Vague Patch Notes: What causes the preponderance of disconnected MMO endgames?

    
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Vague Patch Notes: What causes the preponderance of disconnected MMO endgames?

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.

ha ha ship go brrrrr

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.

Ohhh snap.

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.

Wait, what?

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.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Schmidt.Capela

Why? Well, because players with nothing to do in the game will leave.

Yep.
The kicker, though, is that content that the player isn’t interested in doing, or isn’t able to engage in (due to, say, a lack of a regular raiding group), counts as nothing too. Not taking this into account is a sure way to drive your engagement, and player retention, down.

Oh, this also ties into the fact that social bonds get players to stick around longer.

True. But with the caveat that this only applies to players who already have said social bonds. On the other hand, a huge number of players who don’t already have such bonds will rather leave than try to create some bonds on short notice; EVE devs, for example, found that the average EVE new player will rather leave the game altogether than ask for help.

In other words, social bonds do increase retention — but trying to force the players into forming those bonds can instead drive players away and reduce retention.

IMHO, what you need here isn’t forced grouping, but friction-less grouping; make grouping as easy as possible, make every single piece of solo content also available for groups, reduce or eliminate the potential ways in which a player can hinder or annoy group members, etc, so players who have a neutral or positive view of grouping can do so without hassle while never feeling forced to group.

(Also, don’t repeat WoW’s big LFD flaw; if you are ever grouped with someone through matchmaking, you should be able to fully engage with that player then and in the future using your current characters, which includes mutually adding each other to their friend lists, playing together in the open world, joining the same groups or guilds, trading, etc.)

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.

Progression in the classic Mega Man games is a good example of horizontal progression. The different boss weapons aren’t necessarily better, just different; they have situations in which they shine, and situations in which they are basically useless (as in, you are better served by switching back to the basic, unlimited buster gun). Also, there’s no hierarchy to the boss weapons you can obtain.

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Ben Stone

Disagree regarding WoW. Most players run dungeons over and over to level up, with the exception of new expansion launches to unlock factions and reputation, most people don’t solo quest to level up. In fact, one common complaint from solo players is that they have to do dungeons to finish questlines. Running dungeons repeatedly is also one form of endgame (M+). So there isn’t a huge disconnect.

For a while battlegrounds were effective for levelling, unfortunately not so much anymore. The only levels where soloing is better is in Draenor, where everyone just pops some XP potions and flies around collecting hidden items for XP instead of questing or running dungeons.

Honestly I dont think the roleplay community is big enough to matter in whether a game succeeds or not. Take SWG for example, perfect RP dream, failed financially. Typically those players are happy with some housing, cool lore, interesting player races and some nice looking locations to hang out in, all of which Wildstar did well.

The reason it failed is because there wasnt enough content at endgame (I basically had max gear within a month) and the telegraphs were obnoxious by default which was the most common complaint I heard about the game. This could be fixed with UI tweaks, but most players aren’t going to invest in figuring that out. They didn’t need to telegraph EVERYTHING, just important big hitting skills, but instead everyone was seeing autoattack telegraphs which were basically unavoidable anyway.

I think most levelling content is criminally wasted. They spend all that time and effort making something they want you to rush through and never see again. I like when games make you revisit low level content, or keep them relevant somehow. I liked EQ2s mentoring system and chrono system. If you wanted to acquire low level items for transmog or special effects you had to lower your level to the right range make it drop any loot.

People bemoan the carrot system of WoW and Everquest, but they know that its what keeps players either sticking around or coming back to a persistent game. If you cant pump out regular updates which have power creep or story updates, then you need some really innovative ways to keep players busy and logging in, and outside a few sandbox games, I don’t think many alternatives have been very successful.

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Schmidt.Capela

Disagree regarding WoW. Most players run dungeons over and over to level up,

That wasn’t the case before the halfway point of WotLK (when LFD was introduced); before that the recommendation for leveling faster was to avoid dungeons, since in the time spent looking for a group (or assembling your own) you would have gained more XP through questing than you could get from running the dungeon.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “endgame”. People somehow keep playing the game after it ends?

When I play an MMO, I play through the story. When there’s no more story, I stop playing the game and play something else. Or, I wait until there’s a new expansion or DLC, and get back into the game for that, as is the case for ESO.

What do people do in MMOs when there’s no more story to play?

kjempff
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kjempff

What do people do in MMOs when there’s no more story to play?

You make the game be about other things than one time consumed story content. Instead of story driven, you create sustainable systems and “endless”(highly prolonged) progression concepts, open ended stories & opt-in (this is not the same as story driven). You make players be part of the world, by giving them freedom and agency, by making a living breathing world of npcs (and their stories), and/or create systems for players to make the world live.
All that which is what mmorpgs should have evolved into, instead of this idea of narrative and story driven content. Totally biased and get of my lawn.

kjempff
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kjempff

You can’t make the “level game” and endgame (damn I hate that word) different.
You can’t make endgame story driven.
= you can’t make the level game story driven.

I know it is simplified and unfair and probably biased, but still…

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Bruno Brito

Disconnected MMO developers.

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Robert Mann

Focus ONLY on COMBAT and GEAR.

