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Outside The Box: End Game Content

By: Garrett Fuller

Editor's Note: This is a weekly column from our News Editor Garrett Fuller. Each week, Fuller will highlight new innovations in MMO gaming as well as smaller games that you may not be so familiar with.

What makes a good MMO? That question is on the minds of every developer, player, marketing person, and business analyst in the industry today. We have our main model right now as World of Warcraft. We have our historical pillars with Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot. We have our history with Meridian 59 and MUDs. So after years of this industry finally coming into its own, what makes a good MMO? I want to try to present ideas for discussion in this week's column. The main point of continuing MMO game play, in my opinion, is the end game.

Players can level up all they want, heck you can have unlimited leveling in your game and some players will go for infinity. The concept of leveling goes back to RPGs in their earliest form. Remember your first copy of the Players Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons? Remember looking at the high levels and wondering how long it would take your character to get there? Some philosophers will say it is the journey that counts not the goal. Well, in MMOs players try to achieve both goals and good times. This is still done through leveling or advancement in some form. The question is when do you put a stop to leveling, and what do you do from there?

Warcraft did a great job of giving players raids to get loot. Everyone tries to go for the high end suits of armor and weapons. If you PvP in Warcraft, you know that without these items you are not competitive. So the Arms Race begins at level 70. When I say the Arms Race, I am just referring to another level of advancement. Players know that they can go and fight huge bosses for items that will further advance their character. That is the goal-oriented side of things. The good times-oriented side is getting on Ventrillo or Team Speak with forty of your friends and working your way through the dungeon. I feel that while WoW does have a great leveling set-up in their game, the end game fell short for a while. With the expansion, we certainly see more options on the horizon.

Here is the thing with end game content, the MMO industry is thinking in limited design terms. Okay, let's discuss our end game. Who has ideas? Well, there are two, PvP and Raid content, any others? anyone? These are currently the two main vehicles for end game design. Do you disagree? Can you find me a good example of a game where neither of these systems is used for players in the end game? If so please tell us, I for one want to see new ideas in this area.

With that, let's talk a little about PvP. This is a game feature that should be in every single MMO in some form or another. The reason: why have a game with thousands of players where they cannot play against each other? Players should be able to compete in some fashion. PvP allows players to test their skills, develop teams and go fight it out. You can have the best AI in the business, and it still will not compare to a player vs. player scenario. People ask all the time if video game play will become some type of sport and it very well may. We are already starting to see game play tournaments in major games.

The biggest thing with PvP design is its structure. Some games have it instanced and localized. Others have a wide open field. Some games are extreme and you lose all of your gear when you die, in some other games, you only lose a few seconds of game time. There are many different designs to PvP. I feel the way to think of it is a risk/reward system. Remember those old days of Ultima Online; you were scared to walk out of the city. You could get ganked at any time and lose all of your stuff! However, in World of Warcraft there are almost no penalties at all. You get beat, wait a few seconds, and run back into combat. These two sides of the coin have a lot of grey area between them.

We have come a long way on the rewards front for PvP offering items and advancement systems to players who do well. The risk area is where we have fallen a bit short. When did it actually become easier to die in a game and come right back? Why did we reach this point? Is it because players who lose something will hate the game if they die? Come on folks, get a little back bone! You have to give players something worth fighting for in order to keep their characters alive. That is why you see players aimlessly running into the fray hoping to get one kill while they are pounded on by six players. In reality, you would never see that! If you give players more risk, you will see more tactics used. Players would have to think about engagement, position, resources, before they decided to run into a fight. When did we get away from these elements?

So there you have it, an end game discussion. I started it, and I am very curious to see what you have to say about it. Look at MMOs in general and ask what elements do designers think of when they get to the end. Are they too burnt out from developing the game overall and lose sight of what should come next? Keep in mind, MMOs can go on forever. Look at Ultima Online, it is ten years old! In what ways can we improve to develop better game play that starts when the leveling ends and we think...outside the box.