Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 13, 2007
End game options

No part of a MMORPG is discussed as much as the end game. In most games the end game is significantly different than the leveling game leading up to it. And this change of direction doesn't go down well with everybody. Furthermore there are different approaches in different games to how the end game should look. So I thought I'd compile a list of the different options, discussing their advantages and disadvantages.

The first option for an end game is not to have one. Or as Mind Bending Puzzles proposes: a game over screen with a cut scene showing you as having vanquished the game. While there aren't any MMORPGs I know that do that (only ATITD has an end at all), a game over screen is what you'd expect in any single player RPG. Games like Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy don't have an end game. The obvious disadvantage, and reason why this doesn't exist for MMORPGs, is that people tend to stop playing after reaching the game over screen. Game companies simply don't want to lose the monthly fees. The key to overcome that disadvantage is replayability. Games like World of Warcraft or the upcoming Warhammer Online have great replayability, because starting as a different race, preferably with a different class, gives you a completely new experience, with new quests and zones to explore. A MMORPG with a game over screen could also use a feature many console games have, unlocking new character classes every time you reach the game over screen. Blizzard's decision to have hero classes start already at high level is a missed opportunity; added low level content for new Deathknights would have been better.

Another way to avoid an end game alltogether would be to make a game with infinite levels. That isn't as crazy as it sounds, as many parameters in the game are already scalable. The only problem is that you obviously can't have an infinite number of developers creating new content, thus the content would have to be randomly generated. But a game which plays in randomly generated instanced dungeons, recycling the same dungeon tiles and monsters over and over could have an infinite number of levels. The reason why this isn't done brings us to the one big advantage of having an end game: When everybody is at the same level, it is easier for people to play together. Sure, there are still differences in equipment and player skill. But it is much easier to play together for a group of level 70 characters than for a group with a big level difference between the highest and the lowest player. So now we are at a point where we want leveling to stop, and while we still want to hand out rewards, we don't want these rewards to cause huge differences in power between the players, because that would be as bad as them having different levels. So, what can we do?

The model proposed by games like Everquest or World of Warcraft is to fill the end game with raids and other activities which take an enourmous effort for a small chance to get a small improvement to your character. If you drew a curve of power increase versus time the raid end game is where the curve goes asymptotic, approaching a ceiling slower and slower, never really arriving there. But speed isn't the only difference between the raiding game and the leveling game. The other very important difference is the number of people you play with. Leveling is done very often solo, or in small groups. Raid groups are much larger. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Advantage because you get to play with a large group, which can be a lot of fun. Disadvantage because organizing a large group to all turn up at the same place at the same time and stay together for several hours is difficult. If for Real Life® reasons you can't play at the same time as everybody else, or you can't play for several hours in one session, you are effectively excluded from the raiding end game. While there is a bit of soloable PvE end game, in the form for example of reputation grinds, they are not as much fun as raiding.

The alternative to a PvE end game is a PvP end game. Experience tells us that this is bloody hard to get right. One of the earliest lessons in MMORPG history is that free-for-all PvP isn't working very well. PvP by definition has a winner and a loser. If the fight was "fair", both winner and loser might come out of it with some sort of satisfaction. But if the fight was very unfair, like 3 guys ambushing one guy, and then camping his corpse, the loser is going to be very, very unhappy. And the satisfaction the winners get out of ganking somebody is also limited. Thus the overall sum of happiness that the fight produced is negative. Nobody wants to pay $15 a month to get beaten up virtually, so the more ganking goes on, the faster the game bleeds subscribers. More successful PvP systems have various restrictions, for example consentual PvP, in which you either need to flag yourself or enter a special PvP zone to indicate your consent to participate in PvP. Even more restrictive are PvP features like battlegrounds, where the numbers and levels of the two sides are more or less evened out. But as battlegrounds constantly reset to the initial state, people often get bored and demand a PvP with more consequences. The current best idea around is realm versus realm PvP, of Dark Age of Camelot fame, and about to be taken to the next level in Warhammer Online. But making a good PvP end game is still hard, and we don't know yet whether WAR will succeed in that. One problem with realm vs. realm PvP is that just like raiding it isn't a soloable activity. Even worse than PvE raiding, the best time for a PvP raid is often in the small hours of the morning, where you'd expect little resistance. Which is great for the small number of people who can afford to raid from 3 am to 6 am, but not really a viable way to play a game for people with a normal life.

I haven't really seen games with good soloable PvP. I would imagine that it would be possible to make lets say a Gladiator PvP game (better than Gladiatus) in which you duel other players in an arena in a large variety of different combat types. The Romans invented a lot of those, with different weapons, with and without savage animals, and with some other rules variations. Should be possible to reproduce that in an online game. But even duels are hard to get right in a MMORPG, where classes are often balanced to perform different roles in a PvE group. Thus the better you make your PvP, the more you need to diminish your MMORPG part, until you finally arrive at some variation of Counterstrike and no MMORPG at all.

