Endgame content (also sometimes referred to as postgame content) has always been a thing in video games. What it refers to is the idea that you’ve been the main story of the game, but now that that’s over there’s more stuff for you to do if you want to keep exploring the game’s world. These are different from sidequests that are just super hard but still available to you before you beat the game: this is specifically content you’re only given access to after you’ve completed the main storyline. One of the more well-known types of endgame content include “raids” that were popularized by World of Warcraft – very hard bosses that you have access to once you’ve completed the game and have hit a high (or max) level with your character. These raid bosses can take anywhere from 3-4 hours to complete and teamwork from many different players. But they aren’t required for the main game – they’re only for people who really love World of Warcraft and want to participate in that kind of epic strategical play.
This content is a way to keep players engaged and challenged in your game after they’ve supposedly done everything they actually need to. Super Mario Odyssey, for example, only requires a certain amount of moons to beat the game – but once you have beaten it a whole bunch more moons are unlocked across all the worlds along with a completely new world. These moons are more challenging to get but are completely unnecessary if you’ve already had your fill with the game. It’s a good way for developers to add more content for people who really enjoy the game but not to overwhelm other people who play the game more casually.
The problem is that as developers are extending game length, the idea of “content” starts selling at a premium. And the emerging idea of Games As A Service (which I talked about in my very first blog post on here) had made it so developers don’t want their games to end at all. So endgame content stops being extra and starts becoming a part of the actual game which becomes a detriment to the game (and overall game design) itself.
Let’s first take a look at South Park: Phone Destroyer. It’s a free-to-play mobile game. On app stores where a lot of things are free to download, a simple $1 or $2 entry can alienate 90% of people who might buy your game, so developers start the game out as free. Then the goal with most free-to-play games (mobile and otherwise) is to get players to try the game out, get them addicted, and then get them to spend money once they’re in the game. But more importantly you need to keep them playing your game so you can keep getting more money from them, right? Because the important part is a continual income.
South Park: Phone Destroyer’s system is simple. The game starts out as a PVE (Player vs Enemy) game where you use your South Park deck of characters to play through levels against the computer. Then at certain points it gates off your progress until you win a PVP (Player vs Player game). You have to go online and face off against another live person and win a match (or several, depending on how far you’ve progressed) before you can go further in the PVE. And that’s how they get you to spend money – once you start playing other players, you see they have better decks than you and more characters so you want to get better so you can win at these roadblocks. And while you get free cards, those only come every four hours. But if you put money into the game, you can buy more cards immediately and maybe improve your deck!
That’s the gateway. The turning point is how you make your deck better. You can only increase the power of your characters by using materials you can get from PVE or the “store.” Of course, there’s only a limited amount of times you can play the PVE before the materials so you’re incentivized to spend real money to get more materials to keep advancing your deck. On top of that, to make your characters even more powerful you have to get duplicates of the same character, which of course means buying more cards to get those duplicates! It’s a very well thought-out system from a business and money-making standpoint – but it’s also on the verge of preying on those with addictive behaviors.
The addition of different rarities of different cards adds another addictive wrinkle to upgrading.
But what I’m talking about in this article is endgame content. And here’s the problem with Phone Destroyer’s progression and monetization system: when you get to the end of the game, you lose interest if you aren’t willing to pony up lots of money. Yes, it’s very possible to do well without using any money but you have to dedicate a lot – A LOT – of time to it. I’ve dedicated time and money to Phone Destroyer. I’ve beaten the PVE story and managed to reach the Legendary rank in PVP (which is the highest rank you can get – once you reach Legendary you are ranked by your place in the world – currently I’m #3042 or something like that). But since reaching Legendary I’ve lost interest in the game because it become not fun. All the Legendary players have put lots of time and money into their decks, which means all their cards are just simply more powerful than mine. The only solution for me is to pour MORE money into it since I can’t win PVP matches anymore and get better cards that way – and I’m not going to do that.
And this is where the endgame content design philosophy falls apart. Phone Destroyer’s endgame is to keep you playing the game, and to do that they want you to keep spending money. Instead of the endgame content being designed as extra things for people really into the game to do, it’s become a business decision – especially in the mobile sector. “If they’re still playing our game, we want them to still be spending money” – that’s not how a video game should be designed.
With the Games as a Service mentality there is more of a focus on “endless” content instead of having your games having a finite end. With other forms of entertainment you reach the conclusion of a story or narrative and then you’re done: eventually every TV show as a conclusion (unless you’re a soap opera) or when you walk into a movie theater you know the movie’s going to end in 2-3 hours. Developers have gotten greedy with their monopolization of time and they want to keep players hooked into their game and only their game.
