Before I started playing WoW in 2004, I’d never actually heard the term “endgame” in an MMO context; but then, suddenly, it and its associated expressions were everywhere. “The game begins at 60!” people said, as if that were a great thing in itself and as if that explained everything.
The MMOs I’d played for any length of time before then didn’t have that concept. Asheron’s Call had relatively slow leveling in most cases, and as far as I could tell hitting max level didn’t really make all that much difference to how people played and what they did when they played. I don’t even think that, back then, there was content that was specifically designed for people who had hit the level cap.
SWG, similarly, was more about the process; and if you got bored with what you were once you mastered a profession (or once the holo-grind came out), you just started a new profession and worked that up instead. I didn’t play EQ1 or DAOC for long enough to get an idea of what it was like when you hit the level cap, but I do remember people saying that just getting there was a hell of journey, with more things to do along the way than you could shake a stick at.
WoW redefined leveling and what happens at the level cap, at least for me. Ironically, the closer I got to 60 back in that first playing stint, the less I wanted to play. As one commenter put it on last week’s column (thanks Centkin!), “Far too often today the endgame is the end of the game for many people.”
I left WoW in 2005 and didn’t play on my main server again for almost 5 years; my character was somewhere around 55, and I never did hit max level. But then I came back in December 2010 for Cataclysm and, what with all the quest content and different leveling curves, my main character was 85 almost before I could blink. There I was, at the mythical endgame for the first time in my WoW life, and I’m still not sure I get it. Dailies and dungeons and raiding, oh my!
My problem is that I’m not all that enamored of dungeons. An hour or two now and then I can take, if it’s with friends and if it doesn’t turn into something that sucks my entire playtime away. For one thing, I’m totally and utterly not item-motivated, so going into dungeons to get shinies doesn’t fire me up. Planning to do dungeons so I can get the gear to do more dungeons – meh. Not my thing. I get that lots of people do enjoy that, however; or, at least, that lots of people feel it’s what they need to do. I just can’t get past the question I’ve always had: what then?
Now, several months after the Cataclysm launch, the guild I’m in (which has been going strong since beta and before) has maybe 40 players who log in pretty regularly, and a dozen or so who log in now and then. There was a flurry of people returning for Cataclysm, myself among them, but in the last couple of months every week sees another person decide to let their subscription run out. And of those 40 regular players, less than half have any kind of interest in the ultimate in endgame: raiding. Like many other guilds in WoW these days, we can just about put together 10-man raids but there’s no way we’re running 25-mans with any regularity, if at all.
I say “we”, but anyone who knows me knows I don’t raid. Fortunately mine isn’t that kind of guild: it’s not a raiding guild, where one’s membership and everything else is predicated on giving up a certain number of evenings per week; but since it is a very close-knit guild it’s hard not to see that those who do enjoy the raiding are having a hard time getting what they want out of the game.
Or rather, the endgame. The reason I gave those rather approximate numbers of who’s playing right now and who’s doing what is that as far as I can tell, maybe a third of the active guild members have any real interest in raiding, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of … well, everything, as far as WoW is concerned. A number of my friends in other guilds are saying similar things. It’s difficult to generalize from one’s experience of a few guilds on one server in one game, I know, but if that holds true then the epitome of all things WoW, the Great Endgame, is basically of interest to less than half of the playing population.
I think what’s happened is that the Endgame as it’s defined in WoW (and increasingly in other games, LOTRO for example) is something that was particularly interesting to the developers, many of whom originally came over from EQ1. They created something they would enjoy, and I don’t fault them for it, but it essentially imposed one particular vision on everyone else who plays the game. To some extent, it imposed that vision on MMO development for years to come, if only because WoW was such a raging success.
The thing is, when people talked about WoW then and when they talk about it now, raiding – the Endgame – isn’t usually the first thing everyone mentions. There’s a lot more to WoW and all those other endgame-based games than just raiding or trawling through dungeons; the problem is, once you hit the level cap on a given character, there isn’t all that much else to do.
But even so, a lot of the people I know don’t end up throwing themselves into dungeons or raids all day every day. Some do: a few players on my friends list are content with one or two characters, and every time I see them online they’re in an instance or about to be in an instance. They are, however, in the minority. Most of my friends end up leveling alts, which is exactly what I’ve been doing lately; and it may not even be just because they don’t want to raid, but because leveling in WoW is fun. It might be a little rapid for my own personal tastes these days, but it’s still a whole heap of a good time.
Ultimately I think that’s what bothers me most about the developers’ (and, consequently, the players’) focus on the Endgame: it reduces an entertaining whole down to a single type of activity, and it’s not even an activity that the vast majority of the player base overwhelmingly prefer. On the other hand, dungeons and raids are comparatively easy to design, because they have a unity of purpose and place and because the activity-type they demand is clearly defined. I understand that it’s a lot more difficult to create more open-ended activities for people to engage in once they reach the level cap.
Nonetheless, endgame-focused design has brought us a bunch of design paradigms I’m getting really rather tired of, including an ever-increasing focus on gear and time spent rather than skill and presence of mind. And I’m really tired of being told the game only really begins at the level cap. I’ve been there now, and while it is different and entertaining for a while, that eventually pales and most people, including myself, end up leveling alts.
We don’t do it so that we can take yet another person into the mythical endgame. We do it because the journey is far more fun than designers seem to remember these days. Here’s hoping that the games currently in production (TSW, GW2, SWTOR et al) and the games that will someday be in production don’t try to sell us on the rather tired idea that all we want is to get to the Endgame; because it’s certainly not all I want, and I have a feeling I’m not alone.