In many online games today, the end game means one of a few things. For some, it means ascending to the point of endeavoring to conquer a limited set of difficult but predictable encounters (raiding). Players who call this their end game often compete indirectly against other guilds to defeat a raid first. For others who fall into this category perhaps a bit later (temporally), it’s more for the acquisition of powerful items that can only be found during these raids.
But for other types of players, the end game means something entirely different. For some, it means the end of the challenges they desire to overcome. They’ve made their way to the end of the progression of their character’s life, and either stick around for a variety of reasons or move on to another game. They may stick around because of the friends they’ve made, at which point the end game becomes primarily a social endeavor. Others may instead reroll and create a new character, possibly taking on another path that is unique enough to keep them engaged.
In my opinion the options that I’ve presented, though they don’t necessarily encapsulate all of what happens in the end game of traditional MMOs, are severely limited in that they lack in the interest department. They don’t have any sort of near-permanent staying power, except perhaps the social dynamic which can keep players in a game for years that they’d have otherwise left after several months. There has to be something else.
I have a few theories about where the end game will go in future online games. All of the alternatives that appeal greatly to me involve very dynamic experiences that are often player-driven in nature. After all, you can’t have a truly dynamic game or truly dynamic content unless you draw from many different sources, and players are likely our greatest asset.
This could mean one of the areas that I’m timid to even think about–player-created content. Players might be able to make quests for their friends or even design their own areas of the game. Where I tend to tread without becoming frightened is in the realm of alternate social structures for players to ascend.
As the elders in a game world, players may choose to create missions for others using a limited set of options. A drag-and-drop quest maker that allows players to do things like determine what creatures a player needs to kill, how many, where, etc., and the rewards would automatically be determined by the game based on its difficulty. It could go further (perhaps the designers or even the game itself determine that a particular family has a vendetta against another, and the elder players can task others with participating in this intrigue to help unfold the plot), but that’s the tip of the iceberg and its easy to digest.
The inhabitants of your world (the players) might join a political structure within the game and work their way up. They may have an opportunity to not only perform quests and gain titles that say they are a “Captain of the Guard,” but they could even become what their title states they are. Mayors of cities who set taxes on item sales within the city, ban or allow questionable goods, commit money to areas of development (spend more money in research, and your city will sell more advanced items; commit money to training soldiers, and your guards and armies will be more formidable; etc.).
That’s not the only avenue for players to take in the future, however. My personal belief is that player competition is where the future of the end game will become the most involving. PvP isn’t entirely required, though I feel it adds to the excitement. Players may be building their own towns, forming their own factions, forging real alliances with players and NPCs, betraying each other for coin and comforts, and all manner of other interesting competitive acts.
It may be as simple as attempting to establish your own town and fend it off against NPCs of the enemy factions, seeing who can maintain and grow their cities and become powerful in the world. It may be a bit more complex, allowing players to mount attacks on enemy cities by ordering their NPC soldiers to do so, or they may slowly lure deadly creatures from the depths of the forests to the very walls of their enemy city (i.e. dynamically affect the areas in which certain creatures spawn based on their behavior).
Where I want it to go is to the world of PvP. Players becoming members of real factions, owning real lands and cities, and fighting real epic battles with one another for supremacy. Player factions may align themselves with existing NPC factions, or they may become independent (maybe provoking NPC factions to take notice and request alliances or declare war). They’ll have a stake in keeping their own lands safe from creature invasions, from enemy factions, and they’ll be responsible for helping out new players to the game.
A continually dynamic environment that changes on the NPC side and the PC side, creating political intrigue, honing deep social ties, and most importantly making a game that is vibrant, entertaining, and constantly surprising. There is always something new for the game to offer you, even if you’ve reached the pinnacle of epicitude in character development.
When will we see the future? When players ask for more. When players are no longer content to participate in the same raid encounters over and over again to get themselves the Ultimate Platinum Super Sword of Vengeful Doom and Damnation. When publishers and developers alike realize that this is what players want–meaningful interactions with their world, a stake in the reality of the game, and a superiorly dynamic and engaging experience.