Take a look at Destiny 2 – now I didn’t play the original game nor do I have interest in this one mostly because it puts a first-person shooter into the MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online RPG) format that I’ve never been super interested in. But fans of the game have been upset for a while: this article by Ars Technica goes into detail as to why Destiny 2’s endgame is particularly upsetting fans. Part of the reason that raids and endgame content were successful in World of Warcraft and other games in the MMORPG space is that they were the original Games As a Service – players were paying a monthly subscription fee to keep playing the game, so to justify players keeping that subscription the developers had to add meaningful endgame content to keep high level players engaged and, above all else, paying the money.
But Destiny 2 isn’t a MMORPG with a subscription. It’s a $60 game you pay once for with microtransactions and the developers are trying to keep people around with endgame content so that when the next big expansion drops there will be plenty of players willing to buy it for more content. But Destiny 2 has had a load of problems with their endgame – from locking people out from endgame content if they don’t buy the added downloadable content to fooling endgame players with an inaccurate experience system.
It’s almost as if Destiny 2’s publishers and developers are trying to fleece the game players out of as much money as possible instead of actually developing meaningful content that will keep players engaged and willing to spend more money because they like the game. (Oh wait, is Destiny 2’s published Activision? Oh right, the CEO who said stuff like this? No wonder…)
Right now, games have an ending problem. The idea that one game can keep a person’s focus for a long time isn’t a new one. Games like Starcraft and Super Smash Bros Melee are still very popular in their respective crowds – and Starcraft is nearly two decades old. League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Hearthstone all have huge continuous player bases. I’ve kept up with playing Overwatch for nearly two years since its launch.
But the issue is that some developers aren’t looking at designing a game that keeps player’s interest. They’re looking at how to continually drain a player’s wallet. And that at its base affects the actual game’s design, as seen with both Phone Destroyer and Destiny 2. If the goal of your design is to give fans of your game more things to do after they’ve beaten it, that’s one thing. If the goal of the design is to maximize profits, that’s eliminating the whole point of playing a game in the first place and replacing it with corporate dispassion.
Here’s a good example of endgame content to counteract my other examples: I’ve been playing Monster Hunter World a little bit because it’s gotten rave reviews and a lot of people who hadn’t played Monster Hunter before have really gotten into it. It’s technically my second Monster Hunter, but I barely played the first one because it was too complicated and it didn’t click for me. This version I’m slightly more interested in but it still hasn’t clicked for me in the way that other games have.
Every discussion I’ve seen involving Monster Hunter “experts” revolves around LR and HR – that is, Low Rank and High Rank. According to people who have played Monster Hunter before the game doesn’t really start until you reach High Rank and Low Rank is really a tutorial to get you used to the game. I’m still Low Rank, and apparently as you progress through the story missions you unlock High Rank before the story officially ends. However it takes a good 20 hours of gameplay before you unlock the High Rank quests and monsters. On top of that, your rank caps at 16 during the story, but unlocks once you finish the story and you can go all the way to rank 100.
There is a finite end to Monster Hunter World’s story missions. At that point you’re free to keep leveling your character beyond the cap if you enjoy the repetition of hunting monsters with or without friends. There are harder monsters that only show up around the endgame as well (I believe, but don’t quote me on that because I’m trying not to spoil myself on too much about the game). But nothing about this design is aimed at a player’s wallet or motivated by corporate greed. Monster Hunter World is a game that encourages constant online play, but its endgame philosophy is simply “if you enjoy hunting monsters, keep doing it, or you can move on, that’s cool too.” And not surprisingly, Monster Hunter World has taken off in popularity and has gotten a lot of good reviews.
Cheers to Monster Hunter World for decent game design.
There’s also an indie game called Celeste (that I will probably be reviewing soon) that is a tough-as-nails platformer. However its extra content is just that – extra. You can do even harder B-sides and C-sides to every world, but they’re only for people who really want a challenge and enjoy the game’s platforming. You don’t have to pay anything to unlock them and they’re entirely optional if you feel like your time with the game is done when you beat the story.
The one thing video game companies need to learn is that video game enthusiasts will keep inventing ways to play their game if it’s a good game. Speedruns, no-glitch runs, or imposed difficulty like the Soul Level 1 runs in Dark Souls. Design a good game first and people will play it for eternity on their own. But if you go into the philosophy thinking about how it’s best to keep people playing, you’re going to be in for a bad time.