On Starting Experiences – Addendum 3 of 2 -Why Is There an “Endgame” Anyways?

Before I resume the pile-on of Shadowlands beta info, I wanted to get out two additional posts about starting and level-up experiences in MMOs. One comment in my last post on the topic from Bhagpuss got me thinking.

I really enjoy Bhagpuss’ writing because there are some things on which we fundamentally disagree and seek different experiences, and that is something I enjoy about his writing – he advocates for a different version of the MMO compared to what I am familiar and comfortable with, and it is something I genuinely appreciate.

So, his comment amounting to “remove the endgame not the levels” sparked a variety of responses in my head. My kneejerk response, which I did not make as a comment, was that the idea was silly and incompatible with most modern MMOs. As I let the thought percolate for longer, though, I came back to a thought I often had in 2005 during the beginnings of my WoW tenure.

The concept of endgame is somewhat weird, when you think about it. In WoW’s case, whole portions of content and game modes aren’t even available until you reach the current level cap. FFXIV does better through synced content, allowing someone who is leveling for the first time to try the content as they go, and it isn’t uncommon for new players to do all the content at each stop for the sake of story – hitting 50, doing all the dungeons, raids, MSQ and such, and then moving to Heavensward, doing the same at 60, then at 70, until reaching current day. It is time-consuming and somewhat difficult to find groups to do that, but for a lot of the game’s content, the scaling systems and roulette approach work for it, save for the level 50 Coil of Bahamut raids, which are not in a roulette.

When I first started playing WoW, the thought I had quite often as I got on track towards the level cap was “why aren’t there lower-level raids for us to do?” WoW used to, in vanilla, allow sub-60 players who otherwise met raid requirements to zone in and play, and I have fond memories of having done my Onyxia attunement around level 55 and getting my first kill around 56. Even still, that was a moment that came after months of gameplay, and was so close to the level cap that it kind of doesn’t matter, especially as a healer.

One of the complaints I have made in this series about leveling is that at endgame in most modern combat MMOs, you are expected to learn a hell of a lot of stuff. Suddenly, you have to learn about raid composition, what a raid group even is, how to find groups for organized raiding, the horrors of LFR, multiple difficulties on dungeons, Keystones, world quests, and so much more. Hitting the level cap dumps a truckload of new things on a player in WoW, and while FFXIV has less of that thanks to unlock quests which drip feed that content to players, it still has a lot of new things that exist at the endgame just for players who’ve reached that point.

A question occurred to me from this thought today which finally gave me the impetus to put text to screen, which is this – why can’t so-called “endgame content” exist throughout the leveling curve?

World quests, for example? On a technical level, we know Blizzard can make them available to any player as they’ve done in both the Legion invasion and War of the Thorns pre-expansion events. Why not make it such that you finish a quest hub in leveling content and unlock a series of related world quests which can be done for addition experience and perhaps even loot or reputation rewards? Dungeons exist across the spread of levels in WoW, why not make it such that Heroic or even Mythic difficulty dungeons get sprinkled in as you level, with scaling tech to keep them relevant up to the endgame? Raids are tricky, but world bosses for multiple expansions now exist and just sit on the horizon scaring level-up players. Why not scale them to level along with the other dynamic scaling factors that already exist and allow leveling players a chance to tackle the boss as a part of a raid? Maybe on the instanced front, you could gather story-related raids and create scaling, LFR-lite versions of the content. Like a “Fate of the Black Dragonflight” series that gathers Onyxia’s Lair, Blackwing Lair, Obsidian Sanctum, Blackwing Descent, and Dragon Soul into a queue-able series of LFR “wings” you can run past a certain (sub-cap) level? You could do lots of those – an “elemental” series that would have Molten Core and Firelands, or a “Servants of the Void” series with Ruby Sanctum, Bastion of Twilight, (maybe again) Dragon Soul, Heart of Fear, Siege of Orgrimmar, and Ny’alotha. You could reward set appearances with scaled stats for the player’s level that hearken to the theme of the series.

