Massively Overthinking: Should MMOs have endings – or at least end points?

    
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Onward!

I suspect most MMO players are going to read that question and immediately balk at it. We think of MMOs as being defined in large part by their lack of endings. But maybe they shouldn’t be. For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’m directing your attention to a comment Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida made at Gamescom several years ago.

“It’s all right not to play it everyday. Since it’s just a game, you can stop forcing yourself if it’s hard on you to keep that up. Rather, it’ll just pile up unnecessary stress if you limit yourself into playing just that one game since there are so many other games out there. So, do come back and play it to your heart’s content when the major patch kicks in, then stop it to play other games before you got burnt out, and then come back for another major patch. This will actually make me happier, and in the end, I think this is the best solution I can answer for keeping your motivation up for the game.”

Yoshida isn’t explicitly saying that MMOs should have an ending but rather reframing MMO content updates as things that have effective endings, plural – content you play through until it’s come to a reasonable end, and then you take a break and play something else, and then you come back to the MMO again for the next one. This shouldn’t be a controversial position, as many MMOs have content that works like this, but of course most of them would like you to keep playing in between too, and cries of “content drought” inevitably spring up from the players being courted with “seasons” and dailies and so forth to stay. Yoshida’s position – that content can be finished and then you take a break – isn’t actually something many MMO devs would voice.

So let’s talk about it. Should MMOs have endings or end points in the way Yoshida is describing? Is this how you’d prefer all MMOs be designed?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m still spoiled by the Asheron’s Call series and prefer a discoverable story with some GM-guided events. Yes, these events could be turned into scripted ones people access later, though I think I’d prefer them to be limited time than available for all time. In that sense, yes, I can support MMO endings where players can get to a kind of in-universe, dev-led story ending. Heck, in terms of content, I’m more than fine with a slow drip of content that keeps me coming back for more. At the same time though, I miss good RP tools and developers who made supported it. Raiding and cinematic story are nice, but those never seemed like they took proper advantage of having so many people in a virtual world.

We don’t talk a lot about the personal stories of SWTOR or even Guild Wars 2; we talk about the large events that are felt by everyone in the game world. New races taking over player towns, diseases spreading from raids to newbie zones, funding the war effort, getting player politicians elected into dev-built mayor positions. Those all have starts and ends that feel like they take advantage of the MMO genre. It’s like watching a movie at home versus at the theaters. It can be nice to go at your own pace, but (at least in the US) watching a movie unfold with others who gasp and cheer when you do is a much more memorable experience. Enjoy the ride and walk away until the next arc/update comes out… unless you enjoy alts, dailies, and grinds, of course.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Yoshida’s strategy is not only fine but good for a themepark game with scripted content. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of seasons, I think; seasons are just dailies set to a longer time period. I would rather see an expectation that people come back to do the new content and leave when they’re done, not be expected to stay through the end of an arbitrary season, or worse, indefinitely. Guild Wars 2 mostly gets this right.

But personally, those aren’t my favorite kind of MMORPGs anyway. I have no problem with a good sandbox not having an ending or end points or obvious points of exit because I already wasn’t playing them to do The Content. I was playing them to craft my own experience. I don’t need them to tell me when to clap.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Just let me skip with the escape key. I just want to play.

From story standpoints, they should. I’m not a fan of tales that run for a full decade and a story that people (and corporations) refuse to end is a recipe for customer fatigue. Let the story finish and move on.

A story where the player isn’t directly involved in it is fun too. Stories with politics between two factions are just an excuse for players to kick each others’ butts is always a plus in my opinion.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I think endings are important because, at the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, every ending means a new beginning, and beginnings mean onboarding points for new or lapsed players. For instance, it’s really hard for me to sell my friends on Guild Wars 2’s upcoming End of Dragons expansion when they quit after Heart of Thorns. Because the story of Guild Wars 2 is continuous, they would have to play through all of Living World Season 3, Path of Fire, Season 4, and Icebrood Saga to actually be caught up to current events. I think a lot of MMO developers think that this kind of FOMO will keep players coming back so they don’t fall behind, but personally I believe that the barrier to entry/reentry is more detrimental to a game than the barrier to exit is helpful.

I prefer the way The Elder Scrolls Online designs its stories. Each expansion or DLC has a cohesive and self-contained story written such that you will never feel lost if you start off at, say, Blackwood having never played before, but it also has a lot of references and callbacks and overarching plot that players who have played every scrap of content will appreciate. NPC dialogue even changes based on whether or not that character has encountered your character before.

So to answer the question, yes, I like it when MMOs have endings, but I also like continuous arcs. I think ESO does a fantastic job at bringing the best of both worlds, and other MMOs should learn from its example.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I wrote a whole column about how developers need to plan for the end of service, and honestly, that extends to storylines as well. Yes, I understand the impulse to keep things going forever, but the same principles apply. You have to be aware that you are dealing with something with a finite lifespan and be ready to wave goodbye instead of keeping things propped up in perpetuity. Conclude stories! End the dragons! Go to the moon! Wave goodbye! Let us have triumphant end points along the way, darn it.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I actually very much agree with this viewpoint, because it is unhealthy and untenable to constantly engage with a game with no resolution or breaks. I’ve started to sour on the concept of these super-long, never-ending story arcs that flow through the entire game. I’d rather have shorter chapters or more manageable quest arcs to experience because then you have all of these break points that allow you to try another game or pick up another quest arc.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): In the past I don’t think I would’ve said as much, but today I do think endings would be nice. The pull to feel like I need to keep up with the Joneses can only get me so far anymore. At some point I begin to feel overwhelmed and too far behind so I just quit outright – and then why log in at all?

I suppose the original Guild Wars had real end points. Once you finished Prophecies, its story was done, and that was mostly that and the same with the other expansions. They were isolated experiences. At the same time, we could consider the whole world as a living and changing thing. In fact, I only bought and completed Factions just before Guild Wars 2 was released, and I never really felt like I had missed something. It was just a separate game I hadn’t done.

And even though GW2 expansions do wrap up their story, each one fills more like a chapter to a much longer story rather than an actual ending. So I think endings would be nice.

Tyler Edwards (blog): Stories have expiry dates. You can’t keep the same one going forever. Eventually, endings are necessary if you don’t want to lapse into the tired and the ridiculous. And there’s also the risk of a game shutting down before the story is complete, to the heartbreak of its fans.

Mind you, asking a company to arrange an end to a successful game just for the sake of artistic integrity is… unlikely, and of course persistence is part of the appeal. So ideally one story should end so a new one can take its place, or maybe once a large-scale plot has come to an end, future updates can focus on smaller side-stories.

I think Elder Scrolls Online is on the right track in concept, if not in execution. Its yearly storylines are too formulaic and repetitive for my taste, but the general idea of refreshing seasonal stories is a sound one. While I’m no fan of Final Fantasy XIV, I do respect it for choosing to end the current storyline in Endwalker and then move on to something else. That’s brave and worthy of praise.

In terms of gameplay endpoints… I think developers play a role, but ultimately I think it’s more up to players to decide what counts as “done” for them. Developers should keep the minimum investment small, but provide long-term goals for those who want them. Once again, this is a place where I feel The Secret World nailed it. I always said that game was exactly as grindy as you wanted it to be. You could treat it like a single-player game, just play through all the story content once without ever repeating anything, and do just fine, but if you wanted to maximize your character’s potential, the grinds were nearly infinite. Maxing the ability wheel, aux wheel, gear, signets, and augments was a virtually impossible task. So basically you could just keep playing as long as you wanted and always be rewarded for doing so, but also quit whenever you started to burn out without missing out on anything essential.

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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