Critical Mass for an MMO and Cross Server PUGs

How many people do you need to have online at the same time in a MMO? Up until now, this has been determined mostly through technical requirements (how many people can one server support?). But depending on design, some MMOs need more people online at the same time than others otherwise they just don’t work.

If you look at WoW with it’s plethora of solo content, popular 5 man instances, and battlegrounds that you can jump into without being in a pre-made group, it’s very clear that server population can get quite low and people will still be able to play. So although your chances of being able to run a 5 man instance of your choice in the middle of the night are lower than at primetime, you still only need 4 other people to do it. The only big sticking point is raiding, and battlegrounds themselves – and just as cross-server battlegrounds eased the need for one server alone to provide all participants, it will probably ease the need for single server raid PUGs too.

Warhammer, by comparison, seemed from the outset to be a game that was designed for a truly massive population. Open world PvP split across lots of different zones and different level bands needed quite a lot of players on the same server to all be interested at the same time if fights were to be consistently available (in practice, there were so many different zones that player warbands could comfortably avoid combat while taking forts). Public quests, while fun, needed to have enough people in the same zone interested in the same quest to get the group together. It was never the case (except maybe in the very early days) that you could just wander around and happen on a group in the public quest you wanted to do.

So I always wondered if at any point the devs had sat down and tried to figure out their critical mass. ie. how many players do we need per server for there to be a reasonable chance that a player can find a public quest/ scenario/ open world pvp/ instance to do at prime time/ off peak daytime/ night? I’m sure they didn’t.

Note: In game economies are a different issue. They do require a certain number of active players, but those players don’t all need to be online at the same time.

Raising the Critical Mass

So there are some design decisions that will raise the critical mass of a game and spread the existing player base:

  1. Non scaling content that needs large numbers of people (ie. raids of fixed size, battlegrounds of fixed size)
  2. Larger group size.
  3. Lots of group content spread all across the level range
  4. Lots of levels, and lots of content that is level specific (ie. difficult to group with people outside your current level range)
  5. Wide choice of group content (eg. lots and lots of public quests)
  6. Very large world with long travel times (ie. once you have found people, how difficult is it to get the group together)
  7. Highly tuned content. (ie. people reluctant to run it with people they don’t know or in PUGs.)

So in general, the more choices people have about what group content to do, the more people you need to have online to raise the chances that other people will also want to do it.

Lowering the Critical Mass

Likewise, other design decisions will lower the critical mass of a game, and funnel existing players together:

  1. Have people from all timezones on the same servers (means people who play offpeak from one timezone are more likely to find other players)
  2. Good LFG channel and functionality
  3. Robust PUG scene. (ie. an atmosphere where people feel encouraged to join random groups)
  4. Announcements when public quests become active (ie. to funnel people towards them)
  5. Reward systems that funnel people towards specific group content (ie. daily dungeon rewards)
  6. Lots of solo or small group content
  7. Scaled encounters. Lots to do for different group sizes.

Is cross-server PUGs the answer?

Just from looking at those lists it’s easy to see that WoW is specifically designed to work fine with a lower player population. This seems ironic given how much more popular it is than other MMOs, but I do think it is one reason for the game’s massive success. It really is much easier to log in and just play.

On the other hand, the high critical mass design statements lead to a wider, deeper, larger game. I would rather PLAY that game, but … as soon as the critical mass dips too far down, you lose many of the advantages. More and more I believe that just as Wolfshead suggested, better scaling is the answer.

Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? It might be that in WoW, the cross-server PvE PUGs that are coming next patch will be more game changing than anyone yet guesses. Surely it will be easier to find groups for those lower level instances when you have several servers contributing to the player pool. And if PUGs for raids are implemented across server also, who knows where it could end?

Not only that, but the game retains the current server size so people who like their current server communities won’t feel swamped as they move around the game world. They’ll just have access to a much larger group of players to instance with.

Why am I still talking when there’s linking to do?

