For a single-player RPG, I think the satisfying ending is to give the player a lot of praise/recognition/affection from RPGs and bonuses for completing various collections or achievements.
I'm kinda a fan of the "well, the whole world's in ruins now, but we survived, and enough of us survived that we can rebuild" type of endings - though not exclusively (examples that come to mind are Final Fantasy 7 and the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood).
But both your single-player example and the world-in-ruins example, are still conclusions - they are still 'exits' even if they offer more sidequest stuff and offer Game+ modes, there is still a clear moment of arrival at the exit door (very few linear singleplayer games don't offer that, and some offer more than one - though I have displeasure with the 'more than one' and 'none' games).
The problem I've found with MMOs is they resemble the same mechanics -- this is the biggest bore for me when it comes to MMOs. You know exactly how it will play before playing. Is that good, or bad?!
In respect of story in MMOs, I've never considered how they construct the story (despite being a lover of good stories) or implement it as it always seemed a means to an end. And thinking now, not one MMO I've played sticks in my mind for story - let alone what story structure they use. Although oddly enough, open-world games (which can be quite similar to MMOs but single-player) tend to have stories that are memorable.
But saying that, there is one MMO that I'll never forget. Good memories, yes, but what stuck was the concept: Face of Mankind (FPS and no levelling). A universe of several factions (headed by a GM) that included a political system, law and order, factions for the economy, mercenaries and an underground lawless faction. The designers of the games and GMs generated events, so with that and the player-base, created the story.
Anyway, in respect of a main quests and such, the story could be (with thought) a very long story. Just consider, say, Game of Thrones. But however you implement a story, I think the big thing is making it a social event. Isn't one of the biggest draws to MMOs the ability to play with friends?
You bring up some other interesting MMO flaws; they have more than enough flaws to keep us in discussion for years.
In referencing the Hero's Journey, I accidentally gave the impression that I'm talking about stories and plot, but I'm actually talking about player experience and post-game sanctification, even if no plot exists, or regardless of whether the plot is good or bad.
We do consume media for story, we do consume media for characters, but we also consume media for experiences. Exits help reinforce (and sometimes cap off) the experiences.
I don't know, I think these games do tend to have a conclusion if you're looking for one. MMOs tend to have main questlines with milestones when you reach max level or beat the highest tier raids, it's just that there's almost always more to do afterwards (and expansions to extend the storyline) if you want to keep playing. There is actually a sizable chunk of players that stop playing once they hit max level since they aren't interested in raiding or pvp.
The difference is, those milestones are, "Well, I'm bored now, time for something else!" - which is fine! But, it'd be great if players left the game not saying "I'm bored", but left saying, "That was incredible!".
I don't want MMOs to force players into an "ending scene" prematurely - the easiest way is players consciously choosing to trigger it. Like playing Chrono Trigger, a mostly linear RPG, it "ends" when you say, 'Time to go finally face Lavos'. Up until then, you're running around doing side-quests and leveling up.
Even ignoring economics, the nature of MMOs usually requires them to maintain a healthy population so players have other people to group with, fight, or otherwise interact with, so I don't think there's any incentive to provide a definitive "ending" so players would be encouraged to stop playing.
Yes, definitely huge numbers of players are critical for MMOs. Many designers have correctly stated that "players ARE the content" of MMOs (at least, part of the content).
However, players don't stay forever. Players will exit eventually (if only from the servers eventually being shutdown), if we can make it so when they do exit, it reinforces their memories of pleasure in that game, it helps that brand for when the sequel MMO comes out, or for other games by the same studio it'd enhance the brand. Further, by identifying the exit (through the player taking some concrete action in-game), it'd be the perfect time to wait a week and email them a link to another one of your games, or an offer to transition their account credits towards your Sci-Fi MMO instead of your fantasy one.
That's the business incentive - but not my goal; my goal in exploring this is design-wise.
Additionally, I think story is just less important to most open world games. For most people, the main appeal is going to be the gameplay itself, and as long as there are new and fun things to do, there will be a reason to keep playing. (I for one never finished the main questline in Skyrim, still played it much more than most RPGs and had fun exploring the world)
For me the main appeal is the world, and the exploration of it. I'm honestly not trying to push stories. The idea of the Hero's Journey goes beyond the plot of the book/game, and in a meta way, has been applied by some game designers to the process of players themselves playing the game (not merely the characters they are controlling).
I feel - and this is my personal view - most good media is strong in at least one of three areas: Story, World, or Characters. Ideally all three, but if you take Morrowind, for example, it's World was strong enough that it more than made up for the sub-par characters and story.
I also feel - and this is my personal view - that consumers have different preferences for those three things. We all, to some extent, want great worlds, great stories, and great characters, but some of us care more about great characters, and some care more about great stories. (and with games, there's also gameplay as well, and so on)
As for myself, I care most about the World aspect. I'm huge on atmosphere and exploration and immersion. That is what is most important to me (above gameplay, stories, characters, visuals, etc... - but sure I enjoy those also).
So when I'm talking about an 'exit' for MMOs, I'm actually not coming from a story-focused background. I'm thinking about the concept of 'exits', because I intuitively think it might enhance the 'World' aspect. I think it might enhance atmosphere and immersion, to a subtle extent.
