Tobold has an interesting post about D&D campaigns and the lack of ‘end-game’. Certainly no Dungeonmaster could expect their group, having reached the dizzy heights of the level cap, to repeatedly do the same adventures over and over for the random chance of a gear upgrade.
In his post he imagines a game in which the real game is actually leveling, and once you ‘finish’ one character you repeat the process with another, each pass through unlocking certain new features such as more advanced classes. This has basically been my approach to MMO gaming since I began in 2007 with WoW. On reflection I would say the reason why I lasted so long playing WoW as my main game (4 years more or less), was that I went crazy with alts. More importantly though I had plenty to do with the crafting system, the hobbies (fishing and cooking) and frankly there was a vast amount of content in the game. Until they ruined it all with Cataclysm’s painfully linear questing, WoW offered myriad paths to level. Yes you’d visit some zones repeatedly, but within those zones there wasn’t the need to repeat many quests since there were so many different quest chains.
This is a trick Rift really missed out on. Yes *some* gamers want to get to level cap as soon as possible. But others want to enjoy leveling and the pace of this game was too fast, and offered too few alternative paths through the world. I’ll admit having rifts / invasions AND quests was nice, but the temptation to do a bit of everthing coupled with the rather ridiculous leveling speed means you rarely get to finish anything before moving on. As others have pointed out after the game’s release, what’s the point in reputation grinds for gear in most zones if you outlevel the rewards before you can even earn them? Perhaps the two silver linings of Rift is the soul system for a huge variety of gameplay variation (even encouraging experimentation while leveling) and the dynamic content but that’s not enough to make up for the endgame obsession at Trion so I finally cancelled my sub last night.
SWTOR is a mixed bag here. The class quest lines give you some replay value from the offset, no two characters of different classes can have exactly the same leveling experience. The pace of leveling is however pretty fast (so far at least up to 30), there are at least plenty of non-linear quest hubs like with old WoW so choice of leveling path on planets shouldn’t be too big a deal. The heroics and other dailies also give some replay value as well.
There is an overarching problem with these games though, if the developers aim for the bulk of the playerbase to be raiding or PVP’ing all day long then that will naturally drive the bluk of the playerbase into those activities. Over time as updates are released any such bias from the developers will be evident. This was certainly the case with Rift, it was raid-patch then PVP-patch then raid-patch and so on. What difference does this make to how I play the game? Well it means the open areas of the world, especially below the cap are like Tatooinee’s badlands around midday – deserted of any sign of life.
Already now, with me several months behind the leveling zerg from launch, I see very few other players in SWTOR. It’s sad because it makes grouping for the very entertaining heroics and flashpoints harder. But worse it, for me personally, ruins the atmosphere of the game somewhat. This was the case in WoW for the last 9 months or more – very empty of players in lower areas, it was the same in Rift by the autumn and is now the case in SWTOR (Alderaan is very lonely). Funnily enough EQ2 was the only game I play where you were always seeing other players (on Freeport levels 1 through 35), though since the disasterous PR mess of the Alaplaya takeover even that seems to have taken a population nosedive.
Coming back to the point, at least if there were games built for the journey rather than the endgame I might see more people along the way…