  1. First up, a mind-boggling colour based optical illusion. (I’m thinking this won’t work too well if you are colour blind)
  2. And on that note, ablegamers.com have been posting up some great interviews recently. Check out this discussion they had with Timothy Cain (lead designer of Fallout) and Mitch Ferguson (lead systems designer who worked on The Sims Online) about the future of MMO gaming, it has some real gems.
  3. One of my favourite newer blogs, standing at the back in my sissy robe compares his experience in PUGs to .. err.. his experience in pick up bars.
  4. Ixobelle helps out with the best healing macro you’ll ever need for PUGs.
  5. syncaine eyes up the problem of how to introduce new players into old games. Why do we force alts to regrind , and what about the new guy?
  6. Copra is also puzzling over the problem of how new players can learn to group when old players won’t teach them, may mock them, and may just exclude them. As a social player, I want games to make it easy for players to group, not foster elitist barriers which prevent them!
  7. Brenda Braithwaite thinks about what it is in games that makes us happy. Is it the purple loot? The other rewards? Or are they just steps on the path towards happiness?
  8. John Walker@RPS asks why we can’t just teleport in MMOs. It works fine in Free Realms and Guild Wars, after all.
  9. What does it mean to be unique? Why do we all want to be special? And how can you really sparkle in MMOs? Larisa has some deep thoughts and some smart answers.
  10. Suzina discusses a recent experience in LOTRO. She joined a guild with a few friends, and because her clique is so tight-knit, she feels as though they’re slowly taking over. I’ve seen this phenomenon also, and as a guild officer, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to invite a large group of existing friends for that reason.

Also, a gratuitous Harold Ramis link where he discusses why it’s more difficult to make funny videogames than funny films. I had such a crush on Egon as a teenager …. (then I grew up and found a cute, funny, geeky guy of my own to marry :))

When good players aren’t

lantanasham made a comment on one of my posts this weekend which really struck home.

“Call me naive, but it’s recently been sinking in that a tremendous number of people who play WoW do so while: a) watching TV; b) tipsy, drunk, or really drunk; c) high as a kite; d) reading/watching videos/posting online; or e) all of the above.

In my tiny, tiny experience (~.000043% of all WoW players is my calculation), those who do so are usually the ‘hardcore’ – and frequently behave like morons.”

And I was thinking, yes I’ve seen this type of behaviour. You invite someone to a PUG or raid, you see that they’re a member of a hardcore guild or maybe recognise their name, and you think it’s going to be a great help and a smooth run. But no. They screw around. They act like a total noob. They go pull extra patrols just for the hell of it. The run is actually ten times harder because of having them there. You think, “Wow, these hardcore players are total jerks, and they’re not even all that good. They’re used to being dragged through content by having overpowered dps.”

These things are actually all true. Except that they may well be good players. Just:

  1. many of them care so little what anyone thinks outside their social group that they won’t even try
  2. some are just used to running instances in a very different way and can’t or won’t adjust. if you’re used to overpowered tanks and dps, you’re going to approach an encounter differently. A good player will adjust to whoever is in the group, a hardcore one may or may not be able to adjust. It’s simply not a skill they need to use a lot in raids.

When I was a class officer in a hardcoreish raid guild, I used to avoid running 5 mans with our guys. I often had more luck and more fun in PUGs. Because the guys from my guild would just mess around and not take the instance seriously. They got bored, so they made things more interesting for themselves. They broke crowd control because they were careless – they just didn’t care. They knew we’d handle it. As a healer, sometimes I just wanted a nice easy run without me having to think too much and not bored tanks seeing how much they could pull so they could boast about it in guild chat.

I remember running ZA back in the day with a friend who is a priest in a hardcore raid guild. He singlehandedly screwed up our run. And I know he’s a good player. It was at the point where I wondered if someone else was playing his toon (hardcore players let others do this a lot, by the way, so be careful). But no, it was just his ‘evening off’ and he couldn’t be bothered to try, just for us.

It’s not everyone by any means. Some people are just fantastic players, they’ll adjust how they behave to the level of the group. And any group taking them WILL have a smoother run. You’ll end up with an incredible impression both of the player and of their guild.

So I’m not saying never group with anyone from a more hardcore guild. Just that … you’ll often find in PUGs that you end up with people who have different playing styles. Don’t assume that because someone wears a hardcore guild tag it means that they’ll be good at playing at your level.