The biggest problem with PvP games is that very often the developers think that if they have end game PvP, they don't need anything else. Unfortunately that doesn't work. While human opponents are more intelligent than computer opponents, they are limited by the restrictions of their characters and the PvP system. If you fight two characters of the same class one after the other, the combats won't be all that different from each other. The idea that PvP never grows old because it would be a form of player-created content is wrong. Usually players try the PvP system as intended for a while, get bored quickly, and then either cancel their accounts, or start harassing other players out of sheer boredom, regardless of the consequences.

A totally different form of end game comes from the surprising observation what the players of Ultima Online did once they were offered a chance to escape PvP. It turned out that those players who stayed very long in the game often spent large amounts of time with fluff, with features that didn't increase the power of their characters at all. The biggest fluff thing was decorating your house with ultra-rare items, which were purely decorative. The end game becomes the point where you stop playing a game, and you start living in a virtual world. Not easy to pull of either, but features like player housing obviously help a lot here.

Neither end game option is able to retain players in a MMORPG for long. So ideally an end game has many different elements, PvP and PvE, group and solo, adventuring and economy and fluff. World of Warcraft is nearly there, although their PvP still is far from perfect, and WoW is weak on fluff. A dream game would have you live in a virtual world, having a house and possessions there, being active in defending those from PvE and PvP threats, while working to increase your possessions in various ways from crafting to treasure hunting. How to realize all that in an actual game nobody knows. But I think the genre will be moving in that direction, because games offering a lot of different content will over time fare better than games concentrating on single features.

World of Warcraft or the upcoming Warhammer Online have great replayability, because starting as a different race, preferably with a different class, gives you a completely new experience, with new quests and zones to explore.

I can't speak for Warhammer Online, but WoW only has unique quest and zones for the first 20 levels; after that all the races are funneled into the same areas. Yes, there will still be an occasional quest line that is race specific, but the majority of quest after level 20 are shared by every race in your faction - and even this isn't completely true as Gnomes and Dwarfs share the same newbie zone/quest.

Shame on you Tobold )

do sapping opposing player repeatedly in gadgetzan considered a form of fair PVP ?
WoW only has unique quest and zones for the first 20 levels; after that all the races are funneled into the same areas. Yes, there will still be an occasional quest line that is race specific, but the majority of quest after level 20 are shared by every race in your faction - and even this isn't completely true as Gnomes and Dwarfs share the same newbie zone/quest.

Not so fast. Okay, WoW has less newbie zones than races. But still it has 6 different newbie zones, and after level 20 there are 4 different paths to go until about level 40. Then there is a bottleneck in the form of Stranglethorn, but after that there are again many different options to get to level 60, where Hellfire Peninsula forms another major bottleneck, before Outland gives you lots of options in the mid-60s.

I can get at least 4 characters to level 40 without doing the same quest twice, and to 60 if you don't count Stranglethorn. Compared to lets say Tabula Rasa, which only has one race, one newbie zone, and one way to level up, that is a lot of replayability.
Regarding infite levels

My introduction into this type of game was MUME (Multi Users in Middle Earth) which was a MUD (and I am sure most of you know that MUDs were essentially the forerunners to the modern MMORPGs)

They handled it as follows
levels 1-25 you gained power quickly (as per current games such as wow) On reaching level 26 you became a "legend" at which point each level gained gave you a power increase equivalent to 10% of what you had sub-25

So for example, if a warrior gained 10 hit points and 5 "practice points" (kind of like talent points in wow) each time he levelled from 1-25, getting a level at "legend" status would net you 1 hit point and 0.5 practice points (or 1 point every 2 levels)

So this meant that power gain slowed down significantly once you reached 25

So in pvp (or pk as it was called back then) a level 25 could fight a level 45 and stand a chance of winning as the level 45 was equivalent in power to only 2 levels above him

You would quite often see groups go into the mines of moria (the nearest thing to "end game" that was available) with level ranges between 25 and 75, and nobody was being "boosted" as the power difference wasnt that big

Clearly todays MMORPGS are much more complex that a MUD, with many more stats to take into account, but would the basic idea not work ?
hey tobold have you ever heard/played kingdom of loathing? I think it has another different type of endgame, ascension, which basically means that you restart your character at level 1, with skills/rewards depending on your previous ascension of course...
I'd really like to see this type of endgame in a client based MMORPG, I think it'll be interesting

the ascension system used in that game can be read here
personally i would like to see the skill-system again instead of level-system.

i just loved the swg-pre-whatever-system where you could switch 'classes' pretty easy.
ok, it costs a lot of time and killing stuff to even get 'skilled' again, but it really felt like you are learning a 'class'.

my personal mmo-mix

- swg skill system
- wow pve-end-raiding
- daoc/war pvp-end-raiding
- eve/swg economy
- eve/swg housing
- uo fluff
Maybe some sort of incentive for levelling more characters - faster levelling plus special items, skills, areas or quests only available to people who've already got a character at the endcap.

