4 Nov 2011

The Necessity of End Game

Today’s article is a guest post from Honor’s Code.

Let me put on my armchair Game Designer hat for a moment. Put yours on as well and join me as we think about AAA MMOs.

I think we can agree on the goal. All of us, from the bean counters at production houses, to the developers, the QA Testers, to the players themselves, want a great game. What we want to create is a great ride, an experience if you will. We want an experience that can be picked up and enjoyed and shared with a wide variety of people. This is necessary to create a reliable and sustainable fan base which in turn brings in enough revenue, with whatever business model is used, to keep the servers running and keep us and our employees gainfully employed.

While we can all agree on the goal, how to get there is the topic of vigorous debate. At a high level, we want an immersive world with many fun activities to engage in. We know that different people find different activities fun, so we will need a wide range of activities. We don’t want to force any players to do things they find ‘unfun’ so many of those activities will need to be optional.

There must be some element of challenge to it. If we log in the first day of the game and had all the powers and the best equipment going, the game would have a very short shelf life. So we introduce levels. As our players work through the levels they attain new skills, power and equipment. They slowly become more powerful, look cooler, and can defeat challenges that used to seem insurmountable.They feel a little sense of accomplishment with each ‘ding’.

We know that there will be some who play for the Story. Others will want to power through the leveling game as fast as they can. You have your explorers, looking for the nooks and crannies off the beaten path.

The problem, of course, is you can’t stay in level up mode forever. Infinite content isn’t a reasonable goal unless you are just randomizing certain bits over and over again. Unsurprisingly, this can get a little repetitive. Some games have done just that, but the end result often comes up unsatisfying for both players and developers.

Players want a carrot on a stick, but at some point they need to grasp the carrot – they need to be able to accomplish their goals. A never ending ‘to-do’ list kills motivation and fatigues the player. Soon she may seek another experience, another company’s journey.

So we have the level cap. Good logical stopping place and our first carrot. This allows for a set amount of content and a nice end goal. When you reach the final ding, it’s a joy and very exciting. This presupposes the Developers made the climb a sufficient enough challenge that you feel like you actually did something.

Of course, the game can’t end there. If it did, you might hold someone’s attention for a couple of months, but some would be done with the game in a week. You could keep adding more and more content, but one of the truths you discover pretty quickly when you start producing content is that your content consumers can consume your content much faster than you can produce it.

So we need something at the level cap that keeps people playing.

You need the End Game.

The whole idea of the endgame is to give the player a way to continue in the game, but in a fundamentally different way than Leveling. We still want our characters to become stronger, more powerful and more cool looking. But we can no longer look to the next level. So we introduce progression through other means.

One approach to end game is PVE Raids. These are large instances that require a new grouping dynamic. You face the biggest and baddest villains the game has to offer. Instead of looking to the next level for your progression, you look instead to the next Tier of raids. The Raids have to provide enough of a challenge that a majority of your player base will spend copious amounts of time fighting them.

(As an aside, in some games there is a command to see how long you’ve played that game. It would be interesting if it broke it down into how much in Raids, PVP, etc.)

Most players would give up if it took months to reach Level 20, but they seem to have no problem spending months clearing raids. With a large enough and tasty enough looking carrot, you can keep them on the treadmill for some period of time.

Other games funnel players towards a PVP end game. The advantage here is that the content and challenge are largely determined by the other players. The game play gets a high degree of variability because humans will change tactics and strategies often. These games tend to run into issues of balancing the teams, either from a numbers of participants stand point, or from a power standpoint. No body likes losing, so the option to switch to the winning side is attractive to some people, even it means repeating the leveling process.

With any End Game the Developers have to careful to balance challenge and reward. Hard is fine as long you can have fun. If you can’t have fun, you’ll lose interest as it will start to feel like work. I don’t know many people to pay to work, they work to get paid.

Remember that people are nearly defined by variant tastes. You’ve got your explorer camp over here, the guys who love a good story over there, power gamers who play double digit hours per day and the Dad who plays for 45 minutes before dinner.

What is at the core of any MMO is your character. You shape your character and she grows over time. People are interested in growing their characters in different ways, but what is core to the genre is growth through conflict and combat. We fight to grow. To grow, you must fight. To fight, you need tools. Once you reach the level cap, you need new ways to grow and new ways to get tools to fight increasingly complex challenges.
And even if you never reach the level cap, it provides that virtual carrot that you can always strive for. Even for those who never reach it, the end game points to the next step. They stay on the path.

The End Game is inevitable. It is your …destiny.

Today’s article is a guest post from Honorshammer. You can find his blog over at Honor’s Code, where he wites about his thoughts and experiences with a variety of MMOs

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