It isn't too often I read something in which inspires me to think endless. It also isn't often I read something which inspired me in such ways and it contained the word "HALO" within it. Yes I know it is quite weird. Gosu even with his name which could use some work has provided me and therefore I will provide to you the same piece for this week's Reader Post.
This has been an issue that I have been looking forward to writing about. I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a doozy, as it requires a ridiculously thorough evaluation in order to properly tackle. Unfortunately, I've yet to read anything that has truly nailed what Endgame is, how to implement it properly and why it will work.
What is Endgame?
In case you don't know(which I'm sure most if not all of you do), Endgame describes the list of options available to a player who has reached a point in a game in which the initial game experience has come to an end. This "end" is often somewhat arbitrarily defined by both players and game developers. One thing that MUST be understood is that Endgame does not mean the same thing to every player. When a player claims to have participated in Endgame content, they are simply saying(whether or not they realize it) that something about the game has convinced them to continue devoting time to it after having reached the climax of the"initial game experience" as identified by a consensus of players and/or developers. No game can definitively contain desirable Endgame for ALL players.
I would argue that most people look at Endgame much like they would look at something like astronauts floating around on a space station, orbiting Earth. Yes you read that correctly. People can fairly easily identify WHEN this is happening just by common observation. Many people would also insist that they know WHY it's happening and what makes it work. ZERO GRAVITY RIGHT? Unfortunately, most people actually have no idea what is causing it to work.
Endgame is no different. After you've spent 1000 hours participating in "Endgame" content, you're fully aware that something has caused you to spend an inordinate amount of time playing a video game(you can see that it's working). But what EXACTLY was the cause, and why were so many other people doing exactly the same thing?
In order to incorporate lasting and enjoyable Endgame into a game we must first explore some other successful Endgames and attempt to identify why and how THEY worked. Below I have compiled a list of games which I've spent ridiculous amounts of time playing. I'm going to cover each game very briefly and explain what caused me to spend so much time playing it.
World of Warcraft - Estimated game time: 15,000 hours.
Dota/Heroes of Newerth/Dota2 - Estimated game time: 6,000 hours.
Warcraft 3 - Estimated game time: 3,000 hours.
All Guitar Hero games - Estimated game time: 2,000 hours.
Halo: Combat Evolved - Estimated game time: 1,800 hours.
Final Fantasy X - Estimated game time: 500 hours
WoW: The study of WoW's effect on the human brain(especially mine) is one of absolute importance when attempting to discover how Endgame is born. Please hold back your anti-WoW comments. It doesn't matter if you love WoW, or hate it more than hipsters hate fitting in. WoW, at one point or another, did one thing better than any other game I have ever played: it made you CONSTANTLY feel like there was a reason you just HAD to play it. I NEEDED to have the best gear. I NEEDED to be in the best guild. I NEEDED to get server first kills. I NEEDED to do the best DPS. I NEEDED to show off my achievements. There was always a means to an end. There were clear and numerous goals that each felt great to accomplish. Every time I logged on I felt a reason to play. WoW is a goal-factory, and one thing that CANNOT be underestimated is the fact that even the goals that felt like work were accomplished with great satisfaction, perhaps even BECAUSE they felt like work. On top of all of this, WoW is a social beast. I never felt as if I was the only person playing the game.
Dota/HoN: Obviously a PVP focused game, Dota is responsible for claiming many hours of my life. What exactly caused me to invest so much time into it? Goals are again the culprit. I must learn this new hero. I must perfect this farming method. I must try out this new lane comp. I must beat this pro team. I must become the best player out of all my friends. I must learn how to play carry. I must try out this new item build I've been thinking about. Dota teaches us that, once the formula for enjoyable gameplay exists, the presence of desirable goals will force us to continue playing.
Warcraft 3: By now I image you're starting to see a pattern in the games I have listed. Well, WC3 is no different. The formula for enjoyable gameplay was there so what, I ask you, keeps someone engaged in the game? Perhaps you want to perfect a new rush strategy, maybe you just want to learn the basics of every race? You want to try out a CUBE strategy with a friend? Or maybe you just want to beat that new TD that everyone is saying is so hard. Hell, maybe you're just bored and you want to pop into a quick 1v1 for an easy win. Whatever it may have been, the game was fun and I was eager to continue achieving within it.
Guitar Hero: This one highlights the point I am trying to nail home better than any other game on the list. The formula for enjoyable gameplay is ALWAYS the first step. Check. But would I have put thousands of hours into a game just because it made me feel like a rock star? HELL NAW. Guitar Hero is one of the few games that almost immediately become goal-oriented. I must play all the songs, I must beat this song on medium, I must beat all songs on expert, I must 5-star all songs on expert, I must get top worldwide score on this song.,, The game quickly becomes less about the feeling you get because you're "playing" music, and more about the thought of achieving something. At this point, the core gameplay is simply a well-tuned car that will help you win the race. Because we all know that, while the driving is fun, it doesn't compare to the thrill of victory and yet, we couldn't have achieved victory without it!