PvP does well enough with bringing in more players regardless of level, but perhaps arena could be more available at low levels, or scaling to allow rated play? I’m not a big PvP fan, but it is something that I think could do well with small tweaks to make it broadly more applicable at low levels.

Now, ultimately, I’ll acknowledge that what I’ve proposed here is a synthesis of Bhagpuss’ position with my own. His proposal is “no endgame” and mine is “endgame is my favorite stuff, so bring select endgame content to everyone regardless of level” and I know that in my proposed and ideal worlds, there is still an endgame to play in. However, I do think that there is a lot of merit to focusing on offering players really strong content and chances to learn the systems previously reserved for endgame at all levels. There’s no reason in the current state of WoW that a player gets dungeons and battlegrounds in the 10’s and doesn’t get raiding or higher-difficulty dungeons outside of legacy content until 120. It only exists as an arbitrary line drawn to save content for later in the cycle, and I think it is a part of why a lot of more casual players tend to hit the endgame and sort of burnout or meander through small pieces of the experience.

I’ve been with WoW from the beginning, roughly, and so each change to the endgame that has led to today has been a small event that has added to my existing understanding. I’ve had 15 years to wrap my head around the model, so unless Blizzard completely uproots the design and plants something new, I’m not going to have a hard time actually learning the ins and outs of it.

However, for that starting player, hitting 120 today is an unceasing barrage of new concepts, gameplay modes, dungeons, raids, and other challenges, and it stands to reason that a part of working on the new player experience, working on how a new player comes into contact with such systems deserves focus as well.

8 thoughts on “On Starting Experiences – Addendum 3 of 2 -Why Is There an “Endgame” Anyways?

  1. Thanks for all the namechecks 🙂

    Here’s the thing about MMORPG endgame, as it used to be: it always existed but most players never saw it. It was the city in the clouds. You could see it up there, shining with an ethereal light. You hoped you’d reach it one day but you knew it would be a long, hard journey. You also knew that you were chasing a moving target. Before you ever got to the golden gates the city would have drifted higher, farther out of reach, and your journey would go on and on.

    You can see it to an extent in Classic WoW even now. Even with all the huge advantages of a modern player, with all the strats and guides and metas, plenty of people took months to reach the level cap. It would have been considerably slower to get to cap in Vanilla but in the games that came before WoW it was very much not when you would get to max level but if.

    When I make claims like that these days it sounds unlikely, exaggerated, even to me but it was objectively true. In 2002-2004 I was in a middling-sized EQ guild (somewhere around fifty players) and also a multi-guild chat custom channel with about thirty or so members. I was at the top end of that guild, having (eventually) two characters at cap. By no means everyone in the guild had any capped characters even though most people played what would be considered an obsessive amount of hours a week these days.

    In the chat channel we had a very wide range of players including people from much bigger guilds than mine, including a few people from some of the top raiding guilds on the server at the time. Those players, the raiders, played a completely different game from the rest of us and we all knew it. Some people aspired to join them and play at the highest levels, in the endgame, but even those who wanted to get there didn’t expect to. And in the time I played, none of them did.

    Partly that was because the game was very slow by modern standards but also in another way it was very fast. For years we had a full expansion every six months. A new, boxed expansion, on sale in stores, twice a year. Every six months there was a ramp in difficulty at the endgame, whether or not there was a level increase. For most players there just wasn’t enough time to catch up so the endgame, although it existed, may as well not have been there.

    That’s kind of the experience I have in mind when I question the necessity of the endgame but also I am thinking of something very like what you suggest in the post. When EQII began, at exactly the same time as WoW, it did have raids at all levels. It had (still has, actually) raid mobs in starter zones. I guess those would be called “world bosses” these days but they required a raid – a raid of characters in the teens. Higher levels would grey the mob out, no-one would get loot or xp, so they existed purely for characters of the correct level to raid.

