When you come to the end of a good, story-based video game, you know it’s over. In general, the storyline will come to a satisfying conclusion, and there generally won’t be much else to do in terms of content (although many modern titles have a “new game plus” mode that allows players to replay with increased difficulty and other modifiers). For MMOs and other persistent service-based games, though, how do you define the end (and I will lump all service-based games under the MMO umbrella for this article)? As a developer, do you want players to come to an end, or do you want them to keep playing your game? Of course, it’s the latter, but keeping players invested in your game when they feel as if they’ve exhausted all of your content is the most difficult part, and this is what many MMO players refer to as the “end game”.
A good MMO will provide players with multiple things to juggle – there’ll be character progression, weapon progression, jobs and crafting, story progression, and so on and so forth. Exactly where the line is drawn in the sand can sometimes be up to the player – for some, the end game may start once the story campaign is complete, and can consist of the grind through the various forms of progression. For others, the end game really only begins once a player has reached max level – and often across all areas in which progression can be achieved.
In reality, both are forms of end game. Some players have limited time available to them, and may only be able to put a few hours in per week, and they need a system to keep them coming back once the story is complete. Others have all the time in the world to complete everything the game has to offer – and for them, the end game is often slightly different (although still available to all players once a certain level has been achieved). Let’s take a look at both aspects (and a third that is essentially a combination of the two).
MMOs will always have multiple things going on – there’ll be a core storyline that is designed around maintaining a levelling grind for more casual players, so that when they reach the end of the storyline, they are guaranteed to be at a certain level. There’ll be side quests that players can complete to flesh out the world and the stories of the characters within, but are also there to provide more content to more dedicated players, and to allow casual players with something to do when they need to raise their level in order to progress along the storyline. There’ll be pop up quests primarily designed to keep players busy with minimal rewards that will appeal to players looking for something to do. And of course, there will be high-level dungeons/quests/raids/whatever-you-want-to-call-them that are designed for higher-level players and will dole out much greater rewards.
On top of all of this, though, there are deeper systems. All MMOs have a character levelling system, which will unlock capabilities along the way. These will also allow players to spec out their character according to their requirements, and often can include multiple paths. Some MMOs (such as Warframe) will include the capability to also level weapons, giving players the opportunity to build their favourite weapon into something that it may not be originally. Many MMOs will have crafting systems, so that players can become skilled (over time) at creating items in game – weapons, food, armour, clothing – whatever it may be. In addition, there will often be other ways in which players can grind for progression – faction allegiance, class-based levelling, region-based progression – and many more things besides.
What all of this boils down to is time. Often these are disparate levelling systems – while you CAN work to level multiple systems at a time, the requirements of each will be separate and largely unrelated. The grind for these systems is often long, and getting through all of these systems is what can make up a bulk of time for many players – often hundreds of hours on these systems alone.
For many, these systems are enjoyable, if somewhat unnecessarily delayed (many developers will put daily limits in place to slow progression). Often, on completion of these systems, players can have access to abilities that lower-level players will not, and this makes it all worthwhile. For many – this is achievement enough, but for others (i.e., those with more time on their hands), there needs to be a little bit more.
I mentioned earlier that players often gain access to high-level content once they reach a certain level (such as the raids in Destiny). For many, these are the end game – in fact, there are many MMO players that forgo the progression lines in order to simply play these high-end activities. Usually, these require groups of players to tackle a more difficult challenge (for example, Destiny raids require 6 players, while the Trials that used to be offered in Warframe were for up to 8 players). They will also often require teamwork and cooperation, often to a degree far beyond simply working well together – timing and communication play an important role.
There needs to be some reason to play these activities, though, and often this will come down to the kind of reward on offer. Some titles will provide a percentage chance for a high-level item to drop – an item that can ONLY drop from that activity. Others will simply offer resources that are of value to higher level players. Some may offer cosmetics or a buff, or any number of different items, but the point is that they need to be special in that they only drop from that activity, or they need to appeal the needs of high-end players.
For many players, this is the goal – get good enough gear and ability to take on the high-level content. It’s fun, it’s a challenge, and it’s something to do with friends. Sometimes it can take hours (I have friends who spent over 10 hours in WoW raids), but the end result is generally worth all the effort.
However, there are some people with a different goal in mind…
To Be the Very Best
There are dedicated players out there with lots of time on their hands (I’m not judging here). These players grind through all of the above – they progress through all of the abilities and factions and everything besides until there is nothing else for them to achieve, and they grind through the hardest content until they have everything. These are the hardest people to please. In fact, these are often the players that are most dissatisfied with end-game content.
For developers, it’s a tough choice – you definitely want to please your most dedicated players, but not at the expense of the rest of the playerbase. So you can’t really offer these players something that nobody else has a chance to get – this means rewards for these players are minimal, often only cosmetic, and sometimes more a case of a title or emblem more than anything else.
Besides this, there’s a second conundrum – how much development time do you dedicate to developing activities that would please these kinds of players? When you have a larger playerbase that is mostly happy with high-end activities or progression – who, I should add, also get bored of these same high-end activities and progression even though they may not complete it all – then you need to decide who to develop for. The best answer is “everybody”, but there’s no answer that will satisfy all.
In general, most MMOs choose to go down the path of increasing “difficulty level”. You remember those high-end activities? Let’s put a time limit on them and increase the enemy level scaling. Or add some other kind of challenge.
While this is a good option initially, it doesn’t take long for advanced players to find a way to blitz through the content. Realistically, the best thing to offer players at this level is a challenge – these players have everything, and they’ve likely min-maxxed it all (meaning they’ve built the stats towards the most effective method that will suit their playstyle). What they REALLY want to do is test themselves, and so often they will create their own game modes – speed runs are an example of this.
End Game Means Different Things to Different People
In the end, we’re all different. Many of us have different expectations from games – in fact, there are a lot of people out there that probably don’t understand the concept of “end game” – I mean, once you’ve finished a game, it’s done, right? For those of us that like to play in persistent worlds, though, we need to remember that we all do want to chase different things, and it’s not so easy for developers to please everyone. Some players are highly skilled and would THRIVE in a timed, highly difficult encounter – but the majority of players wouldn’t last a minute. Many players absolutely love raids and other high-end activities – but there are a few dedicated players that do these hundreds on hundreds of times, and get bored after the first few weeks. It’s a difficult balance, to be sure, but the next time you look to complain about the grind involved with progression in a certain game, just remember that it’s like that for a reason – what doesn’t necessarily work for you works well for someone else.