Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Random Shots: What I Mean By Endgame

  • While I was thumbing through Orion's My LotRO blog, I ran across this post where he completely misses the point about why we use the term endgame. Before I take him to task, I should explain where he's coming from.

  • Orion professes a preference for the term "elder game." He sees the MMO experience as a learning curve where the player starts as a noob, grows through a learning phase, then reaches the elder game where a player is challenged to use the knowledge they have accumulated. Content is developed to match these phases and everyone is happy, assuming player capability improves at the correct intervals. The elder game, then, is the part where you assume the player has learned everything they need to play the game. Challenges can then be created to test the player's skill instead of the character's.

  • What's wrong with that? Nothing! That is the gold standard for game development as far as I can tell. If you think of all the best games you've ever played, you will see this learning curve. The problem arises because level-based MMOs aren't really designed like this.

  • Here are the three stages of MMO content:

    • The starter zone - The first act of any MMO is the starter zone. This is where players are taught how to play the game. At least, it teaches you how to play the leveling game. The first levels generally come quickly, new abilities are granted, and quests are relatively easy to overcome. For many games, the starter zones are the most polished portion of the game experience specifically because this is the one place that every player is guaranteed to pass through. The decision whether or not a player is going to stick with a game is usually made based on this experience.

    • The leveling game - The second act in MMOs is the leveling game. This is were the bulk of content is directed. Players complete new quests, find new gear, and gain character levels to they can move on to greater challenges. Assuming a infinite amount of content, the leveling game could go on forever. However since developers only have so many resources, the leveling game comes to its eventual conclusion. At that point, we shift to...

    • The endgame - For current level-based MMOs the endgame is the point where leveling content expires. There is usually a shift from exhaustable content used for leveling to repeatable content, like group instances and raid or high-end PvP games.

  • Does that last description line up with Orion's elder game? I don't believe so, although there is an overlap. What he describes is a design goal. Instead what we have is the reality of limited resources for content creation and the need to keep subscription players paying by repetition of content. I know that sounds bad, but a great many people view the leveling game as the grind they have to endure to reach that endgame. So, who is right? Not sure.

  • I've spent some time hammering on the current MMO endgame for a reason. Most media follows a three act structure. There is an introduction, a building action, and a climax. MMOs subvert that structure by never reaching a conclusion. The endgame, as I'm describing it here, is a perpetual build toward a resolution that never comes. The closest equivalent I can think of are soap operas. There is rising action, setbacks, some character growth, but no resolution. The story never ends. And it can't end as long as the companies involved need it make money.

  • The word itself betrays a desire to see some sort of conclusion to their personal stories. But until MMO developers can design a game that is a unified experience clear through with a definite endpoint, we are never going to see Orion's elder game. It will always be an endgame.

© 2009 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Bullet Points, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

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