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.

Saddle up, it’s postmortem time

It’s been a good week online.

1. I picked up a copy of Mount and Blade (will write more about that later but basically you can download a full trial version for free, and you only pay if you want to get past level 7). If you like your medievalish RPGs sans magic, go try it. I just like any game that lets me play a badass female warrior in heavy armour.

2. Our Warcraft raids went well. In fact, they went really well. I don’t entirely know what we’d been expecting when our 25 rent-an-adventurer group hooked itself up onto voice chat and sailed into the inexplicably floating pyramid that is Naxxramas … but I don’t think we were expecting to kill 9 bosses in 2 evenings. (If anyone knows the place, we cleared the Spider and Plague wing and the first three bosses of the Construct wing. Only had time for one try on Thaddeus but we’ll get him next week for sure.)

Today our alliance (with a small a, since we play Horde like all right-thinking people!) boards are a-flurry with excited posts. Lots of people thanking the raid leaders and saying how much they enjoyed it. A few people posted combat log parses — which results in raid leaders saying sternly that these are useful tools for analysing how to do better but that there will be no witch hunts for poor performance. Some posts suggesting slight changes to tactics to try next week.

Basically this is the post-mortem phase of the raid week. How did we do? How can we do better?

But what I mostly take from it is the sheer enthusiasm of the raiders. I’m happy too (also relieved). I enjoy raiding and it’s always fun when things go well. Some of the guys who were with us on Wednesday or last night had never raided before, and it’s infectious to watch them light up with enthusiasm.

On those grounds, I would say that Naxxramas is well tuned for raids like ours. I can see now why people say that it’s an easy raid instance. If you’re used to an environment where it takes several weeks to kill a boss, having a relaxed raid like ours be able to trot in and down nine in two nights is a fair sign that things are not what they were.

But you can’t argue with people having fun and looking forwards excitedly to coming back next week for another go. If I was a designer, that would be exactly the response I would hope for from a group like mine which has a fair mixture of experienced and new raiders. It really is the entry level raid we were so desperately hoping for.

The main thing that makes it such a pleasant learning curve for new raiders is that a lot of the fights are quite fault tolerant, and the amount of raid damage is generally low. So there are several fights where it won’t stop you successfully killing the boss if a few people do things wrong or run the wrong way or die inexplicably on the other side of the room from everyone else (NB. I did this on at least one occasion). Also the fights themselves are simpler than some of the complex 5 phase craziness that was the TBC boss fight. Each boss has one or two tricks that people need to learn. That’s a much more friendly staged way to teach new raiders what it’s all about than throwing them straight into Karazhan the way it was at the beginning of TBC.

And the other newbie friendly thing about the raid is that the gear requirements are now much easier to meet for new raiders, plus there are more experienced guys around to help and advise. Between reputation gear, crafted gear, quest gear, badge gear, and drops, you don’t need to spend weeks farming heroics in order to raid. Note: I just reread that last sentence and realised how complex a process it sounds.

It’s all about the Trez

Mrs Spinks has a bad shield day

Mrs Spinks has a bad shield day

And our raid collected 20 drops over the two nights, which for a 25 person raid means that most people got a shiny purple souvenir too. Blizzard, I think, realised very well that one important thing about raid drops is that they need to be recognisable enough that you can lounge around cities and make sure other people know that you actually have 24 friends. Unfortunately this means that some of them are unfeasibly large and glowy, and ugly as sin (I mean the epics, not the friends).

I think of it as the Azeroth equivalent of a T-Shirt saying, “I tanked Patchwerk and all I got was this fugly shield.”

But it is epic and I am happy :)