What makes for good endgame content for an MMO?
There was a period of about 9 months in 2019 where for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had time. I had just finished applying to my last graduate program and even heard back from 1 or 2. Additionally, my tutoring job at the time was quieting down since school was out for the summer. Long and short-term goals settled, I sat down and did what middle-school me had always wanted to do: play an MMO. Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV) was the poison of choice and after 1000 hours I was definitely feeling some sort of poisoned (or maybe extremely self-aware about where 1000 hours could have gone instead). To FFXIV's credit, it was really only the last 30 hours of those 1000 that left a bad feeling in my mouth. Hundreds of hours of story content, multiplayer content, shiny outfits, combat classes, non-combat classes, NPC watching, and casino gambling went by pretty enjoyably. I say pretty enjoyably to contrast my relatively "pure" mmo experience with FFXIV to my time playing Destiny 2. Destiny 2 wasn't unenjoyable per se. I would say I left feeling that there was so much potential and promise that Destiny 2 in its current form did not deliver on. This frustration at its end game specifically was what partially drove me to find a "pure" mmo experience: if Destiny 2 failed to deliver on satisfying RPG elements or a massive gaming experience, what was a game that could? Thus the question: What makes for good endgame content in an MMO? A few clarifying statements follow from this question. I would define endgame content to be content intended to keep players playing the game after they have completed the core content and until the next major content expansion. For both D2 and FFXIV, endgame content was the answer to why should I keep playing when I've finished the story. Of note for a different essay or deeper dive into the topic would also be the question of why should designers worry about designing content that only a relatively small percentage of their paying player base will actually play? Endgame content is also very specific to games with both a progression system and a service business model. Broadly speaking, D2's endgame excels at expanding its world beyond what you immediately interact with in the normal gameplay loop (i.e. shooting and looting). I felt the endgame struggled most with presenting meaningfully deep goals that players could choose to follow or not. Additionally, I would broadly characterize D2's endgame content as incredibly skill driven, for better or for worse. As a case study for this, take a look at the Last Wish raid. Players team up to murder a wish-granting space dragon. Yeah it's literally that cool. The Last Wish raid takes place in the fantasy-inspired homeworld of the Awoken playable race. What's so crazy is this magic-space-fantasy aesthetic lives in the same world as the space-cowboy-wild-west aesthetic used to market the Forsaken expansion in the first place. It's gorgeous, there's hundreds of lore entries for the world and characters you hear about when making small talk with NPCs. It might be some of the most compelling and thought-provoking world building I had ever experienced up to that point. The only problem was none of that lore was the central focus of the story. Even in the Last Wish raid, so many of the actions and mission goals are so strange that they only make sense how they fit into the world of Destiny 2 when you hunt around maps for 5-6+ hours for pages of a short story explaining their significance. It's a mystical magical world that you have to work really hard to "get." So the Last Wish raid has cool lore. How is it bad? First-person platforming puzzles. That's how. None of the core Destiny 2 game will teach you or even remotely prepare you for the mechanics of Destiny's raids. Hilariously powerful enemies shoot from all angles, circles on the ground light up that you need to stand in, black energy fields expand from an eldritch device in the middle of your party, all while you communicanicate where to run using weird symbols seen through a looking glass attached to the eldritch device. It's a mess and it's nothing like the 85% of the game you played before this moment. Normal missions in Destiny 2 take 30-45 mins. You might spend an hour or two trying to finish a max difficulty story mission (a-la Halo's skull system). The Last Wish raid takes 5-6 hours. Longer if you need to teach the mechanics to newbies. Besides Last Wish, D2 offered replay value in competitive multiplayer, grinding for better guns, and the community you build along the way. Multiplayer was its own brand of frustrating, since competitive multiplayer balance will always be a challenge for a game focused on its sandbox experience. For me that left the clan I found, which just so happened to focus on raiding. I loved them: I just didn't feel motivated to go through the motions of the endgame. My logic went something along these lines:
1. Get better at running the raid by failing for 5-6 hours a night
2. Get better guns from solo content to make running the raid easier
3. Complete the raid to get better guns to make the raid easier
If I didn't like running the raid (either because it was too hard, too long, too dependent on too many other people, too dependent on RNG for the loot at the end), then why should I keep playing the game? After 450ish hours of Destiny 2, I realized I didn't have to.
I got my money's worth and made great friends. One of whom would actually be following me to an actual MMO: FFXIV. Destiny 2's endgame was too divorced from its normal game and presented too few and too shallow user-defined goals, then FFXIV answered these problems with sheer volume of content. FFXIV had 16 distinct playable classes to Destiny's 3 (9 if you counted the 3 variants per class). FFXIV also had 4 expansions worth of content that are mandatory to get to the endgame, with each expansion taking around 150 hours to complete. Also in contrast to Destiny 2's hidden storytelling, all of FFXIV's mechanics revolve around walking you through its world. You meet the important leaders of the city, you learn about how the city makes its money, you talk to veterans of the world shattering event of 30 years ago. The core loop directly involves interacting with FFXIV's world. In contrast to raiding in Destiny 2, FFXIV has a lot of different raids. Some are woven directly into the story of the game and require players to complete them before advancing. Endgame raids would then be harder versions of the thematically same raid. Even if you tired out from hardcore raiding, FFXIV also featured endgame content for its non-combat jobs, decorating houses, picking outfits, getting pets, etc. In writing this post I can finally see that this question really addresses a number of different questions, namely: -How does raiding in Destiny 2 meaningfully differ from FFXIV? -Why does Destiny 2 feel like it wants to be an MMO but isn't or can't? -Does making a massive game with literally more features than might be humanly possible to explore like FFXIV lead to a better game or even a more profitable one? Were I to refine this blog post further, I would probably focus on the following topics: -What was the total scope of Destiny 2 vs. FFXIV's end game -Were FFXIV's raids actually better designed than Destiny's? Feel free to reach out if there's any information or analysis that would be valuable to this discussion. I also definitely did not mean for this blog to turn into me bashing Destiny 2. It did so many things right and beautifully that these impressions fail to describe. FFXIV is also far from a perfect game or even MMO.