And if you've got *two* characters at the endcap, your next alt gets access to yet more stuff, and so on. This couldn't go on forever, of course.

Then there could be an advantage to those characters already at the endcap, if you've got more than one at the highest level - I don't know what that advantage could be, not having reached the endgame yet myself ;-)

Maybe this is similar to what anon mentioned about Kingdom of Loathing, but without having to restart your character.
The problem I have with replayability is when you play solo that isn't too hard to start another class, but often times in a MMOG I'm in a raid guild and have no desire to just start over with a new class/race because I enjoy playing with the people I k now. The only time I was able to do that in WoW was when I quit for 7 months and started back fresh on a new server.
In an off-line game, you normally get to save the world (or similar) just before the Game Over screen comes up.
In WoW and others like it, you are just as likely to have delivered a box of fish to an NPC when you hit Lv 70. Not quite the 'Game Over - you won' scenario you might have been expecting.
Not only that, but you know that Illidan is still safe in his keep, and you never even got to go inside it, never mind beat him. So you know that the game isn't over, but as a solo player you can no longer progress in the game without other people to help you.
It is probably that realisation that is so disappointing for some.

How many times have you played a game off-line, decided that you have grown bored with it, but keep playing just so that you can get to the final 'Game Over' screen? I know I have. HALO in legendary mode springs to mind, as does Diddy Kong Racing, and Alien Resurrection on the PSOne.
I want Game Over screens, but only when the game IS truly over.
In the early days of Asherons Call 1, no one ever hit the level cap, and each level had diminishing returns while the amount of xp needed to go up increased exponentially. Basically you would hit 50-60ish and stop caring about leveling, because it was a huge amount of work for little reward (at least on Darktide, although that was a completely different experience since it was PvP)

I'm actually very surprised someone has not copied the AC1 model in terms of skills/levels/pvp and given it a new coat of paint. It would certainly make for an interesting game if done right.
EQ in the PoP era got as close as any MMORPG has gotten to the Game Over screen. When you beat the final boss, the prisoner gets rescued by his patron diety (pretty much the only one you haven't killed on your way in...), who sends you "back in time". Essentially saying you've done it all, good for you, but if you move forward it will end, and I can't allow that. While I felt Druzzil's script really needed work, you got the general gist.

Compare that to a very well written "To be Continued" from Mayong in DoD when you kill him. Probably one of the best death "events" in EQ. I can think of a few that come close, plus an absolutely amazing graphic one that was pulled out in the beta of LoY, but those two are the ones that come to mind as being the best "ends".

If EQ1 could have WoW's speed buffing and CR, it would be the best raiding enviroment. I truly enjoyed EQ1's raiding enviroment.
Sorry Tobold. Wow only has great replayability for people that like repeating the content over and again. In the first two years I played I did every quest in every area with my first toon. I like to explore so I did. After that when I got bored all I was left with was rolling horde and leaving my friends behind.

I don't like to Replay the same content so for at least some of us the replayability of WOW is limited to once on the alliance side and once on the horde side.

Now my best friend has levled 15 or more alts and could go back through the leveling areas 50 times.

I tried starting over with BC and made it through the draenae starting area hit the old 20 to 30 zones and just faded away.

I've said from day one if Blizzard was really serious about replayablity Every race would have enough quests in thier own zones to level to 50 without leaving them. Now that would be awesome. Then you could level to 50 once for each race and it would be new every time.
As a few others have mentioned as well, I'm more in favor of ditching the levels altogether.

I lost count of how many people in WoW thought "oh, ok, I'm done" when they hit the level cap. To them, the game was questing, grinding, whatever it took to get that xp bar rising. Once the xp bar went away they did one of two things: re-rolled a new character and started over, or quit the game.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if the origin of the term "end game" came from levels-based games where the "I've reached the end" mentality can be seen.

Dropping levels would also eliminate the problem of out-leveling your friends.

I'm curious...
Did you really go back and find all of those gray quests and do them at way past the target level?
Because, at least on Horde-side, there is no way that I could, for example, do all the Barrens level 20-30 quests without the Stonetalon Mts., Ashenvale coast, and Hillsbrad Foothills quests going gray (especially if I ran WC, BFD, and SKF too).
And when they go gray, there is no longer a yellow "!" to signal "Hey, questgiver here!"

You played the game for 2 years without having to worry about replay?