    And it wasn’t just single mobs in outdoor zones. There were (and still are) instanced raids for characters in the teens, twenties, thirties and so on. I never enjoyed raiding but I did a fair bit in the low and mid levels. Most people did because quests would lead into it and there were plenty of PUG raids. After a while, though, that kind of content began to migrate to the high end only. When every expansion only adds content at the existing cap and up to the new one, that’s inevitable. It’s also quite annoying if, like me, you preferred the way it used to be done, when most expansions added content at the bottom and in the middle as well as at the top.

    Every game seems to end up going this way. GW2, for example, is very good at consistently adding all kinds of content to the game at all levels and keeping older zones relevant to high-level players, but even there, these days, most content now requires a max level character and there are lots of max level only zones. It’s the archetypal game that shouldn’t have an endgame due to its basic design principles and yet it still has managed somehow to create one.

    I wonder if perhaps ESO has managed to avoid the problem with the One Tamriel thing? Since I haven’t got past the teens I can’t tell but I’ve heard a few things that suggest perhaps the endgame there is a little less “end” than in other MMOs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for checking it out! I do legitimately enjoy the different perspective because it makes me think about what I like about my games and why I enjoy them, which tends to help me enjoy them more!

      I followed EQ1 as a curiosity in my teenage years and read a lot about it in Computer Gaming World. I think it had a lot of things to like (and clearly guided the direction of WoW a lot!) and some of that is in things that sound gameplay-unfriendly (long leveling times, xp loss on deaths, non-instanced endgame content) but those things add a lot of memorability to stuff and I think modern games miss out on some of those moments by being friendlier.

      When I played Vanilla, having my full tier set was a cool thing that felt unique, even 2 years into the lifespan of the game. But the game’s success I think was a problem – it created an environment where endgame content is equated with being a good game, and so many MMOs since then push for max-level content above all else (it feels like this dovetails with the point about GW2). I don’t inherently think that endgame being more accessible or available is bad, but I do see a loss of special-ness from it. It used to feel good and important to raid because so few people did (the Vanilla stat that 0.5% of players completed Naxxramas sticks out in that context). Now, there’s not really anything distinguishing raiding and it has become a part of the expected stuff most people do, even if the numbers indicate that organized raiding is still around 25% of the playerbase. I’d have to chew on this one longer to have something smarter to say or an actual point, but it is an interesting thought.

      Grimmtooth made a good comment already to this extent, but I agree with his and your point here – WoW’s biggest failing and influence on the larger genre and ecosystem is that too many games just add stuff that extends from level cap A to new level cap B, and so you have a growing stretch of old content that has no real meaning or purpose to exist for players who’ve already done it. In WoW fandom, a lot of us celebrated Blizzard using old zones for artifact weapon quests in Legion, or for the starting experience of Battle for Azeroth, because it is so rare that they ever revisit anything old!

      Visiting this topic multiple times at different angles has really pushed my thought around how you could even solve this “problem” within a single game, or if the problem is that, to Jeromai’s point in their comment, that what the model WoW uses is actually two different games and trying to make them one is the real problem.

      It’s a curious dilemma, for sure!

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  2. In City of Heroes, they had something called Exemplars and Sidekicks, which allowed higher level players to play lower level content at level with lower level toons, or sidekicks which would be allowed to play higher level content in the company of a higher level toon. I don’t remember the details of how it all worked, but I remember thinking how spiffy the concept was. It allowed a wider selection of players to see higher level content and learn the ropes.

    I would also like to see a system that kept all content areas (i.e. Outland) viable and usable by users at endgame level. That is the thing that bugs me most about WoW content – that it’s such as complete and utter waste of hard drive space. It would require a lot of rethinking basic concepts on Blizz’ part, which makes me feel that we’ll see that, like, NEVER.

