Endgame content is key for any MMO -- it is, after all, what keeps players coming back long after their initial purchase, and good content beyond the game's level cap is essential for maintaining an MMO audience for a decent amount of time. It's perhaps even more important for a game such as WildStar, which is stubbornly flouting the recent trend of free-to-play and buy-to-play MMOs in favour of the all-too familiar, and increasingly unpopular subscription model. After all, if you're going to charge a subscription fee, the content reward package for those who blitz the main game stuff had better be damn good.
That sentiment is not lost on WildStar's design producer Stephan Frost.
"The thing that we've noticed with other MMOs is that if you don't have endgame content, people leave immediately," Frost said, talking to me at a Warplots and Raids event last week. "If you have raids that people can complete in a very short space of time they go, 'Cool, that's it? I'm out.' So endgame for us meant coming up with content for each individual type of gamer, and what I mean by that is we have dungeons and raids, housing, PvE, and all these different sub-groups of players in WildStar, and all of those groups need to have something to do once they reach the level cap."
But last week's event centred around a very specific group of gamers -- those who'll speed through the game's main content in a matter of days once WildStar releases on June 3rd. Straight out of the gates, there's going to be a need for endgame content, and Carbine's Frost delivered a brief presentation regarding two of the main things in store for those hardcore players who'll be scrambling to reach level 50 as soon as possible.
"Specifically, what we're talking about today are the Warplots and Raids," said Frost. "Now, Raids need to be excessively brutal in our opinion because the one percenters, or the five percenters or whatever the small fraction percentage of the player base that plays these things might be, need to be really challenged, otherwise they'll beat it really quickly. I mean, we make it so challenging that we ourselves [the developers at Carbine] cannot beat our own Raids. That is completely on purpose because we know that there are people out there who are way better at WildStar than we are, and so we've had to make stuff that is really challenging for those people. Same with Warplots. You like PvP? Well fight forty people against forty other people! We have all of this stuff that is massive and different and it's not just like have another battleground! It's have a customisable death-fortress that you can fight against other people with!"
Carl went into great detail with a look at how Warplots will play out last week with his monster preview, and the customisable, battle-fortress-stuffed PvP is sure to be one of the big draws when it comes to the endgame content. But what about the hardcore players who tend to avoid PvP like the plague? Well, sticking with the notion of going big or going home, Carbine are bringing the punishment with their 20-man and 40-man Raids. There's simply no point otherwise.
"Whenever you're doing game design stuff, you want there to be peaks and valleys," Frost explained. "You don't want everything to be [draws a straight line through the air] AAAAAAHHH! the entire time. But the peaks and valleys in our Raids are pretty much [draws undulating rollercoaster] AAAAAAHHH!! You know, we try to keep it as hardcore as we possibly can pretty much the entire time.
"What that means is we have a few things that we need to do. One is that we need to have environmental hazards that are interesting and unique. So in one of the Raids there's this bridge filled with eggs, and if you get too close to them, they'll disorient you. So pushing forward will make you go left or right and it just does something completely different, and when you fall off that bridge you die. So then, on top of that, we shoot missiles down, and so then you might double-tap forward, but you forget that you're disoriented and just dodge off of the edge to you're death. So we wanted to make things that were challenging, that made people really pay attention, and really work towards getting something.
"Then we have mini-bosses and trash mobs, and I shouldn't say trash but I say it every time because our trash mobs are really difficult unto themselves. I'd go so far as to say that some of them are even more aggressive than some raid bosses in other games. Our trash mobs are crazy, and they drop good loot too. So there's that, and it's the same with the mini-bosses, they're really challenging and they have they're own rooms. And then the bosses themselves are insane."
"The thing that I love about WildStar is that a lot of the stuff is simplistic in its communication, but it's the skill involved that comes to the fore and makes it hard to get across. You'll watch other raids in other games and you won't know what the hell is going on. There's no visual communication telling you what's happening. With our telegraph system, though, it's like 'Crap! The entire room is a telegraph right now, we need to do something about it!' Well, what do you about it? Is it a group cc of 25 people at the same time, and can you do it in the span of three seconds? Is that you have to jump off or on to something? Whatever it is, figuring it out is the fun part. But the other great thing that we do is that it's not like when you walk into a room and you know that two minutes in the boss is always going to put a telegraph right here, so we know at two minutes we just hang out on the another side of the room. [In WildStar] a lot of the time we'll base the telegraphs off of where you are in a room and so it places right under you so you have to jump out of the way. So whilst the mechanics are the same, it's different because we place things around in different areas each time."
