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When ‘endgame’ became the whole game

August 11, 2019

Some time in the years between 1998 and 2019, the levelling experience in MMORPGs simply became a means to and end.

This wasn’t always the case.

In EverQuest (EQ), the journey was for many far more enjoyable (not to mention accessible) than the destination. Far more people in the original EQ timeline experienced grouping to gain levels than grouping to raid ‘endgame’ bosses. In Ultima Online (UO) there were no levels at all, and your character was never truly ‘finished’. You fought, you gathered wealth, you created a niche for yourself and a home to live. Arguably this was true to a greater or lesser extent of Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, and even the early version of EverQuest II.

World of Warcraft (WoW) changed everything. You could argue that early or ‘classic’ WoW had a levelling experience that was enjoyable in its own right. However even in its early days WoW funnelled you from quest to quest and finally to the endgame and its raids. With each passing expansion this was more apparent, and nowadays a brand new player is flung headlong to max level, and even given a power leg-up to current content when they arrive.

A world less living

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Ultimately this makes the world feel less alive. In current day WoW, the vast majority of players are sitting in the latest expansion zones. Players new or old are encouraged to speed run through the rest of the world so they can ‘catch up’. The Battle for Azeroth zones are, for all intents and purposes, all there is to WoW right now. This will be the same when WoW launches its next expansion too.

When you look at older MMORPGs, there were reasons for even max level players to visit almost all of the world. Equally, there was no accelerated pathway to max level so people spent longer in areas of the world that weren’t solely aimed at max level players. Even on a server like Project1999, which has been timelocked for years and has a significant over-crowding problem at max level, you see players all around Norrath. Alts take months, not weeks. For some this is a turn off, but it means the majority of Norrath isn’t a ghost town – and Project1999 isn’t even an especially high population server.

So we as MMORPG fans find ourselves in the predicament that anything sub-max level doesn’t matter. The gear we earn is transient, the experiences we have are hasty and meaningless, and the ‘challenges’ we face are typically barely worth of the word. It begs the question, for WoW and any other theme park MMORPG with several expansions under its belt, why bother having a levelling experience at all?

A path worth walking

Perhaps it’s why I can go back to older classic emulated MMORPGs and enjoy them – EQ, UO, SWG. Their live versions have adopted the ‘catch up’ mentality of modern MMORPGs, but their emulated classic versions provide a slower, more sedate experience.

(Image Credit: TearMaker)

Of the current day ‘production’ MMORPGs, Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is an unlikely exception. Far from a perfect game and certainly not innocent of speeding up the levelling process, the developers implemented a ‘pause button’ years ago. It is an item that allows you to shut off your experience gains so you can enjoy the content. And there is a lot of content soaked in Tolkien lore that is worth seeing. It signals ‘no, our game is worth more than the latest raid and a handful of dailies, and you should have the choice to experience it.’ Unfortunately, true to form in LOTRO, it is locked behind a cash shop purchase.

A vision worth having

I confess I have not watched the next crop of MMORPGs closely enough to say which way they will go on this issue. I have the feeling that many of the more independent MMORPG developers are moving away from the WoW-esque ‘single player MMORPG endgame only’ model. But the developers of these games must still find themselves bound by what people want to play.

For many, the fact that 90 per cent of the virtual world is essentially an empty museum is a fair trade if they can log in for 30-60 minutes, and progress their character. They are happy that they can do so without having to worry about that progress being contignent on another human being. They are equally happy that, if they want to create an alt character, the character will be at max level and running the same things as their main character in a few weeks.

So perhaps it is a minority of us that desire living, breathing virtual worlds and not large-scale interactiv instance lobbies.

I hope not, but I fear it may be true. I’d be happy to hear from you if there is an MMORPG on the horizon with this vision.

I think it’s a vision worth having.

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  1. You are not alone in your way of thinking about how MMOs have changed over the years. I started WoW when Legion dropped, then stopped playing it, and picked it up 2 years ago this coming Dec when my husband bought me the starter edition online from Blizzard because I like PVE over PVP and the current MMO I was in didn’t have anything for me. SWTOR is the other MMO I play. I have 1 maxed character in WoW, and rest are still leveling. I’m playing the older stuff at my own pace. I like story content and not end game. To be honest I’ve never really done Raids in WoW or Operations in SWTOR, because of how toxic the player base can be there as well. But I feel that the developers of these games are dumbing down the story content to make people level faster for End game because that is what most want. They want the hard mechanics in Raids/Dungeons/Flashpoints/Operations and such, and want to rush through story content to get there. While I don’t disagree with people wanting the end game, but seems to me that so many forget to stop and enjoy the story content as well, because there are stories even in the end game, but it’s all about the rewards, titles, achievements there now that no one wants to really pay attention that there was a story written there. After all yes it’s an MMO, but it’s an RPG as well, hence the MMORPG scene all together.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I didn’t touch on the dumbing down of content, more just the speed, but I agree that storylines takes a back seat when they expect people to just rush through.

  2. I would argue that EQ did funnel you through to an end game of raiding. Lady Vox was there waiting for you back in 1999. The game was just so bad at directing people towards anything in particular that it was very easy to miss.

    What I see in your complaint is less an indictment of end game focus than the problem with expansions. Vanilla WoW had a long (relative to today at least) journey to level 60 that could occupy you (and keep you subscribed) for a long time. But, when you get an expansion that just gives you 10 levels… and you consider anything besides leveling up to be end game… then players are going to spend most of a two year expansion cycle in that end game.

    Expansions are an attempt to keep the party going. Sometimes they work. But the more of them you do, the more likely you are to hit one that players don’t find worth playing for two years.

    At times I wish that Blizz had gone the Pokemon RPG route and just introduced a whole new 60 level game with each update where maybe you get to transfer your character over with some titles but otherwise start fresh. However, if Blizz takes two years to get out a 10 level expansion, how far down the road would we be at this point?

    1. The Guild Wars model — either the first (which sounds similar to the Pokemon RPG route), or the second, could be an interesting change for WoW here.

      Maybe after the level squish they could consider this, more likely the GW2 route I suppose, where the max level simply doesn’t increase — and they can then find ways to keep landmasses new and old relevant to the players.

      This was one element of GW2 I appreciated a great deal. I did not like the full removal of the holy trinity though, enough that my efforts to play the game invariably don’t last terribly long. But some hybrid of the two approaches here could be fantastic.

      1. I think people are accustomed to the model now in a way that will inevitably require a level increase for each expansion pack. It demonstrates a growth in power, even though in real times your character remains static relative to the world around it – so your point remains apt.

    2. On the flipside, EQ being bad at funnelling people towards anything meant that it created a choice for players. There was no one right way to play like there is in so many other MMORPGs today.

      I agree that it is possibly an expansion issue rather than a core game issue. Though I would argue that WoW’s core game now is nothing but a rapid funnel to endgame. Vanilla WoW was still more in the EQ/UO mould, whereby endgame was a part of the game but not the whole game. Within a few expansions, and definitely in the present day, the levelling journey is an irrelevant relic.

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