At AGDC last week Bioware’s Damion Schubert spoke about end-game design in MMOs. Massively notes:
Endgame gameplay, elder gameplay, is a mandatory and compelling part of the genre’s equation. In fact, in Damion’s opinion complex elder gameplay exemplifies what makes the massive genre what it is…
In reality, says Schubert, MMOs are generally really easy to play. Comparing the learning curve of an MMO to a single-player game is ludicrous; MMOs are like ‘popping bubble-wrap’ in comparison. This is because of the challenge of tuning leveling to every class and every build. The result is an experience that’s fairly mundane. The real challenge, the ‘worthy experience’ is the endgame encounter.
While endgame may seem like a strange or meaningless thing, it’s actually really important for every player. Even low level players are aware of powerful guilds and raid progression. Damion references the cutscene that happens when Kael is killed and a quest is turned in; this feels, truly, as though the world is advancing and changing. That’s vital for a vibrant community.
The most thing about elder gameplay is that is one of the few things that is actually massive. Massive gameplay is the one thing that this genre of games has to offer.
IGN reports that Schubert considers there to be two forms of endgame, PvP and PvE:
In order to pull players through the sometimes dull leveling process, Schubert says it’s necessary to give an indication of what’s going on at higher levels. In games where the endgame revolves around player versus player territorial control combat, for instance, a good game will let players view a territorial control map. On World War II Online’s site, for instance, the main page prominently displays the line of contest between the two sides and which side, the Axis or the Allies, are pushing forward. It’s, in effect, an advertisement for the dynamic, high level activity that most new players might not necessarily be aware of.
He went on to talk specifically about the advantages and drawbacks of territorial control PvP and PvE raiding. For territorial control, you need a few basics. You need affiliated teams, either pre-set (World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online) or more freeform. You also need a physical location within the game world that players can fight over. Once that’s established, you need to consider the logistics of battle, like far do players need to run to rejoin the battle after death and how long the battles will last. Schubert says that having some way to actually schedule fights is a solid notion, but you should also have a way to specify when that fight will end. Whatever the structure of the PvP conflict, Schubert says it’s a concept that needs to be slowly introduced to players early on, like with the territorial map, to give a player an idea of what the strongest in the game world are up to…
[PvE] Raid encounters are another major form of endgame content, and center around the idea of players working as a team to essentially solve a puzzle. Raid encounters center on boss fights. The draw, naturally, is the loot, but Schubert says there’s also the draw of solving the puzzle of the boss’ attack patterns. Bosses can have a number of different attack routines, from predictable patterns to randomized attacks to the summoning of minions. These types of actions work to engage players in a number of ways. It requires those in the raid to coordinate their positions and movement on the field of battle, manage their health, and also generates different sub-types of player classes outside of the standard tank, healer, and damage dealers.
Gamasutra notes some specific observations about PvP endgames:
“If your endgame is PVP, you need to think about how PVP is introduced to characters at the low levels,” Schubert cautions. “If players decide along the way to the endgame that they don’t like your PVP, they will decide the endgame is not for them.” Argues that you should protect players more at the lower level, so they have a positive PVP experience.
“People don’t pay money to suck. People do not want to pay $15 a month to be the Washington Generals.” This is something he learned when making Shadowbane – “the winners now had lots of resources and the city could thrive, and the losers had nothing. So what happened is eventually the losers stopped logging on, and the winners eventually had nothing to fight.”
“We had one server where one guild was so in control, that they banned a player class so they’d have somebody to fight,” said Schubert. Players woke up in the morning and found that they were “wanted.”
The solution, he says, is to be able to hit a button, in the game (so to speak) to indicate that one group of players have won, and that they can begin again.
Many of the social games on Facebook and on the web today don’t have any endgame at all. The gameplay more or less stays the same no matter how long you play Texas Hold’em, Owned, Lil Green Patch or Bowling Buddies, to name just a few. This is going to create a challenge for long term retention. Even for free to play games, it is your hard core users who pay you the most money. So it will also create a challenge for long term monetization.
The good news for web based games is that there is no need to develop an endgame at launch. You can afford to wait until you have a critical mass of users before developing an endgame as there is no need to solve this problem until you have “elder players”. And since you are a web based game, you can switch on an endgame at any time without having to worry about updating a client.
Often times, endgame play will emerge organically from the users. For example, Fluff Friends endgame play has become more focused on creating elaborate fluff art. Friends For Sale endgame play has become about collecting “sets” of people and other quest like achievements, often challenges set up the players themselves. These social games have developed endgames that are neither PvP nor PvE, but are instead more social in nature.
While it is great when endgame emerges on its own, social game designers can be more proactive in developing endgames to keep their best players engaged, and give their new players something to aspire to.