Damion Schubert, lead combat designer for BioWare Austin, argues that your endgame - what happens when MMO players have finished all the lower level quests and "made it" in the game universe - realizes the true potential of MMOs.
"People talk about massively multiplayer online games - whenever they gravitate to one of these games, they always gravitate to one of the big ideas," says Schubert. "What would happen if you could burn down another guild? What would happen if you had a boss that needed 25 people to kill? What if you had a battle that was 100 ships versus 100 ships?"
"The most important thing about your endgame, about elder gameplay, is that it's one of the few things in your games that's actually massive. And at the end of the day, that's what we're talking about here."
"Whenever you're talking about things with your producers, (the endgame) looks like something to cut," he says, "because maybe nobody will even get to that level. I think a lot of producers underestimate what happens at the endgame."
It's commonly said that in World of Warcraft, the game starts at level 70. That's what Elder gameplay is all about. "It represents the third act of the series," says Schubert. "You're taking whatever you built inside the gameplay experience, and you're applying it to something that's interesting and challenging - you're at the apex of your character's development."
Schubert says that most MMOs are pretty easy, most of the time. "It's like popping bubblewrap. It's low-investment activities."
The endgame, he says, often represents the game's true challenge.
Sense Of History
History, legacy, and lore is important to players, Schubert says, but not necessarily the history of the game world. More specifically, he means the social history of the game. "When my raiding guild killed [a certain boss] in World of Warcraft, we were the first to do it, and a cutscene was going to be activated, and by the time we went to turn in the quest, there were 250-300 people just standing around waiting for us to turn in the quest. People feel like they want to be part of that history," Schubert maintains.
Aside from the fact that the endgame represents the true massiveness of an MMO, "The other most important thing about elder gameplay is that it occupies the time, and keeps the investment, of your most devoted customers. If we start with the maxim that it costs 10 times as much to get a new player as it does to keep an existing player, which is a pretty standard marketing maxim," then you should cater to those people, he says. They're important people to the game, and they need something to do.
One major endgame scenario is territorial control, which is popular because it's cheaper, both for players and designers.
"One important thing in territorial games is respawn and attrition," says Schubtert. "How long does it take for a player to get back to the fight?" Designers need to make it so that the balance can change properly such that through attrition someone can lose their respawn points or graveyards. You also don't want to have players spending the majority of their time running back to the battle.
"You don't have to have a political map," he says, "but if you don't, you're stupid. The thing is a newbie can see these maps, and understand what's happening."
Looking at WWII online, you can see how territory changes hands from day to day on the game's front page. "This sells your endgame. It makes people want to come to it, and acts as advertising."
Six Rules Of Endgame
Schubert outlined his six overarching endgame rules as such:
1 - Player versus player endgames always excite the imagination more than player versus environment endgames.
2 - Players aren't as hardcore as they think they are.
3 - 5% of your population can destroy the other 95%.
4 - Teamwork and numbers dominate.
5 - Fairness matters more than in PVE.
6 - Losing repeatedly sucks.
"If your endgame is PVP, you need to think about how PVP is introduced to characters at the low levels," Schubert cautions. "If players decide along the way to the endgame that they don't like your PVP, they will decide the endgame is not for them." Argues that you should protect players more at the lower level, so they have a positive PVP experience.
"People don't pay money to suck. People do not want to pay $15 a month to be the Washington Generals." This is something he learned when making Shadowbane - "the winners now had lots of resources and the city could thrive, and the losers had nothing. So what happened is eventually the losers stopped logging on, and the winners eventually had nothing to fight."
"We had one server where one guild was so in control, that they banned a player class so they'd have somebody to fight," said Schubert. Players woke up in the morning and found that they were "wanted."
The solution, he says, is to be able to hit a button, in the game (so to speak) to indicate that one group of players have won, and that they can begin again.
Raid Encounters - PVE
"My experience with raids is mostly through playing," Schubert admits, "so this is all theoretical mumbo jumbo, but I look for patterns."
Many claim that only a very small percentage of WoW players raid, but research found that "more than half of the level 70 characters have a piece of raid loot on their character. When they reach level 70, they don't want to stop, and they at least give raiding a try."
A raid encounter is "a Mario boss," he says, "only with 25-40 people." The puzzle is designed for that amount of people. With Mario, there are a number of things he can do, and you know what those are. "The problem with raid encounters is you don't know what everyone can do." You try to design raid encounters that require a mix, but you don't know who's going to show up. Players have certain tools, but not everyone has everything.
In a game like Everquest 2, a boss can manipulate players via the player's magic pool, because everyone has it. Positioning is another common element. "The reason positioning is so heavily used," he says, "is that it's a tool everybody has. Everybody can determine a position."
Casual players are an important consideration as well. "How many people can die in your fight before the whole thing falls apart is directly correlated to how casual-friendly that game is. Husbands, wives, girlfriends, are all bringing more casual people," says Schubert.
WoW is approachable in this way, but if only one person has to die in order to fail a raid, it's less likely you'll bring those casuals, and it'll be more hardcore oriented. This has difficult social implications.
Considerations When Designing Endgames
It should be content-heavy, while watching for overpowered classes. Repetition is a concern - how many times do people have to kill the same boss? "If you have a really really really long raid dungeon, players are going to kill the first boss a whole lot more than the last boss," Schubert advises, "so you should consider how you reward them for that."
The bench - if you need 25 to raid, you need to have 35 people in case your main tank is sick or you lose your healer. But this also means you have a lot of people sitting around doing nothing - "Most people aren't going to sit on the bench forever," Schubert says. "This creates real politics that is a headache for your guildmaster to manage."
Considerations For Endgame Physicality
Technology - can your server handle 100 people versus 100 people?
How do you test it? "In Shadowbane, we redid our siege system a month and a half before it went live," Schubert says. "We basically had one iteration of our game, played for a month and a half before we went live. Is that enough time to determine whether a game is balanced, fair, and stable? From experience, I can tell you no, no, and no."
Fragility - if the endgame depends on a guild, and there are key players, the guild may be crippled when they lose that player.
Critical mass - what happens if your game doesn't get enough people for it to take off? Or more likely, what happens if you lose people, and you don't have enough for a raid or an endgame?
Interface - endgame interfaces tend to look much less like the interface of a lower level game. You can't play endgame of World of Warcraft with the newbie interface.
Homework - "every time you add a consumable - a potion, or a stim-pack - you have to think about how you're creating homework players will see as necessary before they get into that raid," says Schubert. Players will be grinding to get things they think they need for the raid.
Guild management - managing a guild is difficult and fiddly, says Schubert. "For the love of god, will someone please design an MMO that gives these guys the tools they need?"
Matchmaking - "if you can get people who are likeminded together, your endgame is going to be stickier."
"Do massively multiplayer games need an endgame?" poses Schubert. "I argue yes. Massive is your selling proposition, and the endgame does that. That's the stuff that captures the imagination."