The real "end" for a lot of players is either when you get bored or when you can no longer improve your character because you've beaten all the dungeons and you have all the best gear.
Absolutely! I just have this nagging question about whether providing some symbolic "exit" that players can choose to activate when they are ready, might provide an extra "oomph" of satisfying conclusion. But only when they are ready to activate it.
This doesn't have to be a boss fight, and doesn't have to be anything specific - it'd have to fit in with the theme of the game.
But imagine the theme of the game is that you are in a different world, but aren't native to it. What if "the exit" was a big stone archway that you walk through to "return" to "your world", or even not your original world, but one that leads to "the next great adventure". I mean, it's kinda cheesy when I say it like this, but I think in-context, in-atmosphere, in-world, it could work well and provide the difference between laying down a book you're reading that you're still reading, and the satisfying finality of laying down a book that you've just finished.
Or if the game is about being stranded on an alien planet with no way off, what if, unlocked sometime through playing and exploring the world, you find a way to finally signal activate a beacon so a ship comes by and rescues you, so you literally 'exit' the world?
My examples/suggestions are symbolic methods of "leaving" the "world", but it doesn't have to be so on-the-nose. It could be dying, or ascending to godhood, or starting a family, or whatever else. I mean, but bookends are nice too, which is why I think the symbolic method is appealing to me.
In Trespasser, a linear Jurrassic Park-licensed survival game, you play a women who crashes on the island (the Site B research island, if you know your Jurassic Park lore); after trying multiple methods of trying to signal for help, the game ends with you raising an antenna, making contact, with a rescue helicopter going to pick you up on a helipad on a small mountain, and you have to make your way up the mountain, hunted by velociraptors, before you reach the helipad and are flown off the island. It was a very satisfying ending. It was exciting to be introduced to that world, it was enjoyable to explore that new world, and (equally importantly) it was satisfying in the way you exited that world. I see the first two done well in MMOs (beginning and middle), but not so much the last one (exit).
Some people won't want to leave, and that is fine (I imagine the 'Cheers' themesong playing here). But for those who want to leave, and are ready to leave, how can we make their exit satisfying?
Sure, anyone can just log out and not come back - I'm not seeking to prevent that. Nor am I saying my "exit" would be required. Nor would I even want the "exit" to prevent the player from logging back in again - though I imagine it might be similar to Game+'ing or Prestiging your character.
The worst problem would be someone accidentally activating it before they are ready to be done with the game, but that's a communication issue that is case-specific that can be solved.
Have you ever watched a TV show or movie series that is really really great, but it goes on so long that, though you keep watching, the final season is (even just slightly) at a lower standard than the earlier seasons, and it psychologically mars even your previous enjoyment?
If someone is playing an openworld game (singleplayer or MMO), and what point can we help the player exit the world satisfyingly, immediately after she jumps the shark, while still at an euphoric high point? I mean, if she's going to leave anyway, but would otherwise play for another four or five hours of boringness before she realizes it's time to quit, I'd rather save the player those five hours, and enhance the lasting perception of enjoyment of my game, by ending on a high note. Ofcourse, I don't want to artificially exit a player while there's still net enjoyment to be had (net enjoyment meaning, more pleasure than boredom).
Ideally, I'd like to *accurately* know when it's time for a player to quit before she herself knows it - or at least as reasonably accurate as possible.
Besides, just from a narrative perspective, it's harder to use a standard RPG main quest in an MMO: "You are the chosen hero who is destined to save the kingdom… except for those thousands of other people doing the same thing." Not to mention that you can't ever really defeat the bad guys for good because in MMOs mobs have to respawn and instances reset so you and other players can fight them again. MMO stories are more believable when they focus on your character's personal journey of self improvement, and that kind of story ties in well with leveling up.
Not everybody, but alot of people, are tired of the whole "chosen one" cliche. You can have satisfying stories without making the player the chosen one. Nor am I suggesting that an MMO needs a fixed linear story that every player goes to. In my own design thoughts, I'm leaning in the direction that players kinda form their own story through what happens to them in-game (and Director-style AI brings 'experiences' to them, as well as adventure-quests they choose to engage in). My 'exit' suggestion is less story-related and more emotional-high/exhilaration/euphoria brought to a conclusion rather than keep trying to drag the player back in with promises of more pleasure (more expansions more DLC more content updates, etc...) if those promises can't actually be met for a specific player. There should still be updates, expansions, DLC, and a continuing-to-change non-static world (if we're talking MMO), but though the train goes on, some players want to get off at the current station, and I want it to be a pleasurable departure, and one that leaves them with a good overall taste of the game (and the company), rather than "It was great... for awhile, and then it got boring.". When it ceases to be great (which will vary between players), I want there to be a way to exit while the overall impression is still "It was incredible! /FULL STOP/" without any 'buts', asterisks, or qualifiers.
Does that make sense? Does that sound like a good idea to explore, or would it ruin MMO experiences?
There's really several separate aspects to it:
- Is it a good idea to make sure that when players do exit (which is inevitable), it's a satisfying exit?
- How can we determine when a player is ready to exit, so we can present the exit, before she continues playing beyond her point of enjoyment? (ideally, we want to encourage use of the exit before the game gets boring, but after he's had as much enjoyment as can be mined out of it)
- How can we present the exit in a way that players comprehend well?
- Is this actually beneficial for the developer?