The defenitive solution to the endgame: “gated content”

There are a few concepts in here that I consider particularly important and that have been recurring in what I write. The beginning of the reasoning was an article about the future of the “endgame” over at Nerfbat and it became a good occasion to explain better two terms that I created and that I keep reusing. They are two general design principles that come as a result of my observations and I consider them important because they are more like philosophies that effect radically the way a game can be designed, even if on the surface they are easy to grasp.

These are the two terms and a general definiton for both, then I’ll go more in detail about the second:

“permeable barriers”. While the concept is rather broad and extended to the theme of the “accessibility”, my definition follows the idea of “lines drawn on the ground”. These lines define and regulate a space, but at the same time the player has the possibility to cross them. So they don’t transform into “cages”. Concretely the idea of permeable barriers offers a single character the possibility to change class, use different skill-sets, switch faction, travel between servers, develop special affinities and proficences and so on. All these “states” define what a character is and can do (think to a class), but they are never completely permanent and definitive and they can be reverted. The “betrayal” quest in EQ2, is a concrete example of the application of the concept of “permeable barrier”.

“gated content”. This is specifically about the “content” of the game. In particular it refers to the *types* of content, so, implicitly, the variety that the game offers. It’s an idea particularly suitable for a sandbox game, but not only. Each “gate” corresponds to a different pattern available. It is woth noticing that a “gate” here is a conceptual idea, not an actual gate in the game that leads to different sub-games. The main idea of “gated content” here refers to the coexistence of these patterns and the possibility of the player to choose what he *prefers*. One type of content doesn’t exclude or preclude another. Not only each type of content available isn’t forced on the player (you are at “x” level and have to do “x”), but it also always exists and remains accessible, valid and pertinent throughout the life cycle of that character. Without getting replaced. Instead of passing from casual content to hardcore raids as two distinct and exclusive moments, all these content types coexist as parallel lines. (btw, even here there’s a drift of the term, since I also use it for the accessibility when I use a type of content as a “door” on a different type. Not only to switch content types then, but also to integrate them.)

The first point is that the whole idea of “endgame” is silly. A division between two different games, the “main” one and the “endgame” has no reason to exist.

The very first question should be about which one is better and more appealing. In some cases (DAoC) the endgame is where the fun is, you have to endure the treadmill so that you can finally reach it. In other games (WoW) the “main” game is much more appealing, while the endgame is a complete change of pace that not many players enjoy (but tend to endure).

Why this division?

We basically have two ways to play the game. The only motivation to this distiction is that it adds “variety”. Okay. Then, if this distinction is about adding variety, a much better design choice would be about INCORPORATING that variety in the same model. So that you aren’t bound to a “before” and “after”, but instead the two patterns cohexist and you can switch them based on your preference.

The original model here is the sandbox. Or the idea that says that adding variety to a virtual world is a winning choice. The one that accomplishes more the “mission” of these kind of games and enhances the fun. The variety always adds to the fun when the players are NOT ENFORCED into a one-way, obligatory path.

So the idea to have different patterns available in the same game is not a good one. It is an *essential* one. But an essential one that needs to be presented to the players on the same level. And not separated in two moment. The “before” and “after”. Univocal and selective.

The “main game” in WoW, the one that is responsible to its success thanks to its accessibility and polish, is all focused on “progress”. Not just in character power, don’t let the appearance fool you. But also and in particular in “escalation“. This is something that WoW does MUCH better than EQ2, for example. Meaning the way it leads you around the zones and then progressively adding more and more elements, with the world really starting small and then branching up. Sense of wonder. It’s a sense of progression that follows the whole game and that really involves much more than the character. It involves the world outside and the way the game, step by step, adds elements to the puzzle. Brush strokes that progressively realize an impressive painting. This hooks the players better than everything else because the game not only gives you the correct amount of short-term goals, but also long term expectations and revelations.

There’s a problem in this model, though. It gets spoiled. The first time you go through it is really the best experience you’ve ever had, but once it is spoiled, the sense of wonder and perfect progression don’t work anymore. You can create alts, explore the starting zones you haven’t seen yet, but it’s never like the first time through. After three-four alts it even starts to get annoying. Blizzard is planning for new races and starting zones in the expansion but just adding those won’t work. It’s the model of the game that gets spoiled and you know already what type of progression and what kind of content you are going to see. “Reskinning” this experience won’t do the trick because the experienced player has already generalized all that type of content (kill ten rats, get ten pelts, these are generalizations). He knows already how things work, he knows already that type of “escalation”.

The game doesn’t impress anymore, it loses its original, strong emotional impact.

The strength of WoW, and the reason why it will continue to be successful, is that for the brand new players this type of perfect progression is retained at no loss. You could have started to play when the game was released or start to play now and you aren’t going to miss anything. The game is so carefully balanced that it will be preserved perfectly, while other mmorpgs age horribly and become nearly impossible for a brand new player to get into. Impassable barriers that isolate the “before” and “after” of the community. Which leads to a stagnation and the consequent slow drift into oblivion. It’s not just about the “retention” of the subscriptions. It is rumored that WoW has a rather bad retention but one year and half later and it still sells more than 50k boxes each month just in NA. Without new players a mmorpg doesn’t go anywhere and old mmorpgs don’t lose those new players because they look old. But because the accessibility of the game fell to pieces as a consequence of bad design choices and models.

