Having an endgame, thinking you need one, and designing your game around it -- this is the core problem of the MMO genre. No matter how hard you spin it, when you create a game with an endgame, you create a game with an end... and not much else.
It's a themepark problem, make no mistake, and it is something that happened to the MMO genre, not something that's always been and can never be otherwise.
Consider the game most people would consider the founding game of the genre, Ultima Online. For all its flaws, classic UO was a true open-world sandbox. It had no endgame. You raised your skills through using them, whether you were swinging a kryss or baking bread or pickpocketing innocents. You went to different dungeons and overland areas and fought different enemies to generate income and have fun based on your skills and your group size. You purchased your armor, weapons, and potions from player crafters and lost them when you were murdered and looted by NPC brigands, other players, or both. You could build a house, roleplay, join in the fight against murderers, collect resources, craft, set up vendors, or change your skills on a whim. Even when your character was "finished" with the skills you wanted him to have, you could do whatever you chose. The game didn't suddenly switch gears on you and become something else or expect you to change your playstyle or daily activities. You pretty much kept doing what you were already doing.
Many MMOs launched in the 1997-2004 period were built this way. Oh, a few tinkered with the formula; Dark Age of Camelot was level-based and focused on RvR as the core freeform activity, for example. But few of them had anything like an "endgame" until World of Warcraft, which itself took EverQuest's raiding element and turned it into The Totally Different Thing You Do At The End of The Leveling Game.
Actually just one big themepark
The crazy thing is that classic EverQuest, while not a sandbox at all in the UO sense, didn't really use raiding that way in its first few years of life. Raiding was a big thing for some groups, but most people took forever to get to it, and it wasn't just because leveling was slow and usually required grouping; it was also that there wasn't much pressure to rush to the end. The gear wasn't that much better, the experience was usually tiresome and frustrating, and groups scaled poorly for larger encounters -- you could pretty much just keep stacking more and more groups of people for any sort of encounter and call it a raid until everyone lagged out. People were pretty content with their dungeon camp checks and overwatches and bazaar Saturday at the bank in Freeport. These are not fabulous reasons that I'd love to see emulated, but that's how it was.
Vanilla WoW really did change everything, and it's not raiding's fault, not exactly. Whereas EverQuest players were used to taking their sweet time leveling and puttering before they zoned into Fear with 50 people to spend all weekend on an epic corpse recovery, World of Warcraft players were trained to level mostly solo from 1 to 60, doing a 5-man dungeon here and there along the way, and then bam: Welcome to the raiding endgame! It's nothing like the rest of the game, and if you don't participate, your gear will be crap, you will look like a newbie, and you will be destroyed in PvP!
Prioritizing endgames changes how games are designed and played
WoW's popularity continues to influence AAA MMO game design even in 2014. Consider this quote from WildStar's Jeremy Gaffney last year:
There are several ways to set fire to a hundred million dollars and lose it. Probably the best way is not spending time developing your endgame.I appreciate that devs are thinking about budgetary efficiency so that their games don't crash, burn, and sunset like so many now-forgotten titles. I appreciate this because I'm sick of watching great games die unnecessary deaths. But he's presupposing that an endgame is necessary in the first place, and in doing so, he locks his team into creating a certain type of game. What type? I'm glad you asked because Gaffney explained it:
Leveling is awesome, but it goes by quickly and then people leave. It's even worse if your hardcore players report back to the general public that there is nothing to do and that the game sucks. It's about what you get to as much as it is about getting there. Right now, 50 to 70% of our team is dedicated to elder content. We need a lot of it, and it has to be replayable. A huge chunk of the coolest stuff is happening in the elder content because that's when it has to pay off.He and all the other themepark designers out there are right that people now trained to rush through content will do so and then consume anything consumable laid out before them, be it leveling or raids. He is right that these rushers will fall prey to the peak-end rule that says people judge their experiences based on their peak and their end and not their sum, and that's what will color what they report to the slowbie masses and late-adopters once those rushers "finish" what is essentially finish-able content in spite of the intended design.
But where he is wrong is in focusing two-thirds of the staff and the game, a "huge chunk," exclusively at the end. If your game doesn't start until the end, why did you even bother designing anything else? The people who realize your early game is a weakly designed timesink will leave. The people who prefer that first third will be disappointed that the game at the end is not what you trained them to like and leave. People who like alts and midgaming will be annoyed that most of the "coolest stuff" is too distant for them and leave. And worse? The rushers will see right through your "replayable content" and still leave.
All you've done by investing so much in a rusher-oriented endgame is double-down on the problem. Now you're stuck with powercreep as you're forced to continually keep those endgamers chasing loot carrots. You've no incentive to balance anything that doesn't feed right into the cap. You've no reason to build a crafting economy that functions at all levels. Players needn't emotionally invest in your game at all until they're essentially done with it and being funneled into a repetitive dailies or encounter cycle, even one as unique as the competitive one WildStar is offering. The leveling game becomes a triviality, an annoyance, a hindrance to getting to the "real game," a game that's suddenly less about an open world and exploration and construction and more about a linear start-middle-finish progression track as you band together with near-strangers for chances at loot. And that means the community suffers when the other players in the game become a means to that same end, when everyone is measured in terms of his gearscore and raiding and endgame achievements because that's what the game told them was important. The illusion you created and we wanted to believe in, that the world and our travels through it mattered, is lost. The only thing that ever mattered was the finish line.
I'm not saying sandboxes are perfect. They have plenty of their own retention problems with folks who need guidance and structure to have a good time and with designs that rely too heavily on unfettered PvP. I'm not saying raiding is the problem; there is no reason that a game without an endgame can't have raiding or any of the other activities traditionally delayed until the end of the themepark experience. And I'm not saying WildStar is doomed just because of elder game nonsense. There are certainly worse themepark offenders (WildStar at least has housing and Settlers to keep people like me interested, and yes, I'm still buying it), and while I disagree with the game's stated philosophy, it might still turn out to be a lot of fun in spite of its intentions (a lot of games are!).
But just once I'd like to see a themepark developer abandon rather than embrace the oh my god must retain raiding endgamers at all costs train, someone who could see that focusing resources so heavily on this one tiny slice of all the possible gamers and gameplay mechanics out there has worked in a big way only once in a now-declining themepark -- and is not the only way forward for our genre. You simply cannot create a game without an end by pouring your everything into its endgame.
The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.