Like most of you, I play a lot of MMORPGs. Too many, in fact, and the deluge of new and interesting games in the offing is only going to further erode what remains of my free time. I've managed to see the mythical "endgame" in a fair few titles over the years, so when I say that I play a lot, I don't mean that I boot up a trial and hit level 10 before hopping to the next bright shiny.
Off the top of my head, I've dinged max level in Age of Conan (three times), Aion, Star Wars Galaxies (six times), Anarchy Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Global Agenda (twice), Vanguard, and The Matrix Online, to name a few.
While many of these games subsequently raised the level cap, I've nonetheless raided, PvP'd, and chased enough gear carrots to have an opinion about the proverbial MMORPG "endgame." And I'm here to tell you that most of what passes for said endgame is repetitive schlock.
Looking back at that list of games on my front page, I'm struck by the fact that for each of them, the endgame is almost identical. Oh sure, the gear looks different from game to game, as do the bosses and some of the dungeon layouts. When you get down to it, though, if you've played one of those endgames you've played them all -- except for SWG.
SWG makes more gameplay options available to the user, and has several systems designed to provide long-term enjoyment apart from your usual gear progression, raid progression, or PvP progression. The housing, Storyteller, and Chronicle mechanics are what I'm referring to when I say "systems," but a case could also be made for the crafting and economic games within the game.
Anyway, if you don't already see where I'm going with this, allow me to spell it out: the only meaningful MMORPG "endgame" -- i.e., something novel to do after the progression process is over -- is that of the sandbox.
The lion's share of themepark MMO endgames are the same. It doesn't matter if it's a PvE-focused endgame like EverQuest II or a PvP-focused endgame like Aion or Warhammer, you will be riding the repetition treadmill for all eternity until you decide to move on.
A no-win situation
Themepark developers are in a no-win situation when it comes to the endgame. Grinders will always blow through content much faster than it can be created, and it will never be cost-effective to retain enough designers to satisfy the min/max crowd.
The solution to this, in an ideal world, is player-generated content (and that's another Soapbox).The solution to this -- thus far in the genre's lifespan at least -- has been to draw the grind out, or add additional grinds and give them a marketing-friendly label (Age of Conan's "horizontal progression" via alternate advancement abilities, for example).
If you think about it, though, "endgame" is exactly what the name implies: the end.
As in, you're done.
There's nothing new to see.
Everything you do from that point on will be something you've already done.
Your MMO-related choices are to a) do the gear/raid grind and consume the same content again and again, b) find another class or game and consume very similar content again and again, or c) find a sandbox game and create your own content (or content for others).
But what about new content patches, you say? They're worth sticking around for, right? Well I don't know, you tell me. Is it more of the same carrot chase, and do you grind through it and go right back to complaining about a lack of endgame?
That's probably why it's called endgame, no? Unless you're madly in love with that particular title's aesthetics, it's time to seek greener pastures. A lot of people don't though; They stick around and grind out epic armor sets, whine about the speed and frequency of new content updates (which, by the way, are the exact same treadmill exercises as the old content updates), and generally burn themselves out on MMORPGs.
This is one of the MMO genre's dirty little secrets, and you don't really realize it until you've played more than a couple of them. The endgame in RIFT is the same endgame that was in EverQuest and it's the same one that's in DDO, Runes of Magic, DC Universe, and World of Warcraft: quest to get gear to raid to get gear to quest... You get the picture.
In fact the guys who perfected this repetitive dreck in EQ subsequently made WoW, which of course went on to dominate MMO design meetings for years. So the massively multiplayer "endgame" rut really shouldn't come as a surprise.
But, but... PvP!
At this point some people will probably argue that insert-my-game-here has a PvP-focused endgame, so it's different! Well, no, it's really not. Your themepark PvP endgame involves killing the same players over and over again instead of raid bosses. In short, like the PvE endgame, nothing ever changes, least of all the world or your place in it. You're also grinding for PvP gear in some form or fashion.
I'd love to see WoW and its many imitators do a permanent faceplant and perhaps open the door for something new when it comes to endgame and design. I'm not holding my breath on this, though, simply because millions of people keep doing the same meaningless drudgery in Azeroth year after year just like hundreds of thousands used to do in Norrath.
EQ still has a respectable playerbase even now, but it's not because the endgame mechanics are novel, or even fun.
It's the community (content), stupid
No, people stay and keep killing the same stupid boss for the same stupid gear over and over again ad nauseam because of their friends. Hell, digging a ditch on a prison chain gang is probably entertaining if you've got a crew of buddies cracking jokes while you toil. It doesn't make the work itself any less awful though, and you probably wouldn't choose to do it alone.
Since the trend is to play MMOs solo, gamers don't always have those wisecracking buddies, and thus are more apt to recognize themepark endgames as the snoozefests that they are.
Funnily enough there are MMORPGs out there that offer divergent endgame content (much of it driven, and in some cases created by, the playerbase). They're unpopular with many gamers, though, because they require time and effort to play. Open-ended sandboxes like EVE, Darkfall, Wurm, or A Tale in the Desert are nothing but endgame, even at the beginning.
These games are too hard, though, or they take too long, or the rest of the players have a big head start, or blah blah blah. Whatever the reasons, many gamers are unable to break away from the straight and narrow of the themepark endgame. If you actually like repetition, that's fine I guess (and you can pretty much ignore this column). If you're logging in to raid four nights a week and wondering why, though, Einstein's famous definition of insanity comes to mind.
A new approach
So, the next time you reach max level in an MMORPG and find yourself looking around aimlessly while limbering up your fingers to fire off a there's-no-endgame rant, maybe you should try something different.
Go grind and carrot-chase in a fresh game if that's your idea of fun. Maybe get really crazy and fire up a sandbox MMORPG. If enough people explore the player- and community-generated content opportunities currently available (and coming down the pike), we'll start seeing some more games getting made that actually cater to creative types instead of slot machine junkies. At that point, the entire concept of "endgame" will become obsolete.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!