, functionally, two different sorts of MMO in this regard. The first is an MMO that features more or less the same stuff at the top end as you were doing up to that point; Final Fantasy XIV is a good example, Guild Wars 2 is another (although less so with the inclusion of raiding), and so forth. The other are games that feature an almost entirely separate leveling experience from the endgame, with World of Warcraft being seen as the all-time record-holder here, going from an almost entirely solo leveling game to an aggressive network of social dependencies that shames you for having ever used a group finder.
The obvious thing to do is to say that these games are trying to copy WoW, and to an extent that is definitely true. But WoW itself was trying to copy EverQuest in several respects, and this is by no means a universal or constant feature in every MMO endgame. So why does it persist? Why does this keep happening? Why do developers keep making things this way?
Well… let’s start by examining some axioms.
First and foremost, every MMO has an apex of power. Every single one. Not every game has a strict level cap or even specific levels, but every game has a point at which you can get no stronger in the field you’re currently working in. You can only have so many skill points in Ultima Online, for example; past that point, you have to manage which skills to raise or lower.
For some players, of course, this doesn’t matter. Some of us are idiots who will level several dozen characters/skills/whatever. Some of us will even level through multiple characters in games that specifically discourage that because we are tedious like that. But you cannot count on that being something for these players to do, and you do need something for players to do.
Why? Well, because players with nothing to do in the game will leave. I mean, it makes sense. You have nothing to do in a game when you beat the game. How often do you just go back to a beaten single-player game to marvel at the scenery? I’m guessing not often (and no, starting a game again doesn’t count here).
Oh, this also ties into the fact that social bonds get players to stick around longer. Again, this is a no-brainer. If your best friends Mark, Sasha, and Donna all really like to play pinball, you’re more likely to go to places where pinball machines are. If they all really like playing The Elder Scrolls Online, you’re probably going to keep logging into ESO. With me so far?
Let’s talk about that apex of power thing, then. At the core of the experience there is the idea that leveling in MMOs is about the progression of power. This is not universally the case; in a lot of games, your characters can often hit their apex of power or near it fairly early on in the game. By the time you’re in the second world of Super Mario World, you have already seen all of the powerups Mario will ever gain access to, just as an example. The Mega Man series has you fighting bosses to get their weapons… but then it throws you into the actual ending of the game with no more power to gain, just challenges to make use of that power. You get the idea.
Do you see where this is heading? Of course you do. If you can get people invested in an endgame with heavy social dependency (raiding and other premade group activities) while providing them with a new form of power growth, you have essentially made a new form of leveling that exists at the top end. It’s a huge time sink, though, and it runs into the problem that most people… well, kind of hate that style of gameplay.
It is very easy – almost painfully so – to make a game where the first leveling experience is fun and relaxed and full of dazzling experiences. No need for grouping or painful social dependencies, just a fun solo experience filled with creativity and ways to express yourself, often with the promise of more outfits and social options and such at the level cap. It is, in short, your gateway to the endgame, at which point the game is hoping you will have formed enough social connections that you don’t want to leave.
Here you see the other problem. (All right, I’m bluffing; there are like a thousand other problems with this endgame structure, but I’m focusing on the one that come up from assembling this logic.) If you do your job too well building the leveling game, what you have made is a game that relies on a social dependency at the endgame that has never actually formed. You’ve reached the level cap in WildStar, and there are things to do, but there’s nothing you want to do and nothing that the players are actually interested in. The roleplayers who liked the solo content aren’t happy. They’re not convinced to stay; they’re convinced to leave.
And that’s what I mean when I can’t stop thinking about that quote. Because Jeremy Gaffney was entirely right. The fastest way to ruin your MMO, to waste millions of dollars, is to make a game that has an endgame that isn’t even pretending to cater to the people who actually fell for your game. To actively encourage people to level through your game and leave it – because instead of providing players who have enjoyed the game with a reason to stick around, you’ve provided them with an excuse to leave.
For that matter, this is where the problem comes from. That assumption that you have to design “the endgame” after “the game.” If you’re busy designing the game and the endgame separately, you have screwed up, because the endgame should mean “the part where you’re playing when you’ve reached that power apex.” Not “that totally separate game you walk into afterwards.”
I feel like this is one of those lessons Gaffney could have learned faster and saved a lot of broken hearts in the process.