Vague Patch Notes: Waiting for the MMORPG endings that are never coming


It took some real courage for Naoki Yoshida to get up and announce that Final Fantasy XIV was ending. After an enormously successful run, the MMORPG had reached a natural endpoint for its storyline, and so Endwalker was announced as the final expansion. Not only did this allow for the game to go out on a high note, it meant that we could all sit and breathe with the work as a completed entity, with all the content it was ever going to have. It was done. It was over.

This is, of course, a lie. Not only did that not happen, but Yoshida was quick to announce that while Endwalker would indeed end the game’s current ongoing storyline, it was not the end of the game. And so another story started, a new arc to inform events, and we all just… kept going.

Obviously, as someone who quite enjoys the game and was happy to keep playing, I am not exactly sad at the idea of continuing to get more of it. What sort of person who enjoys the game would be sad about that? But I’ve been spending some time thinking about endings that are never coming, and… well, let’s face it. This is an ongoing problem.

You can try to argue it all you like, but nothing sticks to the ribs like looking forward to a conclusion. Television has gotten that memo. Sure, back in the day it was risky to have a show with a big, convoluted continuity because the odds of being able to watch a show every time it was on without fail were pretty low, but any soap opera fans knew that being able to catch a show in an ongoing story kept you hooked. You wanted to see what happened next.

The problem, however, is that you can watch these shows for a while, but eventually you’re going to get bored simply because you know that it’s never going to go anywhere. Oh, sure, individual stories will go somewhere. Kaylee broke up with Daniel and Daniel slept with Janet even though she was dating Bret, so Bret tried to sleep with Kaylee but Kaylee was done with men and had a crush on Olivia, and eventually that’s all going to resolve. But odds are they’ll all still be around, and odds are that if Kaylee and Olivia end up happily married while Bret shoots Daniel, the writers will feel free to break that status quo if they have a new story with these characters.

And MMOs are not exactly different. Eventually, the story is going to run out of steam and the music is going to stop.

Yes, I prepared.

You might be ready to chime in and say that your MMORPG of choice is all about player-run stories, so that doesn’t apply, but you are wrong. Heck, those stories can end with even less satisfaction. You and your three friends are in a constant battle against two other players, but there’s no assurance that you’ll actually succeed even if you’re the underdogs. There’s also no assurance that the whole thing won’t end because two of your friends have kids and don’t have the time to keep playing, and then the other two players you’re fighting just migrate to other games.

No matter how long you want to keep things going, eventually you’ll run out of steam. You have hobbies and then you move on from them. And if MMORPGs have scripted stories (which most do in some capacity), eventually those stories need to reach some kind of resolution… or people are going to get bored realizing that these things are never going to resolve or go anywhere.

But there’s a reason you have to keep dragging the whole thing out because the writers are not exactly unaware of the real world. Oh, sure, Lord of the Rings Online has already brought you to Mordor and resolved the ostensible plot there. But the game is still a major moneymaker for the company with a solid playerbase, and so you sort of have to keep it going. Even if you’ve reached a logical end point, there are pressures to keep the content and money flowing.

We don’t talk a lot about the courage it takes to end something successful as a creative endeavor. People like what you’re making now, it pays the bills, and there’s always the possibility that whatever you do next won’t be as well-received. Heck, some people might be mad you end it. And there’s no law saying you have to… until people start leaving because they realize that this is never going to go anywhere.

Sure, I am looking forward to the next FFXIV expansion, and the next World of Warcraft expansion, and so forth. But what happens when that changes? There’s nothing saying it definitively won’t, no promise that eventually I won’t look at the login and realize I no longer give a damn.

Which means that never ending is, itself, threading the needle. Trying to resolve just enough, to continually make you feel you’re heading somewhere instead of wasting time. But you can’t just let it end because you don’t have a follow-up you’re confident about.


This is not to say that there’s an easy or absolute solution to this. Ending too soon can be just as destructive. I still believe there was life left in Guild Wars when it got its final expansion and the team reoriented for Guild Wars 2. That’s not to say I prefer one to the other inherently, just that they are very different experiences.

But so often, the end of MMORPGs comes suddenly from studios that shut down or can no longer afford to maintain the games, or they come at a low point when the game can no longer sustain itself. Too few people play, and if you’re lucky, there’s a hurried rush to conclude everything, but often there’s nothing. The can was kicked down the road, and now it’s over.

I have to think that this isn’t the way things have to be. We have loads of creative works that came to satisfying conclusions by taking that gamble of ending, things that are still celebrated and beloved even today because they were willing to end. Yes, MMORPGs are living worlds and not just single games where you hop and jump until the bad guys are dead, but eventually you want to leave. We are reminded, every single year, that games are alive right up until they’re not.

Games like A Tale in the Desert have played with this before, the idea that you’re playing for a while with a fixed endpoint. But the goal there is for the game itself to start up again with the same basic assumptions, and what I’m thinking of here is that every MMORPG needs an exit strategy. It needs some kind of plan for an ending, something in place for when everything is done and we wave goodbye.

Because that day will come, and developers need to have the courage to know when it’s time to stop. Do I think that Endwalker was the time to stop? No. But I would like the time to stop to be before it’s a guttering flame.

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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