Saturday, November 21, 2009


Getting there isn't always half the fun. Sometimes it's a pain in the arse; a necessary evil, if you will. In this article, we analyze and discuss the "endgame" aspect to MMOs.


You know I'll do it eventually, so let's just get the definition ( out of the way first.

end·game also end game
1. Games The final stage of a chess game after most of the pieces have been removed from the board.
2. The final stage of an extended process or course of events: the diplomatic endgame that led to the treaty.

We'll focus on definition #2, which seems applicable to our endeavor. It begins with "(t)he final stage" which might seem rather dead-ended and absolute, but it speaks nothing of the nature of the aforementioned stage.

Further, it goes on to speak about "an extended process or course of events". Certainly this describes the leveling process as toons are taken from the creation screen to the final level. It's an extended process, or so the accounting department of the MMO hopes.

And there lies the careful balance between the project managers (or developers if you are inclined to not differentiate), the bean counters, and the subscribers.

We, the willing subscribers, are consumers in every essence of the word. As a customer base, we congest, digest, and crap everything that comes our way so that the least amount of effort is required for the maximum amount of reward in the smallest amount of time.

This runs completely against what the accounting department would like. The longer it takes for the subscribers to complete their goals, the more money said subscribers will have paid to their account.

Caught between this mess are the "developers". (And henceforth, we'll just call them that, despite the fact that producers, artists, designers, testers and even the community team are all significant parts that contribute to the product despite not being developers in the pure sense of the word.) At any rate, the developers are tasked with providing content for the consumers while ensuring the content isn't consumed so fast as to minimize subscription dollars.

How does this relate to "endgame"? Well, I'm getting to that, aren't I?

There are two well-established approaches to providing content to consumers.

The first approach is a series of chained quests can be arranged in such a way, with precisely measured rewards and experience, to allow toons to traverse the ladder towards the final level available. It is a fairly exact science that is self-analyzing in such a way that it's evident where new quests are required or when certain rewards need tweaking in either direction.

The second approach can often be sprinkled in with the first. This involves a repetitive action that rewards experience with little or no storyline or direction. Simply visit location x and kill creature y until level z. Move to the next "x" when you are ready.

Armed with these two tools in the kit, developers are able to control the rate at which the subscribers consume and level.

But if beta testing has proven anything it's that the hardcore "consumers" don't beta test, or if they do, they keep the power-leveling secrets to themselves until it's "go live" time for the game. After launch, the game is really put through rigorous leveling tests. Development is in reaction mode, patching together the leveling framework as subscribers rip through the content. Such tweaking and patching will likely continue for the first few years of an MMO.

And so, subscribers begin to reach the final achievable level. If there's nothing left to do, it's safe to assume that many subscribers shutdown their account and start downloading the next MMO. The Head Bean Counter starts knocking on the Head Developers cubicle wall clutching printouts of the latest subscription numbers. Usually there's a colorful line chart that starts in the upper left corner of the page and plummets to the lower right.

That's where "endgame" comes in to save the day.

Now hopefully the endgame content has been established before the game has launched, but we begin to discuss it here to better parallel how a toon will advance to reach this stage.

What does this stage hold? New areas to explore? Probably not. New monsters to defeat? Maybe one final boss monster, but why would there be more in this final stage? New equipment? Yeah, but for what purpose? PvP? It's not everyone's cup of joe. Help newbs or lowbies? That isn't exclusive to the final level.

If the MMO has been successful, the company will slap together an Expansion to grab the one-off purchases. Development sticks five or ten new levels on top, replicates existing creature code then cranks up the numbers, rolls in a few more rewards and the consumers set about consuming again because quite frankly there's not a one of them that approves of no longer being as uber as possible. (We really ARE our own worst enemies in this little triangle of business, aren't we?)

Expansions just are smoke and mirrors, a way for developers to give instant gratification to both the subscribers and the accounting folks. And our favorite power-levelers are going to be finished the expansion before you're even through downloading it.

The rate of consumption will always outstrip development. Liken it to a movie. A summer blockbuster may take years to complete, but you'll only need two hours to watch it, even counting your time sitting through the credits to see that brief Samuel L. Jackson extra clip that you heard so much about. (And then someone had to explain it to you, unless you're a comic book geek.)

Development will lose the battle since the difference between movie goers and MMO subscribers is (well among a lot of things) that MMO subscribers continue to pay even after they've completed the content.

Accounting will lose the battle without the help of a good marketing team. Whiz! Bang! Golly! Look at what's coming up next in your favorite MMO! Oh, and if you go on a multi-month subscription plan, you'll get this hat for your toon. Plus guaranteed access to this other MMO beta we're developing!

Because quite frankly, we don't care if your particular MMO is working as you like, we just want you to play ANY of our MMOs because it's your MONEY we're after. We know you're fickle, and we know you'll jump ship from your MMO... so here... come jump to another one of OUR games!

It's not really "endgame", but rather "nextgame". A subscriber may be playing only Star Wars Galaxies, but they will often see links, banners, graphics and promotions for other Sony Online Entertainment games. Many game companies have made it a practice to create launchers in order to access the game servers. Don't be fooled into thinking this is some sort of convenient application for subscribers; this is a marketing tool to make you interested in other games that the company offers.

Because who wants to see grayed-out buttons that could lead to other games? We're gamers, dammit. And grayed out things means that there's more to consume! Rah!

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