So you’re an MMO developer and your players have hit max level. Now what?
We’ve seen a lot of MMORPGs out there, so you would think we’d have seen a lot of different ways to handle end-game by now. But end game across a large number of these games is dominated by instanced dungeons with bosses designed for large groups. The main difference between these games is just how many bosses they have and the order in which you’re allowed to fight them. This blog is about restrictions on how and when you’re allowed to experience end-game.
Some games let players do any of their dungeons in any order. For example, Star Wars Galaxies let players attempt any of their “heroic” instances in any order as long as they completed a pre-quest for each one and are within 20 levels of max level. This makes SWG’s end game feel more like a all-you-can-eat buffet. Sure, there’s not a lot of selection, but they can eat whatever they want and skip whatever they want while still watching their character get stronger from each run.
Other games handle end game like Star Trek Online. If you want to do STO’s “raid episode” called “The Cure” then you must first successfully complete the “Infected” instance. Like being served a first-course and then a second course at a nice restaurant, it’s a linear progression. Not only does all of STO’s end game instances have to be completed in order, but players are absolutely required to be in a full-group of max level characters in order to be allowed to enter for each one.
For the first year, Lord of the Rings Online took a more ‘buffet’ style to their end-game instances. The small group instances of Annuminas, the 12-man raid called the Rift, and the 24 man zerg-blitz known as Helegrod could be completed and farmed in any order. But like a buffet, not everyone bothers trying everything. Players knew what they wanted and made a bee-line straight for it: the best armor they could possibly get. Developers hate watching content “go to waste” so they decided to change things for the first expansion.
The first expansion to Lord of the Rings Online saw a more linear progression style of end-game. Sure, there was some freedom to chose the order in which they farmed Moria’s instances, but everyone farming radiance armor knew they had to polish their plate clean before they were allowed to experience the main course: raiding. Attempting to enter the new raid without the previous armor set would give extreme debuffs to stats and cause you to lose control of your character every few seconds. And if players wanted to move on to the second raid, they knew they needed to win the roll for the helm and shoulders from the first raid.
By the time Lotro’s first expansion was sun-setting, players were fuming about the forced progression. Some new small-group instances with new armor were added as another option to gear up for raiding, but it was still understood that players had to finish farming all their non-raids before being allowed to raid. So along came the second expansion for Lotro, Mirkwood. Suddenly the system changed again. All non-raids in the expansion drop the same tokens which can be saved up to buy the gear required for raiding. It still didn’t let players run right into the new raid, but players are now allowed to farm just one instance dozens of times, if they so choose, as their means of gearing up. Ironically, less content went to waste in their old buffet-style end-game. Players like to check out the different rewards and challenges in instances. When the reward is exactly the same, but the instance is longer and more difficult, it’s harder to get players to even try it.
Lotro isn’t the only MMO to experiment with different models. World of Warcraft has shifted over the years as well as many other MMOs. Sometimes the linear progression is disguised in different ways, but players always see through that ruse. Even within a raid cluster, players will figure out if they need to farm boss X for the stat bonus’s that make beating boss Y realistically possible. There’s no getting around it, developers have to make a choice between on model or the other.
There are clear disadvantages to a linear progression model of end-game because it forces players to swallow content they don’t like. If something which is required is overly difficult, long, or frustrating, it can kill the excitement players have for the game. For many of them, it was already too much to ask that they be forced to level to max level before seeing end-game.
On the other hand, the buffet model lets a large amount of content go to waste once it’s become out dated. Players tend to seek out the armor that will make them the most powerful and they want to skip the content that won’t. There’s the worry that once a player has everything they want, they’ll quit the game. It’s awfully hard to justify spending months making something that will be ignored or forgotten by the player base within week’s of it’s release.
Ultimately, I say there is one ideal choice: the buffet. That being said, there are good buffets and bad buffets. The bad buffets are seen when a linear-progression style reward system is adapted to a buffet model. If every single raid offers you a different armor set, well you can only wear one at a time so you’ll probably only care about the raid that offers the best one. If every single raid offers you just one piece of an armor set, you’re forced to care about all the raids. Armor sets are just not a good reward mechanic for a buffet style end game because armor is all about replacing previous sets. It’s linear by design.
By contrast, stat bonus’s do not replace each other. Were a raid to ever give you +100 to health for completion, that bonus would stack with the raid that gave you +50 to health for completion. Small cumulative rewards for instances give players a reason to care about all the content to some degree, but don’t force players into feeling like any raid or set of raids is “mandatory”.
In the linear-course meal vs buffet analogy, we could argue that food is always going to waste. Either you have a buffet where people skip the more unsavory dishes, or you have a multi-course meal where only 1% of the customers make it to the main course. In both situations food goes to waste because customers get full. The question is, are your customers going to get full because they’re full and satisfied or are they quitting because they’re full of rage?