When Does It End?

Every game has a start, a middle, and an end. Well, not all games have an end, but each one should have an endgame.

The endgame is going to be very different between different types of games. In abstract games like Set, the endgame is simply when the deck is running low or empty. In games with a little more depth, however, the endgame is where players are going to be rewarded for their actions taken earlier in the game. When you are designing a game, it is incredibly important understand how your game is supposed to end and plan accordingly. Today I would like to talk about different endgames and their pros and cons.

Let’s start with Magic: The Gathering. While Magic has a plethora of formats and variations that fundamentally change the way the game is played, it has a very simple endgame design: As turns go by, players play more lands (allowing them to cast larger spells that have a higher chance of ending the game in their favor) and draw more cards (allowing players to cast more spells and have a larger influence on the gamestate) slowly building towards a player losing all of their life or all of their cards. Now Magic, in all of its glory, has many play styles and strategies that don’t experience the endgame in the same way. It still, however, has a built-in endgame concept that rewards strategic gameplay in the early game.

Now take a look at another of my favorite games, “Clank!”. Clank! is a deck building game wherein you play as adventurers(See also: Thieves) who are sneaking into a dragon’s dungeon to steal artifacts and other loot and make it out alive. The endgame here is twofold: As in all deck building games, you modify your play deck as the game goes on and by the end, your play experience is greatly affected by the cards you bought earlier in the game. At the same time, players’ actions in the early game affect their position on the board in the late game when it is time to run. I think Clank! does an excellent job in both game progression and endgame rewards.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that can have any number of different types of endgame, but the goal remains the same in each one. Reward(or punish) the players for their actions earlier in the game while reaching a tidy conclusion to the story that you’ve all been telling. This might be allowing the players to use their uniquely designed characters to do wondrous things, or maybe it’s just having everyone come together to defeat the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy). The beauty of D&D is that it can be whatever the players and game master want it to be. But this means that it is even more important for those involved to understand what a good endgame is, and how to cultivate it.

So let’s take a look at a few games that don’t have a particularly great endgame. Rather than rag on finished products, I am going to talk about games that are still in development, as they still have hope of improving their endgame in later versions.

This first one is a PC game still in alpha, but an amazing game nonetheless. I’m talking about 7 Days To Die, a zombie apocalypse crafting survival game. I could gush about how much I love this game all day, but today we’re talking about endgame. 7DTD suffers from a problem that many survival games suffer from, and that is a lack of an endgame all together. There is a good amount of progression and there is certainly a learning curve to the game, but upon establishing a fairly safe dwelling and securing a sustainable source of food and water (both of which are doable before night 4), there isn’t much left to do but explore the map. The survival becomes trivial and there ceases to be any real reward for doing anything. Your biggest enemy quickly becomes boredom. This could be (and undoubtedly will be) alleviated by a variety of things. Adding more unique items to the game would offer rewards for exploring every nook and cranny of the map. Adding harder enemies in later game stages would keep the survival aspect rolling. But these things just prolong the inevitable. Eventually, there will be no more to explore and the game will stop being difficult. This happens with most survival games, and anything that you do to help this will boil down to one of two things: Adding content to extend the endgame or increasing the difficulty to make reaching the endgame harder. Unfortunately, when the goal of the game is “survive as long as you can”, there is no way for the game to end in a satisfactory way. While this is an inherent problem of the genre, it is worth noting in the design process.

The last game I will be talking about is a mobile phone game that was immensely popular on initial release, but shortly fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons. Pokemon Go. The game concept is pretty simple: Catch pokemon, level them up, and use them to take and hold gyms. The level cap of your pokemon is determined by your trainer level, so you have incentive to be gaining as much XP as possible along the way. But what is the goal? Hold a bunch of gyms? What are you supposed to do when you are holding all the gyms in your area? Catch more pokemon? There isn’t really much of an endgame at all. When you reach the level cap, you don’t unlock any new features. You might still be fighting over gyms with other trainers, but there isn’t really anything to work towards.

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this. Having a good endgame means rewarding your players for the actions they took to get there, or maybe even just getting there in the first place. If you are making a game that is designed to never end, then your content must also be endless(Or at least endless in the sense that players will never reach the end). Players’ opinions of games are greatly affected by the way it comes to an end. When the game concluded, did they feel their actions meant something? Did their strategy pay off, or at least come close? By simply finishing the game, did they acheive something great? Did the story that was being told come to a nice conclusion? All of these things are going to affect how players feel about a game, but what about the games that don’t end? I would argue that when a player reaches the end of new content in an “ongoing” game, they have reached the “end”. Think about a survival game that was fun for a while, but eventually became really easy as the challenges stop getting harder. If you described the game as “fun for a while, but it gets boring eventually”, would your friends want to play it?

If your game is supposed to tell a story, like every role-playing game ever, then it needs a good ending. If it is supposed to cultivate different strategies, then those strategies need to have a payoff. If it is supposed to be a game where the goal is to achieve one thing, like a survival game, then that better be difficult to do.

And this is why endgame is so important. It is the last impression that we get of a game, and the heaviest influence that we are going to have on recommending it. It is what makes the game feel worth playing at all. I love 7DTD because I know that it isn’t finished yet. If its current state was the finished product, I would be unable to recommend it to anyone. And this is why I urge all game designers to take a good, hard look at their endgame. Don’t just slap a “whoever gets to X points first wins” on the end and call it a day. Really take time to consider how the game is meant to be played how it should finish in kind. Disagree? Have something to add? Leave a comment and let me know.

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