I imagine MMO designers lose quite a bit of sleep over their endgames. Between the game going live and the masses actually reaching max level, there might be weeks of waiting to do before they get crucial feedback and see how it all comes together on a massive scale. And when the endgame can make or break an MMO, determining whether or not people stick around, it must be a nail-biting experience.
Getting this critical element just right is a difficult tightrope walk, which a lot of players seem to understand. But that understanding sometimes transforms into excusing endgame issues, leaving us in a weird situation where people expect the endgame to be not-so-great—a shield that deflects any criticism.
This is not to say that MMO forums and social media aren't full of complaints whenever an endgame is a disappointment—there will always be venting—but it's always accompanied by the strangest of excuses.
Endgame reactions are on my mind at the moment because I've been playing a lot of New World, and New World's endgame has its fair share of problems. Some, like the broken azoth staffs that stopped players from being able to destroy Corrupted monoliths, have been fixed, but there are still bugs and broader structural issues. For a few weeks the single new PvP mode was also disabled, though it's finally been reactivated.
A common response to these critiques is that I'm playing the game wrong, along with anyone else who's reached level 60. This is a bizarre excuse for any MMO, but especially for New World, where part of the appeal is choosing how you want to play, whether that's as a crafter who's just happy to explore and build, or a hardcore PvPer constantly hunting for players to stab.
For some, the whole point of an MMO is getting to the endgame as quickly as possible. And it's impressive, too. Finding the fastest way to get XP is a quest loads of people embark upon straight away. In New World, I was stunned at the speed at which some players smashed through the levels, and it's not just about the speed or skipping sleep. There's an art to power levelling. I don't like to rush, normally, but the tricks and efficient routes players discovered absolutely helped me when I hit a wall at level 50.
Perhaps the issue is the name: endgame. The implication is that you've finished, when in reality it really just means you're getting started. This is where the dedicated players will live until new territories, dungeons and diversions appear. Most MMOs offer unique activities like raids, daily quests, new modes and all sorts of things that you have to reach the endgame to enjoy. It's the first time you get to see everything the game has to offer. With that in mind, rushing towards the endgame isn't rushing towards the finish line—you're rushing towards the meat.
The implication is that there's a specific point in time, or a specific number of max level players, where the endgame becomes important, and before that point who cares? But we don't see this in any other kind of game. If the final act of a big singleplayer game is hot garbage, that's going to be reflected in the review, and an issue from day one, even before any players have seen it. It's considered common sense, even though the same excuses could be applied. The developers could fix it before most players reach that point.
So why the different expectations? It's because, in most genres, there isn't this narrative that a whole chunk of the game is going to suck at launch. But the narrative that exists around MMOs just seems dated. Sure, World of Warcraft didn't have a great endgame when it launched over 15 years ago, but it's had a lot of expansion launches since then without that issue. OK, they don't please everyone, but there's always a lot to do for anyone that sprints towards them.
Even with the dearth of MMOs these days, we don't need to go far back to see one with an endgame that's already a highpoint at launch. In Steven's Swords of Legends Online review, it was one of the game's saving graces. Though it absolutely benefited from launching in China first, giving developers time to fatten it up. There was Crowfall, too, which came out at the same time and made the endgame a major focus—and importantly one that you could get to quickly. The endgames of these games didn't quite make up for all the other problems they had, but if even decidedly OK MMOs can have strong endgames, all of them should.
While quality endgames aren't the white whale that they're often framed as, it is true that, at launch, they're often the less polished part of an MMO. Where there are issues, though, they could be nipped in the bud through more focussed beta testing. Most MMOs do heaps of testing, from very early technical alphas to free-for-all open betas, but it's much rarer to see the endgame getting this treatment. Betas sometimes run for long enough to give the most dedicated players time to get there, but that's leaving a lot up to chance. I'd love to see an open beta that lets you just roll a max level character instantly.
'Endgames are always bad at launch' is a myth, then, or at least ancient history. It certainly doesn't mean there aren't plenty of obstacles—they might be the hardest thing to get right—but let's not give them a free pass just because most players haven't reached that point yet.