Endgame design in MMOs is one of those areas that has not seen too much growth over the years. Looking at the mechanics of MMO design, there are several issues that could be culprit.
DC Universe Online joins the very small list of MMOs that I managed to reach the level cap and got to see the endgame. While DCUO tries to do something different beyond just going on raids all the time, it still falls into the same trap that I see happen to every MMO, that the design falls apart for me when I reach the endgame.
For those not familiar with MMOs, the end game consists of raids. A raid is a mission designed for a larger than normal group (for the regular content) of players. These missions usually involve fighting enemies of a higher caliber then the regular foes, with bosses that have pumped up stats to go toe to toe with the group. Beating the mission rewards the group with access to the best gear in the game, and for games with PvP gameplay, is usually the edge people use to win.
There are two main problems that I have with endgames in most MMOs: Progression and Gameplay. Starting with progression, one of the main hooks in any MMO is constant progression. It's why the leveling treadmill works so well in keeping people playing and why you see so many bars used to show progress. No matter what the player does, there is always some measure of visible progress on screen showing players that they aren't wasting their time.
However, when the player reaches the level cap they lose one of the main sources of progression: experience points. Now, progression is very black and white, either the player finds better gear after a long string of fights, or they get nothing and that time was wasted. DCUO did do one thing clever regarding this problem; they allowed players to continue improving their character's stats past the level cap.
DCUO's version of achievements or "feats" are based on a variety of goals and each time the player completes a feat they earn feat points, with harder feats giving out more points. For every 100 feat points the player earns one skill point, which is used for boosting skills in the weapon and movement type categories. For each weapon type there are skills that boost the character’s attributes further, and with more skill points, make the character innately better.
While DCUO does allow progression past the level cap, it still requires a massive grind for end game gear. DCUO's group based missions are separated into alerts (4 player missions) and raids (8 player missions.) During either type of mission, boss enemies can drop rare gear that the group can vote for who gets it; beating the mission awards "marks" which are used to buy the best gear at the player's home base.
The problem with this system is that there are multiple types of marks, each used for a different category of endgame gear. The player only receives a few marks for completing a mission and it will take multiple runs to get enough marks to start outfitting your character. Once again this leads to a black and white progression system as the player will only gain marks for completing these tougher missions and can still end up wasting their time if they are unable to beat the mission.
Moving on, another problem with endgame content is that the designers are forced to stretch their combat system further to make it work for group encounters. Most MMOs are based on character growth and not the player, with success determined by the attributes and gear of the character.
Going back to my action game background, I prefer games where the player's skill is the main factor for success. The problem that I have with MMO design is that it's not really creating challenging gameplay, but just lowering the safety net for the player. Because everything is abstracted by the character's skill level, it's easy to just create enemies with higher stats and call it a day.
I don't find it challenging or engaging when an enemy who is equal to me level wise, really has 15 times my attribute values and can kill me no matter what I do if I take it on solo. Boss battles in raids can amount to just whacking the thing for 10 minutes straight and making sure your healer and tank are doing their job.
I find the concept of a traditional endgame in MMOs to be a contradiction of game design. The reason is that any video game inherently has a point where the player has gotten everything out of it and will stop playing. Endgame content in MMOs doesn’t add anything new to the design but just inflate what's there to begin with. With each new expansion to an MMO, the level cap moves up ever further, which is just an excuse to pump up attributes of gear and enemies even more. The player is doing the same gameplay each time, but the attributes of everything is different.
If the content was actually different, or the game focused more on player skill, then this would be fine by me. I'm going to say it again, if someone created an MMO in the style of Demon's Souls, I would play the hell out of it, and buy whatever expansions the designers make to try even crazier dungeons and enemies. I recently read a preview of the new Star Wars MMO and a comment that combat is focused on hotkeys was the nail in the coffin for my interest in the game. As that tells me that's the same song and dance I've seen before, but replace swords with light sabers, although I'm curious about having to fight an "elite jawa."