Simply put, when your focus is tied to a single area, then that area is where your content must go. With no option to keep ahead of content consumption, developers look at the ways they can extend the life of content. Thus dungeon repeats, raid repeats, and daily quests.

Put in more grind to get the RNG to give you what you want, and you can extend those for a long time. Put in less grind there, people will get the best on offer and leave until next content drop (generally speaking, of course).

However, if the focus shifts to things that are less immediate reward/drop centered, and instead has a wider variety of content and goals, there’s alternative activities that people may or may not choose to engage in, additional goals they can set with their own chosen activity, and so on… which likely won’t help the “beat everything and got what I want” content pursuit, but would offer more to those who enjoy more than that.

Sadly, since hack and slash was pretty much the primary thing the majority of people did there was an early focus toward hack and slash play. Which shaped what came after, and not I dare say for the better overall. I’m fine with it being there for those who want it to be so laser focused on the status quo gameplay, but the lack of variety to suit the tastes of various people playing is not a good thing.

Sixuality
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Sixuality

My aversion to endgame goes all the way back to the first time I hit 50 in City of Heroes, and pretty much for the reasons you laid out. I’ve teamed more in CoH than in any other MMO, but I still didn’t want to have to team. So I rolled a new character instead… and then another… and another… and…

But that’s a different story.

(This was long before Incarnates, though I doubt that would have been any better at retaining my interest.)

I feel that the traditional endgame model is a relic of an earlier age of MMOs, when players did stay with one game for years at a time. I appreciate that not everyone is as much of an MMO nomad as I am, but even so I think the days when that kind of long-term commitment was the norm are over, and endgame design has to catch up to that shift in what more casual players are looking for.

Can I use the word ‘casual’ without sounding like an elitist?

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Ironwu

ESO is good for managing expectations and involvement. But, I think FFXIV is the master at engaging folks early and throughout the leveling experience. By requiring folks to participate in various group activities, they encourage people to get out of their Solo-Only mindset.

That being said, I hope they don’t abandon that philosophy and that they retain the various group activities through their newly accelerated leveling process. If they don’t, I fear that FFXIV will end up with the same problem many other MMOs seem to have with the disconnect with the game that folks love to play with the game they are ultimately being asked to play.

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Scott Leyes

FFXIV’s “newly accelerated leveling process” is just their upcoming attempt to “fix” the original A Realm Reborn endgame issues.

The original ARR 1-50 leveling game was/is a bit of a slog, but it presents tons of story and gameplay as you level; unfortunately, there are SIX major patches between that leveling story and the next expansion, Heavensward. Those six patches have a metric ton of “busy” content, which was relevant at the time (getting better gear, seeing new dungeons, etc.) — but now it just stands as an impediment to getting into the next expansion.

So SE will be trimming the number of fetch quests, and leaving in the stuff that still covers characters and story. Game will still be there, but wont feel like a punishment compared to all the newer expansions.

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EmberStar

Since I’m really only willing to play games that I can mostly (or entirely) solo, what FFXIV accomplished in my case was to convince me to never even attempt the game. I don’t know anyone who plays games (let alone that one) and I’ve experience enough “team required” story content to know that it is almost the worst possible way I can imagine to deliver story.

The absolute worst would be something on the level of forcing the player to eat fresh whole ghost peppers while being attacked by bees. Forced teaming is close though.

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elenie

For myself, I respectfully disagree. Forced group content inside FFXIV’s MSQ pops up very often and I resent it every time. It’s the main thing pushing me away from a game I otherwise love, and sets up artificial roadblocks in between me enjoying the MSQ at my pace (now I have to stop what I’m doing, read up about the “boss dressage” mechanics, then wait for a good time of day to queue, with hardly any story payoff inside these instances). It’s tedious and has done nothing to get me out of my “solo-only” mindset (which I don’t even have, as such? I have a lot of friends in FFXIV, I just don’t like forced PVE grouping that doesn’t even enhance the story).

So if they made the MSQ group content optional, I’d be a lot happier in FFXIV, and I don’t see that that would negatively impact anybody else’s experience of the game either. People who like to, can still run these instances to their heart’s content, and because of duty roulettes, the population for that is there in plenty.

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Rick Mills

I feel ESO has done the best with this – the “endgame” starts pretty much at level 10 – you can participate in almost everything (other than high-end raiding) OR you can solo. If you solo, you’ve made your choice early and have no reason to leave.

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Jokerchyld

Agree. ESO isn’t perfect but does a better job making a game viable for 1) returning after not playing for extended periods of time and 2) allowing all manners of people to play together.

The problem is the old mechanic of forced grouping. You cant do this content unless you get 5 people. That’s discouraging and turns people away. It much better to make the content available and able to tackle solo but to have people just fight with you without having to engage a grouping mechanic. Its more natural.

But this is the bigger problem The “You cant play with me until you go through a bunch of old content that no one plays anymore because its no longer relevant”

ESO hasn’t fixed this but has a working implementation where I can play with anyone the minute I start. Second I can start anywhere I want. In that new expansion or in the old or where ever my playstyle for that day takes me. It makes the entire world remain relevant and gives more opportunity for all players to play together.

An evolution of what ESO has in place is what I see the future as.

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Rick Mills

And, when you look at WoW -the next expansion is pretty much taken that model for themselves – which I am happy about.