Carbine have done the hard work already: creating an MMO combat system that manages to combine immediacy with strategy to make for some of the most satisfying action to be found in the genre. It's exactly why so many people are excited for WildStar, because it's an MMO ultimately predicated on skill. But it makes endgame content such as this even more important. This is Carbine throwing every that they have (and more) at the players who've run the gauntlet the quickest and are now asking "Is that it?"
There are difficulties that come with aiming for a new experience each and every time. Randomly-generated content on a scale this large is no small feat to pull off, but it looks like Carbine have done an astounding job of making these Raids fantastic fun to play, and also watch. In his presentation to kick off the event, Frost mentioned that much of the design work came about as a result of wanting to make things "hilariously difficult", noting that there's something inherently funny about watching a telegraph grow larger and larger over a player's head, and chuckling as they slowly turn into an increasingly frenzied headless chicken.
So it is that there'll be rooms with disintegrating platforms or enormous bombs that can cause massive patches of the floor to blow up unless players can work out how to shift it. Bosses will radiate burning red telegraphs in randomly-generated patterns, spitting out death like a bullet-hell shooter and constantly forcing players to move. No longer will Medics be able to simply hang back and heal in peace -- the fact that you have to aim your healing shots is one thing, that you have to do that whilst avoiding constantly shifting hazard zones that move faster than you can and trying not to get hit from projectiles falling from above is another. As the DevSpeak that'll surface next week puts it: Hardcore.
And what about everyone else?
I'll be honest, it was rather strange to be covering an event for content that I probably won't see. If you've watched my series, The Noob, you'll have witnessed the depths of my mediocrity and will therefore understand that I'm not the super-competitive PvPer nor the ultra-hardcore PvE type to stand much of a chance in either the Warplots or the 20-40 man Raids. Not that such preconceptions are going to stop me being excited for them. It all looks absolutely insane, Frost's presentation had me grinning from ear to ear, and thoughts of a Dealspwn Game Night or ten are already beginning to formulate. Particularly when it comes to the Raids. Those bullet-hell telegraphs and environmental hazards look hilariously punishing and diabolically enticing. We'll fight and fail and fight and fail and fight again and probably fail again, and we'll likely have a blast doing it.
But there's going to be much more besides. WildStar is enormous, serving up depth in features the likes of which have rarely (if ever) been seen before, and Carbine are attempting to cater to a vast array of potential players -- myself being one of them. So what's there for a lore-loving noob to do once I (eventually) make my way to level 50? We've dealt with the hardcore players, but what about everyone else?
"There's a lot of stuff," Frost replied. "If you're a PvP player in general, you can get rated arenas that give you ranking so you can figure out where you place and that sort of thing. That's still pretty hardcore, but it's the type of thing that the average PvP player can really get into. For PvE players, we have these things called PCPs. They're effectively public events you can compete in, for example one will be in Malgrave, it's a level 45 area but we put level 50 content in it. So when you're running in, you do these public events and compete against another faction. If you complete your public events first, you actually get rewarded more.
"There's a bunch of things we have only at level 50 that you can earn. We also have PCPs that are instanced, not just for you but for everyone else, and these serve to continue the story. So you can go to Crimson Isle as a lower-level character, but if you go back at cap there's a continuation of the Dominion story and what happens are they begin taking over and kicking out the Exiles, and there are bits about Eldan technology that went berserk and killed everything. We also have the World Story and a levelling version of that, so in a kind of singleplayer instance you can go and investigate the disappearance of the Eldan."
It's clear that Carbine have no interest in delivering a game that stutters and staggers out of the gate come June 3rd. They're all in on this launch, and looking to be quite possibly the most feature-complete MMO to deliver upon release. It's a lofty goal, but considering the strength of the game to this point and how well it's held up across this beta period, I'm not sure I'd bet against them. We don't have long to wait to find out. Truth be told, I've been trying not to get too over-excited at the prospect of being able to finally play the "finished" (are MMOs ever truly finished?) version. But last week's little event put paid to that, and I've been humming that damn overture for days again. It's going to take me a long time to reach level 50, but it's good to know that however long it takes you, there'll be something worthwhile waiting at the top.