Blizzard my hat is off to you. Well done.
Great discussion. Great topic.

I'm one of the people who gets very, very frustrated with MMO end games. I've quite two shortly after reaching the level cap for some of the very reasons outlined here.

-I don't enjoy huge time investments for incremental power increases (like raiding for gear)
-I don't enjoy PVP that's won by gear and numbers more than skill (partly because I'm always late to the game and have a long ladder to catch up)
-I don't enjoy being locked out of interest end game exploration and content because I can't commit the time

One thing I think you touched on but didn't fully explore in what makes end games work is the issue of social involvement. I DO enjoy the fluff and immersion. I'd like to see a game that supports this more, although WoW seems to make things more "gamey" and less immersive. I'm exploring other games to see what they offer, although demos don't really give a good glimpse of endgame.


I agree that WoW has good replayability. I kept my subscription alive longer while I leveled different classes and races into their 30s. But it doesn't have GREAT replayability thanks to the painful bottlenecks.


Ultimately, I think the structure of these MMOs is flawed. Why do we have to melt the two games (leveling and end game) together? Why not have a game WITHOUT leveling? Yes, it's an easy structure to implement, a familiar treadmill fans will happily hop on and enjoy for several months. But end games could easily be designed that have none of it but still have great RPG elements.

What experiments have done in that direction? As I understand it, Guildwars makes leveling an insignificant part of the game (although it's still there), and ATITD treats leveling as something different.

But is there anything else?
Remember the start of Dungeon Siege? Where your farm is being attacked by goblins, so you grab a hoe and start killing greenskins. Imagine an MMO that lets you do that, but after the gobbos are dead the game lets you go back to your farm & duties of growing crops, raising cattle, sheep & chickens, etc. Sure, you can continue down the road in pursuit of the gobbos and become a great adventurer, or you can stay and work the farm, a la Harvest Moon, just with the occasional goblin trying to make off with one of your chickens.

Or imagine hitting 60 (or 70) and buying a farm or a small cottage and hanging up your sword and shield, literally, you & people visiting can see them hanging on your living room wall. You defeated the Big Bad Guy & saved the world and now you've retired to a quiet life in the country.

Of course you don't have to hang up your sword & shield. You and your Guild could also rent a building in town to house your Guild, and its appearance would change depending on your in-game accomplishments. What a way to recruit members for your Guild, having them stop by and see what you're capable of. How cool would it be to have your own Guild Bar, complete with basic Barroom games (darts, poker, etc) where you & your Guildmates could hang out and play when you're not out killing Monsters.

If done properly, that game would be your WoW-killer.
I may have missed a few but not many. I like to explore. I've talked to every npc i could find. I actually swam around both continents just to see what was there before I every had a 60. I would find things my friends who were already 60 never found. I like to explore. But even if I missed a dozen or so quests there not enough there to keep me interested.

My problem I know. But the next game that actually adds content everywhere and not just in new areas will be my happy place to be.
I still vote for end game being a real end of game, even though I know it isn't going to happen. I just love finishing games and I hate the awkward partings that mmorpgs give rise to.

By the way thank you for the links Tobold. You have single handedly cause a spike in my (admittedly miniscule) page hits. It looks like I have been "Tobolded".
A MMO that needs some kind of endgame isn't a real MMO in my opinion.
I vote for dropping the term "end game" altogether. End game should mean we see "The End" and credits start rolling.

Permadeath would mean "the end" certainly, for that character.

What if there was a months-long (or longer) Legendary Quest chain that *if* you choose to undertake, once completed that character is done permanently? Perhaps becomes an NPC or his achievements hallmarked somewhere for the common peon adventures to read about. Using WoW as an example, if your Horde character completes this Legendary story and becomes a hero of the horde, it becomes available for Blizzard to use as an NPC as a basis for a future quest chain, storyline, or perhaps a raid boss for the Alliance to fight. Again, that's certainly "end game" for that character.

The problem is we have three games thrown together with very little commonality between them: PvE leveling, crafting, raiding. PvP ranking could be a fourth, but in the context I'm using it, it's the same as PvE leveling. Each is a treadmill of its own, each has a different mentality among the player base.
Player Housing!

I've spent more hours searching for rares to display in my UO house than I ever did raiding in WoW...
I always become a bit sad when I read these kind of posts and comments. There are games out there already that are classless and skill based. Darkfall is coming up soon, but it practically only have features that for instance Wurm Online already has such as player housing and realm pvp.

In a sense this will make people level in every skill instead of course but if it is like in Wurm where you never can reach 100 and instead produce items or enchantments with a little bit better quality it doesn't feel pointless.

If you look a tiny bit outside mainstream you may find some amazing games already there.

By the way - I also play MUME. MUME ROCKS!
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