Last time I asked the readers of my column a question: “What motivates you still playing your character when you’ve reached the level cap?”. It was a pretty obvious question to ask from a game developer point of view, as the answer of “where does our game end up?” is one of the first ones asked when designing any MMO.
Now I wasn’t looking for the holy grail, I had a pretty good idea of the answers I was going to receive. That’s not to say I wasn’t hoping that there would be someone with an answer that was exactly what this industry needs to grab gamers and keep them engaged. What I didn’t expect was how black and white the answers would end up being. You see, MMO developers know that there are tons of different types of gamers playing these games, and each have their own expectations of what they want out of the games. This was very evident in the answers you gave.
For every “gear/money to get gear/make my character more powerful” answer there was a “roleplay/badges/exploration” answer right around the corner. Throw in a couple of people who wanted good PVP, some wanting good teaming content and some wanting a continued solo content path, and your answers covered the whole spectrum of what a developer could do in their endgame.
A couple people brought up EVE Online, and its level-ess progression. There’s always a new skill to learn, so you are forever improving your character. I would be really interested to see if that system could attract a more mainstream audience attracted to a fantasy MMO. I know a lot of EVE’s engagement comes through the fact that it’s the ultimate sandbox. Developers set up the rules of the world and the players make the stories. I see this idea having some potential, and would watch the development of such a game closely. It’s not the kind of game that I would want to make, however. I’m too much of an old school RPG Game Master at heart to trust the care of my world to the players, and I think that’s why I never really got into EVE. I mean I tried it when all my friends were playing, but I was so unguided that I felt like just another cog in a great machine. I didn’t feel like the hero. Don’t get me wrong, there are EVE players who have made a name for themselves and the entire game world waits with bated breath for their next action, but that wasn’t going to be me, and I knew it.
For me the attraction to any endgame has always been friends. If my friends are still engaged at the endgame, so will I be. This could be raids or pvp or simply crafting and making the most out of what we were doing, but it all came down to friends. When my friends would stop playing inevitably so would I. Because of this, I implemented an extremely social endgame for City of Heroes, the Incarnate system. I knew our players, however, and many of them were die-hard soloists, so I included a matchmaking system out-the-gate that allowed them to easily find groups to participate in the content that would make their character better.
Did it work? The Jury was very split. We definitely got the engagement level that I was looking for out of the Incarnate Trials. People were logging in and running the trials. It wasn’t very hard to get a team together to do any trial (some harder than others, but that was a personal preference thing), but there was rarely a night that you logged in and didn’t get to run anything and earn some of the endgame currency you needed to improve your character.
Up until we had put the Incarnate System into City of Heroes our endgame consisted of several thrown together massive raids and a couple of Task Forces that could be run at level 50. For most players, reaching level 50 in CoH meant “roll an alt” if they wanted to continue playing, and this was ok with us. We ended up monetizing character slots for those players where alt-ing was the appeal, as well as adding new powersets and costumes, things that would inspire players to re-roll new characters based on a new cool theme they would come up with.
A couple players mentioned that they wanted role-playing and exploration as the endgame activity that would keep them coming back. Role-playing is easily supported by a development team, but often overlooked. Since there is no “carrot” at the end of the RP stick, it doesn’t attract a lot of players, and therefore goes under the radar of most game developers. Costumes and Emotes are usually the worst selling microtransactions in any given game’s cash shop, when they sit side-by-side with power items that have an actual improvement on your character’s combat effectiveness.
Exploration, on the other hand, is trickier. It’s the hardest to incentivize and reward, because internet. With the world wide web at every player’s fingertips rewarding explorers with cool perks and bonuses means rewarding everyone who can read a webpage and travel to a /loc with the same bonuses. Yes, it was incredibly satisfying to figure out how to get to a holocron in Star Wars: The Old Republic without using a guide, but eventually players who wanted their character to have maxed out stats would resort to one of a dozen online walkthroughs or videos on how to get every holocron in the game, and the magic was gone. Although there are some holocrons that I swear I have no idea how anyone would have ever figured out how to get them, but kudos go to the brave explorers who first uncovered them and their secrets.
I’ll make my question this week a little bit more focused: Which appeals to you more as a player, Sandbox or Theme Park and why? Is there an element of the other that you don’t mind? Is there an element of the other that drives you away? Feel free to answer in the comments below.
Also, I’ll be at C2E2 in Chicago at the end of April. My panel is on Friday, April 26th at 3:15 entitled “Playing a Hero in MMOs”, stop by if you have a chance!
Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner