There’s an interesting article over here that details a presentation from the guy behind the Zen of Design blog. As much as I cast a baleful eye on the WoW mindset that “the game starts at 70″ and some of the misguided game design that comes from that, Damion Schubert has some great points.
Thing is, to my mind, the things that he talks about as being interesting in the endgame are really things that should be either interspersed throughout the leveling grind, or the leveling system itself needs to be severely recalibrated, or removed entirely. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the “endgame” is really the “true” potential of an MMO, why are we wasting time on a leveling system at all? What sort of MMO design could embrace the “endgame” mentality as Schubert describes it, and make a complete game based entirely on the parts of the game that are the whole point of the MMO genre?
There are a few troubles with having an “endgame” that is different from the “main game”. One, you have people effectively playing two different games, and the transition can be troublesome. BBB made a post about that a while back, and I’ve mentioned it before. Two, it’s almost a game design-enforced social stratification. People form snooty little cliques anyways, why have the game design contribute to that sort of nonsense? Three, if the leveling treadmill is the bulk of game content (it’s easy to make mindless quests and grinding zones), it’s effectively ignored once people hit the level cap and start the raiding/loot treadmill. That’s not good for the world, overhead, or the community.
Why not infuse the “main game” with the “endgame” mentality and design? Guild Wars has an intentionally short leveling grind, fairly heavy with story, largely because of the instanced nature of the game. It also has an “instant endgame” that you can just jump right into and play some solid PvP. Not only does this make skill paramount (rather than loot farming), but it allows people to play the “elder game” right out of the box. The GW design offers the best of both worlds, in a way, but it doesn’t synthesize the two as well as it might.
WAR apparently has a sort of “always on” PvP where even level 1 characters can contribute more than just being cannon fodder. Public Quests involve players of disparate skill levels (and “character levels”) in a cooperative mentality. Town sieges are another interesting mechanic. I think that these are steps in the right direction.
I guess what bothers me most about this mentality in WoW is that it naturally divides the game design into two arms; the easily soloable level grind, and the group-required endgame. To me, this is an unnatural split, and as I’ve noted elsewhere, makes WoW effectively two different games under one subscription rate. As such, I can totally see where the ability to play in a group requires online service and the concurrent fees, but since the leveling grind is mostly solo… it just grates on me to have it be treated like it’s a service that requires continual cash flow when it could be easily a standalone offline game.
If the WoW “endgame” were shuffled into the maingame, say with town sieges or territory control, a narrower power band (the difference in character loot and stats between levels 1 and 70 is ridiculous), and a way for anyone to jump in and contribute, not only could it revitalize the “old world”, but it could make the transition from “grinder” to “raider” less dramatic. My desire for Blizzard to make the old world free or offline is admittedly selfish. I can step back from that and say that if they were to try to make the two “games” a unified whole, it would be better for the game design as a whole, and it would offer greater value to the (still paying) customer.
It’s probably too late to narrow the power band, and really shuffling things around might put too much strain on the core design because of how things work at the moment. It would require some major surgery, and could well annoy far too many people who are comfortable with the status quo. As such, WoW probably isn’t the best place to look for innovation in integration. It’s a nice demonstration of stratification, however, which can still be useful for future designs.
So, what to do looking forward to more realized potential? Are levels necessary? Can a game be based heavily on PvP and eliminate ganking, poor sportsmanship and wide power disparity? Is there a good reason for PvE at all in an online game? (And if the player critical mass falls below playability, can AI stand in to simulate PvP mechanics?) What do players of MMOs really want? Is the lure that of a virtual world, or are they interested in a bigger, better Counterstrike multiplayer venue?
Short story long, I ask again: If those things that make the “endgame” special are the true potential of an MMO, why isn’t the industry focus on those, rather than building a better treadmill? Do players really want the endgame, or do they want the treadmill? Does the treadmill somehow validate the endgame through a sense of “investment”? Could the “endgame” work without the leveling treadmill?
…I’m not sure I have a lot of answers, since I’m not an endgame raider. I know what I’d want to play, but as a Bartle Explorer, the social draw of the “endgame” really isn’t all that interesting to me. The world itself is already interesting, but taking some of the “endgame” sentiments to make the world itself more alive and dynamic (even without true dynamic content) could well make it better, even for little old solo PvE me. I can imagine finding myself in enemy territory because of a local war that I just skirted, and suddenly having to fight or fly away. I can imagine a resulting focus on evasion abilities, subterfuge, and alternate types of gameplay, beside the “kill ten rats” mindless grind. Hmph, I might even actually enjoy a spy sort of playstyle. Of course, this all suggests to me alternate progression mechanics, rather than “kill stuff and collect body parts”, but perhaps that’s another post.