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.

Re-reviewing Warhammer

It’s been suggested before that in order to review a MMO, you have to keep reviewing it again and again after time has passed. Because it is the nature of these games to change.

Alec Meer writes an insightful one year review of Warhammer Online at Eurogamer, which touches on both the brilliance and the pitfalls of Mythic’s flawed baby. And make no mistake, there’s a touch of genius in making PvP into a fun casual experience that you can easily drop into or out of.

The times I spent playing in Tiers 1 and 2 when the game was new out include some of the best online gaming I’ve had anywhere for sheer fun and exuberance. But that was partly fun because the place was bustling with people, and even then, most of the action was in prime time only.

WAR successfully transformed PvP from a presumptive, often frustrating experience aimed only at relatively hardcore gamers into an open-to-all-comers fairgound. It deserves respect for that, and with a big crowd it would function perfectly as a game you drop into for a month or so here and there, one in which you can find an honestly satisfying fight at any time of day. Without a big crowd, though, that fairground’s ferris wheels are left to wobble in the wind, and the bumper cars stand rusting. Then you realise that there isn’t even anywhere to go sit and have a drink and a chat whenever the rides aren’t working. So you just go punch someone you don’t like the look of, because there’s nothing else to do.

This is the key to what went wrong. It isn’t the class balance. It’s that the game couldn’t sustain the huge critical mass of players needed to make it really sing. Some MMOs can work well with fewer people — maybe they have more solo and small group content, maybe they don’t encourage mass PvP to such a great extent, maybe they train players to be more organised about arranging to run content together, maybe they have very tightly knit and self-sustaining communities. But the glory of Warhammer is that you don’t need to do any of those things. You can solo in PvE if you want, and there are small group Public Quests too, but the lure to the casual player is that you really don’t need to organise your life around it. You can just log in and go join in what the others are doing. You don’t even need to talk to them if you don’t want. But the others have to be there first.

And why did so many of the initial players leave? They weren’t all WoW tourists.

(Sure I went back to WoW, but I had a 6 month subscription that I decided not to renew, and it’s a casual friendly game. No reason to drop it just because I was playing something else too.)

Maybe some of them were hoping for an immersive online world. Although Warhammer makes a few half hearted attempts to be that place (the crafting is especially half hearted), it’s not the core of the game. So many of those early players enjoyed the game, but realised it wasn’t going to be a new home.

More than anything, WAR is a competition, even a sport – and I can’t help but feel that, had it been clearer about that instead of pretending to be a believable, functioning online world, its servers mightn’t be as distressingly empty as they are today.

It isn’t just that WAR wasn’t WoW, it wasn’t WoW in a very specific way. It’s much more gamey and much less worldy. And as the man says, perhaps if they’d been a little clearer about that, it would have helped in the long run.