Halo: Combat Evolved: This game is opposite to Guitar Hero in many ways, yet the end result is the exact same. Halo is the PERFECT example of a game that 100% perfected an enjoyable gameplay formula. With Halo, Bungie created a formula that continues to last in many ways to this very day. The key difference between a game like Halo and a game like Guitar Hero is that, for the most part, goals in Halo are not so easily identified. Halo is a PERFECT example of a game that excellently facilitates player-defined goals, as opposed to most games that simply lay them out for you clearly. I spent countless hours replaying every level on Legendary with my buddy not just to beat the level again, but to discover new secrets, unreachable areas, new methods of tackling the more challenging areas, or pummeling him in a variety of meta-games that we created on our own. Then there was competitive multiplayer. I could go on for hours about the genius that was the original Halo multiplayer but I think we've covered Halo enough.
Final Fantasy X: By now the pattern should be quite clear, so this will be the last game I cover. I put this game on the list because it serves as a great example that, for many people, all it takes is ONE solid goal to keep someone playing for hundreds of hours. For me, that goal was the the Monster Arena. I was absolutely determined to unlock EVERY boss. This is where the genius of the system enters... In order to unlock and defeat every boss, your team required a set of items that basically forced you to experience EVERYTHING the game had to offer in order to acquire them. Oh Blitzball how I miss thee. And lets not forget farming monsters to capture all over the game world. So while the grind to achieving this goal occasionally bored me to tears, achieving the goal still stands as one of my most memorable and enjoyable gaming experiences to date.
This is an INCREDIBLY important thing to remember and, unfortunately, a very difficult thing to preserve. Players LOVE to complain about grinds, just as I LOVE to complain about RL work. The important thing to remember is that a grind can exist as a form of a challenge.
It's not just because you're glad the work is over, it's because you've proven to yourself that you could overcome any means to the end you desire . This isn't to say that developers should simply insert grinds where they don't belong. Grinds CANNOT substitute quality gameplay or challenges where they can and should exist. However, a quality game experience CAN be derived, in part, from appropriate levels of grind.
So what have we learned from our observations of other games?
Endgame is created when the goals found in the initial game experience are perpetuated past the "climax" of said experience, in some form. As humans we strive to prove things to ourselves and others, even if the achievements/goals have little actual meaning outside a particular perspective. In order for Endgame to fully exist in a game, it MUST follow the below formula.
-Provide enjoyable initial and ongoing core gameplay experience
-Create a gameplay formula that can facilitate an enjoyable means to any player-created end (Halo)
-Create multiple and diverse ends to facilitate clear paths to achievement (Guitar Hero)
-Create a supreme level of achievement that signifies having conquered every single-player aspect of the game(Final Fantasy X)
-Create achievements that are only achievable by those who have proven themselves superior in both skill and knowledge(WoW)
-Create a system that allows for infinite achievement via player competition and variety (WC3/Dota)
-Create a system that allows players to demonstrate their accomplishments to other players
-Combine them all together (WoW)
Some of you might be thinking, "Gosu is nothing more than a WoW-loving sycophant with a small wiener", and you may be right. However, I urge you to accept that, at one point or another, WoW achieved what it achieved because it is one of the only games in existence to have featured every facet of the above formula. You could argue that it applied some of these formulae better than others, or even that it didn't do any of them. But guess what, only the majority can speak for the majority, and the majority have spoken whether you agree with them or not. WoW has provided millions of players with hours of enjoyable gameplay at some point in its lifespan. When millions of players have spent so many hours playing a game, you can bet good money that there was an incredibly diverse pool of gamers participating. So while WoW's style of game content might not appeal to everyone, it absolutely goes without question that it did SOMETHING right at SOME point.
For anecdotal purposes, I would argue that WoW's greatest downfall was the fact that it's developers had to continue to improve upon elements of the massive game all while maintaining each of these formulae. This is all due to the nature of WoW's collective endgame. The content was not self-extending past a certain point, nor could it have been much more than it already was. I'll say it now in case it wasn't already clear: PVP is the ONLY thing that can extend a game beyond its natural lifespan. Whether it be PVPVE or just plain PVP, only a competitive community can create opportunities for other players to create goals out of thin air at some point in the game's lifespan. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep all of these things in some sort of balance while also trying to constantly add new content, features and gameplay styles/modes? Let me tell you something; you don't want to know, and I DON'T know... - end South Park reference
So really it's not always about having something to do, it's about having a reason to do it.
Thank you Gosu for giving everyone something to think about.