Online video games have a very unique problem regardless of their genre, developer or funding. They suffer a crisis that single player games, quite literally, cannot struggle with. Online video games need to work out how to keep players… well, playing.
How do you keep your gamers interested in your game when they reach the “end” of the content available? In a single player game, this isn’t a concern; you’ve already sold the copy of the game after all. Unless you plan on releasing some DLC, then you really don’t need to keep them playing and if we’re actually quite honest, you don’t even need to care if they played your game at all. You moved the copy off the shelf and that is your little mark of success and profit – anything you get after that is practically a bonus.
Online titles, however, have more of a burden to keep their players interested. As their games require consistent funding so they can be consistently updated, developers/publishers actually have a requirement to retain old players. That, or they forsake old players and instead solely focus on creating a rotating door of new players purchasing their content, but keeping old players loyal to the cause is considerably more beneficial in the long run.
When their players reach the “endgame” content – they finish the main quest and they’ve reached the max level and gotten all of their skills – developers need to be able to keep these players invested and playing. The gear treadmill is the most common, and perhaps the most controversial, way that anybody has found to get people to log in and still play even after having technically beaten the game. MMORPGs in particular are infamous for this set up, with small patches adding tiny snacklets of content to be enjoyed by their max level players and waving the latest shinier-carrot-on-a-stick in front of them.
Yet not every game is as good as creating the incentive to play as others.
Warframe is an online game I enjoy quite a lot. It has fast paced and fluid combat that combines a wide variety of melee weapons with a ridiculously large arsenal of varying guns. I’ll proudly admit to owning every single Prime Warframe available sans for the most recent Oberon Prime they just released, and I’ll equally admit to having purchased a couple of those for actual money.
And yet, while I am invested enough in the game to enjoy the content and to have spent money on it, I really don’t play it all that often. I love how the game feels and looks and it has some really fantastically fun stuff to do as long as I’m in the right mood for it, but more often than not these days, I am simply not in that mood. The game can’t get me in that mood.
This is Warframe’s pitfall: there is no endgame content that actually gives me an incentive to play. While the game itself is fun, it gets incredibly repetitive very quickly and it is also infamously grindy, requiring hours and hours of farm. Beyond that, the game doesn’t actually really reward you for that farm once you’ve reached a certain point. I mean sure, I could go and grind for hours until my newest Warframe reaches the max rank of 30, or I could do the same for a gun, or a melee weapon, or a dog, or a sentinel… but why would I? My favourite frame is Saryn Prime and she’s already Rank 30 and nicely modded with several Forma. I get no reward for levelling and ranking anything else that is actually worth the time it takes to tank them.
Warframe criminally under-rewards players for menial, repetitive chores. It knows it has good combat, if not irksome combat in the way everything scales at high levels, and it double-triples down on that factor in the hopes of retaining people. Every now and then they’ll throw out a new Warframe to get through a quest and then every few months they’ll throw a new set of Primed weapons with a Prime Warframe and some accessories to both get the farmers back in the game to farm, and to encourage the odd money-whale to splash that cash.
But it cannot properly retain players. It does nothing to actively keep them playing, save for actual addicts of the game who love the game enough to dedicate to it despite content droughts and fun-yet-soon-boring combat. Warframe’s true end is getting every weapon and every frame to Rank 30, and yet it doesn’t actually give you anything for the effort it takes to reach that goal – and then every month they strip you of having “beaten” the game by giving you something new to just mindlessly rank for no actual reward. Warframe, in this department, is just plain old bad. Not only does it give you no reason to actually try and achieve the “end” of the game, but it doesn’t even give you a reason to keep playing the damn thing because even if they give you a new weapon, they don’t really give you new content. It doubles down on the notion that the combat will carry the entire game – and falls flat on its face.
Guild Wars 2 is an MMORPG that has a more obvious endgame attached: reach the max level of 80 and complete your story missions is the most basic end it presents. For three years, the game had no additional endgame outside of that; it followed the basic principle of a content drip to keep people playing… only to find it failed.
The content drips were called “Living World” or “Living Story” and they expanded upon the main “Personal Story” of the game, detailing what happened after the events of the core game. It added a few new achievements and changed up a few maps – or outright added new ones as is the case of recent Living World updates. And yet despite this addition of content, it was only on a semi-regular basis and the main “story” additions could be completed in a couple of hours. Many veteran players found that the game was stuck in almost permanent content droughts, with the drip barely acting as lifeline.
They would come back, play for two hours and then leave again for pastures new and other games. They had no reason to actually log in on a daily basis. Guild Wars 2 was notable for abolishing the traditional “gear grind” system, wanting players to feel like they could easily attain the top level gear without too much of a grind commitment tied to it (until the Ascended tier was added, at least.) They didn’t want to intimidate any potential new players by flooding the game with gear tiers they would need to chew through.
Yet as a result of this decision, old players who achieved the maximum tier of gear found that they had nothing to do. They felt the game didn’t necessarily cater to them as players once they had played through the content – that the newer players were clearly the more important demographic. I run a Tumblr blog devoted to my various Guild Wars 2 exploits and have amassed a nice 866 followers in the four years since game release – a big number for me! What’s interesting is that, having watched the community on this blog for four years, Guild Wars 2 is infamous for veteran players becoming disillusioned with the game and really taking the hit of lack of content. Older players, myself included, play the game in waves where we come and we go, and the game really does nothing to actually keep us when we’re there. While some players may have since found more of an incentive to stay in the form of the raids introduced by the expansion, a good many still find raids to be both exclusive and an ironic step backwards from the game’s original mission, and they still leave as easily as they once came because there just isn’t the content to keep them.
In the next blog post I write, I’ll probably wind up continuing this subject on a more personal opinion post as to why I like the endgame in Final Fantasy XIV: Online so much. And I know, I know – I talk about that game probably far too often. But it’s a good game, for one, and for two, I think it’s a very good example of a game that manages to steer the various hurdles of the End Game of Endgame in the online video game scene to varying degrees of success rather than varying degrees of mixed failure.