    I do like the challenge of “let’s get rid of endgame content completely” because yes, it is kind of non-intuitive. I also feel there may be a strong contingent of endgame players that would feel personally attacked if “their space” was suddenly threatened, much in the way that they can hate on LFR like nobody’s business – I think it’s natural. They see endgame as “their turf” and won’t take kindly to an invasion into that turf.

    MOSTLY, though – engame makes sense when there’s an end. WoW started out with an end, and ended up more popular than Blizz expected, so it’s fundamental design was flawed from the beginning. Nobody released Vanilla with the intent of setting up an expansion. So that was never planned. And once the expansion became “a thing”, they were kind of trapped into the same anti-pattern – leveling content / attune / raid.

    To be honest I don’t even know what WoW would look like without endgame content.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a thought I like, to your last point – the reason this concept kind of traps my mind is specifically because it feels both like a thing you can do in WoW (or most modern endgame-focused MMOs) while also being something totally different to what is there and perhaps non-compatible. I like hearing about games that have tried something different in a similar vein!

      I agree on the hard drive space thing – it’d be really great to see the WoW team use all that legacy of content as more than a suspended museum.

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      1. Obviously my comment about drive space was taken a little too literally. I accept that modern (or modern-ish) games are going to be bloated with assets, my main lament is that there is all this stuff out there that we – and Blizz! – have on tap, and yet it’s just dead weight. I feel that they need to find a way to bring us back into those worlds, or, you know, end them.

        I like how often what I consider to be interesting and unique comes from dead games. Makes me go HMMM a little bit.

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  3. This is what happens when two entirely different games are bundled together in one ecosystem – the leveling game of progressively increasing numbers and the raid game of cooperative teamwork and coordination and multiple person scheduling to defeat progressively more difficult bosses.

    Folks who prefer the former will do just that and never touch the latter. Folks who prefer the latter but not the former will race through as fast and efficiently as they can, and look for every possible means to ‘skip’ the former so that they can finally get to the latter. MMOs who do both are banking on the hope that there are enough people who like -both- and are willing to play through both at a reasonable pace (which… may be less reasonable an assumption these days, given that plenty of people have tried both and know what they like.)

    I think we’re seeing the former leveling game being quite thoroughly broken off and explored in different game settings individually, from Diablo-like-and Destiny-like ARPGs that are all about increasing numbers and leveling, to even Progress Quest and clicker games that take the theme to extremes. It seems less easy to break off the latter game somehow.

    We see pieces of it in stuff like MOBAs and Monster Hunting games like Monster Hunter World and Dauntless, but the group sizes are 4 or 5 people at most. A few indies seem to be trying to simulate parts of it for singleplayer – Mini Healer and It’s a Wipe are some examples. No one has really dared to go for the really large group sizes yet, beyond MMOs. Perhaps they realize that a) it’s a small subset of people who can spare the time and effort for large group coordination, and b) even this group of people need stuff to do in between the periods the group comes together… which then means all the other side activities you find in a typical MMO.

    Basically, raiders need casuals (to support their ecosystem), but casuals don’t need raiders.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Basically, raiders need casuals (to support their ecosystem), but casuals don’t need raiders.”

      Alex, I’ll take “what is a money quote” for $500.

      Beautiful distillation of that particular dichotomy. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That is a set of good points that I largely agree with. There is a challenge inherent to pulling in players who are the casual, leveling-focused type for heavy group content. I still remember the era of WoW where raid sizes were changing and shifting almost per-expansion until they found flex scaling.

      Destiny is a good counterpoint – from the outside, it has the trappings of an endgame-focused MMO with group content in PvE, but feels like something different.

      My opinion is that the next “generation” of MMO is going to need to find better ways to solve the problems of how content is often at odds. Either you need to embrace leveling and use mechanics like the examples you cited as a starting point, or find new systems of gameplay to capture both audiences in new and different ways. That is a complicated problem and I’m not sure how you’d really solve it!

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