A Vision of Victory...

I won! It doesn't happen often to me, and considering how much time I have put in to MMO gaming, I generally have very little to show for it in terms of max level characters. A Pre-Burning Crusade Level 60 Warrior gathering dust in World of Warcraft on a server some place, a handful of Level 20s in Guild Wars, a game which many regard as only beginning at that level, and a Battle Rank 23 grunt in PlanetSide, more a testament to persistence than skill, back before they progressively increased the cap to its present BR 40.

But this week, during a particularly out of control scrap during the Mender Silos Task Force in City of Heroes, I dinged for the last time; Level 50. In a game of the standard MMO type, where overall persistent progress is measured by the accumulation of experience points, there are now no more to be had. Is this the end for me, or just the beginning?
While there are many definitive aspects that go to make up an MMO, one of the more widely acknowledged is that of the experience bar. Variously also called the grind, the treadmill, level progression, character advancement, the majority of MMOs of the traditional sort give the player a very large number of points to accumulate, usually through combat, which are then used to measure their ongoing ascent to power. New skills, powers and statistics are given out at set intervals along this accumulation and these form levels. To maintain a both a sense of persistence and a long term direction, this experience bar is generally not something that can be completed in a single or handful of play sessions, and from a business perspective, it is desirable to have subscribers who subscribe for more than one month ever.

"We've been through a lot together, my character and I."

Early EverQuest infamously required around two thousand hours of gameplay to reach the top level, while my brief forum scouring suggests that fourteen days (or about 330 hours) is a widely quoted '/played' figure for max level World of Warcraft characters. Your mileage will of course vary. My own City of Heroes journey took about nine months of weekly sessions, of about three to four hours each, although not playing that character every week. Not a casual journey then, in most cases, and a lot of time spent regardless of how densely packed that spent time was. These other lives come to mean a lot as a result; we've been through a lot together, my character and I.

Then one day, perhaps unexpectedly, perhaps eagerly anticipated, the journey is over. The level is capped, the experience bar is full and there are no more points to gain. What happens next? What do I do now? The problem of the end game is one that has been challenging for all MMOs, the principle challenge being to keep customers interested even after the primary task, the levelling, is complete.

Different games emphasise different types of activity at this stage, although the two primary options on offer are Raiding and PvP. Raiding takes players who have proven their individual abilities within the game and presents them with very large or complex collaborative tasks, often with inherent repeatability. There is a lot of choreography in this gameplay style; the group must learn the moves, either by trial and error on their own part, or by reading up on tactics and strategy. In either case, it is expected that the execution of this dance will take a great deal of practice, until one day, the pattern is successful and the rewards can be got to. Random dice rolls here can further extend the repeatability of these specific set encounters, and much of the gameplay here resides in the social aspects of the coordination required. Learning to work effectively as a team provides entertainment and diversion in and of itself.

A more PvP emphasised end game is an alternative. Here, factional or territorial gameplay becomes the major theme. PvP is often available prior to the end game, but the best way to remove unfair level advantage is to simply have all the levels you can, making PvP a somewhat more balanced affair at the very top end of an MMO. Battlegrounds, Arenas, Overland Conquest; when there are no more monsters left worth killing and no more quests to be done, other players can fill the gap.

In both of these modes, having effectively run out of the basic MMO gameplay, the games come to rely on other players as the primary source of content, either cooperatively, in the Raiding, or competitively, in the PvP. As thinking beings with free will, we can be endlessly creative and offer an unlimited variation of gameplay, either as allies or opponents, and many MMOs tap into this source of free content generation as a fundamental end game system.

In my own experience Guild Wars has perhaps offered the most palatable situation. The level cap of twenty is reached comparatively early on in the character's life, leaving them at their peak of personal power with most of the game still ahead of them. Further progression takes on a more horizontal form, with many more individual hot-key skills to track down in a game which then moves to focus more on increases of flexibility than outright gains power. The challenges continue to increase, but the player is encouraged to overcome them through refinement of skill, both character and player, rather than simply coming back later with larger stats. Even here though, eventually the player will have repeated the missions and maps enough times to be content.

Sandbox games such as EVE Online tend to move directly to the end game phase, almost from character creation. EVE is an interesting case, where there are no levels in the traditional sense. Instead specific competencies with relevant equipment are trained in real-time. Time spent increases flexibility, but rarely direct power, and the efficient application of resources and strategies becomes important. Experience, in this context, is more of the player's own sort; the literal learning from previous situations, and the application of those things learned. There are no numbers for this and from the outset, players are expected to find their own entertainment in the vast galactic canvas already being painted upon. PlanetSide presents a similar kind of disregard for the conventions of the level; more Battle Ranks increase the available options, but do not in themselves make you more powerful, making the journey to the top a much less relevant thing, and so less of a jarring change of gears when the destination suddenly arrives.

"No game is meant to last forever."

Many reject the end game entirely, rolling up fresh characters, alts, to start the journey again, perhaps as a different race or class, with different starting areas and play styles, resulting in a slightly different game, but still based in the overall game that they enjoyed in the first place. Ultimately though, no game is meant to last forever, and upon 'completing' the game to their own satisfaction, every player will eventually leave, for another MMO, or something else entirely.

I'm not sure what I will do now in this case. City of Heroes is noted for many things, but its end game is not one of them, with friends anecdotally relating a kind of dismissal of Raid and PvP options. Perhaps the thirty-six character slots at my disposal is something of a clue, and combined with the three hundred odd combinations of archetype, primary power set and secondary set, three hundred classes in effect, and great big big dressing up box, most simply roll up a new alt and try the journey again. Getting to level fifty as a Hero unlocks the Peacebringer and Warshade prestige archetypes, which might be worth looking into, but what I suspect we will end up doing, is going over to the dark side and picking up the low-levelled Supervillains we had on the go, and working our way up the other half of the game, City of Villains, neatly postponing my having to decide on what I'm really going to do, for another six months at the least...

What do you do when you hit the end of the tracks? Start again, move into the end game, or go some place else entirely?

[Big thanks and mutual 'gratz' the rest of the RAF Roflcopter gang who helped me actually win one of these silly things!]
This article was originally published on Massively.