Often the “good” endgame is about the PvP. The majority of the ideas on Nerfbat, in particular those that I consider valid, are about PvP. It’s not a case. “Stalling” is a good mechanic for PvP. Similarly to how the convergence is much more appropriate than divergence in PvP. If every couple of weeks there’s an alien invasion on the world that completely destabilizes the PvP scenario, the players would be pissed off. Because the best mechanic for a PvP environment is a “stall”. A fixed situation where then the players can manipulate some elements and play their game. But something under their control, not something impromptu or surprising. The “endgame” works in PvP because it is a stalling situation. Finally no other elements come to disrupt the conditions and the players “converge” in a similar situation. PvP needs this sort of “space” to exist. A set situation that reunites the players instead of dispersing them.

What’s the endgame in WoW? Well, you cannot gain anymore levels so what is left to do is improve your gear. As a design model it doesn’t seem really motivated, it is a silly idea. So why we arrived to it? The biggest game out there cannot be founded on something completely unmotivated, it would be crazy.Well, we arrived to that model not as a design choice, but as a productive one. A “progression” game is like football. You move horizontally, as a front. You cannot move backwards, it would be an heresy (see how hated are exp losses on a death). You are doomed to go on. At some point the game ends because the developers could add only so much content, it’s always a finite space (and randomly generated content is also still finited) so, eventually, you arrive at the end. And what then? What am I chasing? The “endgame” here isn’t a “necessity” of game design. It’s just a necessity of the production. An excuse so that, despite the game is over, the players could feel motivated to continue to play and pay. “Raiding” is in this case the perfect choice to bind that request with a type of content that is structurally redundant and vain.

Think to the “main game” as a bait. Once they “fished” you they can throw you in a bucket of water and keep you there for a long while. Raiding is that “bucket of water”.

The absurdity that I often underlined is that this model that is supposed to “preserve” content, since it’s the most precious and scarce resource in the game, does exactly the opposite. It *erodes* content and removes it from the game since it’s heavily based on the mudflation. Instead of valorizing ALL that the game has to offer, this kind of model just keeps devaluing and replacing constantly. As a continue, counterproductive reaction that finishes just to put a strain these worlds till they collapse.

So is this really the best model to use? Or maybe it is just a spontaneous drift and negative “maturation” (sophistication) of a genre that has lost track of its true principles and drive?

Let’s imagine a different scenario and let’s say that the content team has finished a small zone with all its quests, dungeons and overall story arc that unifies the various parts. A month later the zone is patched in the game but this time ALL the players can enter and experience it. The player who just bought the game and has been playing for a week as the veteran player who has kept an account for two years. And hopefully they’ll even play side by side.

This doesn’t mean that the sense of progression should be completely lost since all the content is always accessible. See for example these ideas. My idea is more like a collection of story lines. These can be totally independent or connected. But, while separated, they would retain their own linearity. In a game like WoW this already happens. There are story lines and themed quests, think for example to an instance and all the quests that are linked to it to form a story. Where that model doesn’t really work is in the fact that those stories (even a bit too limited in potential) are limited by level. If you skip a part, going back wolud be rather silly. So my idea is about freeing these storylines so that the content never gets obsolete and remains always interesting for the same character. With no distictions between the “endgame” and the rest.

And yes, at the end there could be those ideas vaguely outlined on Nerfbat. But not as a “BAM! endgame”. Not as a sudden event that completely changes the game you are playing. But as an evolution from the current model to one that contemplates all these possibilities right from the start. My idea of “gated content“.

The idea of the player (and character) as a “traveler of worlds”. Who passes smoothly (the idea of “permeable barriers”) thorugh different types of content (PvP, group, single player, raid etc..) depending on his personal preference more than external imposition.

I imagine the design concept of the “gated content” visually like a number of portals that can be opened and that lead the character exactly to that type of gameplay he is looking for. A number of “opened doors”. Possibilities available. The character is an “enabler” but the lack of a level system keeps the choice always “flat” and valid instead of higly selective. The “traveler of worlds” is the idea of a character that isn’t strictly defined, but a roleplay point of view. Ideally that character could enter a portal and become a level 1 guy. Or enter another portal and become a level 50. Or enter another again and become a merchant. The same from the point of view of the content. Dungeons runs, epic raids, PvP territorial conquest, tournaments, storylines. These elements should work like portals that should never be dependent on a obligatory, imposed choice. The game shouldn’t cage you into one pattern or one role. It’s the player who decides what he wants to experience.

In a sandbox all the options should be available and valorized. And not as in SWG where the game was trying to lock you in one role to preclude all the rest the game had to offer.

These realities should coexist as possibilities.

There are four main points that should be at the center and that I continue to repeat:

– Accessibility
– Immersion
– Gated content
– Permeable barriers

What’s the concrete consequence of all this? How concretely changes the game? For example the raid content wouldn’t be anymore the obligatory “endgame”, nor the only option you have past a certain point. The raid content would be just one *type* of content always available and always valid (and if you want to know concretely my idea of raid content, motivations, execution and reward, look here). Along with all the other types of content/patterns that the game has to offer.

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