Experienced Points: MMOG Crowd Control

By Shamus
on Mar 5, 2010
Filed under:
Column

A bit about MMOG’s as they age.

If you follow my Twitter you probably saw my comment last night that I hated the column I’d written and was scrapping it. A few people expressed interest. In order to prevent you from being eaten alive by speculation and curiosity, it was a bit on the fact that the Game Developers Choice Awards would be giving id Software co-founder and technical director John Carmack a lifetime achievement award. I’d intended to do a sort of tribute to the guy. Sort of, “For you young people, here is who this guy is and why you should care.” But it ended up coming across as kind of creepy and fanboyish instead of informative.

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20206Feeling chatty? There are 46 comments.

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  1. The Nick says:

    Too bad I missed it! John Carmack certainly has made his mark in gaming and a little fanboyism never hurt anybody.

  2. Star Trek Online as a semi-solution to the problem that you brought up on this. Aside from essentially no death penalties, their auto-grouping feature automatically scales the missions to the number of people in the group, making just about every mission (aside from the new “raids”) soloable, which I find nice.

    Now if they could only make the crafting suck less.

  3. Jabor says:

    It’s a tricky problem, no doubt about it.

    One option is to encourage people to keep rolling new characters to keep the low- and mid-levels populated.

    You can also keep things viable by having a very flat levelling and xp curve – essentially, make it still somewhat worthwhile to run quests many levels below your current one, and possible to do quests a good number of levels above yours. This would effectively increase the groupable population for any given quest by a huge amount.

    Adding in the ability to go back and “clean out” the other race’s beginner areas (and perhaps encouraging it with some sort of achievement for doing so) would also help with giving players some sort of ability to do the forced-grouping quests (even if it involves grouping with one player with enough levels to steamroll the group quest).

    • Adeon says:

      This is pretty much what CoH does. People are always starting new characters so it’s reasonably easy to find a team around your level. Of course given the way the new side-kicking system works you can have a huge range of levels in a team no problem.

      • Chargone says:

        though, until the new sidekicking system was created, even then the mid-level areas were often fairly dead, because people could get a feel for how a specific character was going to go by level 20-something, and would ditch it before getting into the 30s if they didn’t like it and go make another new character, while anyone who liked sticking with their high level stuff wouldn’t be making alts all the time anyway.

        still wasn’t as dead as it could be, and it did get rid of the ‘everyone’s in the end game’ issue, but it didn’t really help the middle much.

        the new sidekick system also did strange things to the meaning of levels. the level of the team Leader matters, the level of the person who’s mission you’re doing matters (so that’s two people, one if you’re doing the leader’s missions), and the levels of the entire rest of the potentially 8 man team? utterly irrelevant beyond being a measure of how many abilities they’ve got available.

        makes deciding who you want to invite a bit trickier sometimes :D

        • DaveMc says:

          … but so, so much better than the old sidekick system, where you constantly had to match people up with a mentor, pair by pair, and the whole thing could collapse like a house of cards if the wrong members left the team.

  4. Heron says:

    That was my biggest complaint about LotRO, too. But, as one of the commenters on the Escapist pointed out, they fixed it in a recent patch.

    I may have to revisit the game.

  5. Zaxares says:

    I’d probably do it via a system of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ quests that sprout up all throughout the game at different levels. For example, say you’re in the starting town. When you arrive, there’s 3 people in the town that are offering quests. However, the next day, those people aren’t offering the quests anymore, and ANOTHER group of 3 questgivers become active, offering a wholly different set of quests.

    This should encourage people to re-visit areas they’ve been in the past to obtain quests that weren’t available when they first passed through the area. (Of course, the quests repeat on a weekly/monthly basis so somebody who missed the quests on their first time through will have another chance to get them.) The quests in an area should be a mix of low/middle/high difficulty so even relatively high-level players can come back to a town and find quests suitable to their power and abilities.

    The major benefit of this approach is that it should make towns feel a lot more dynamic, with frequent changes and a mix of kinds of players in an area. To further encourage high level players to come back, I’d make it so that the rewards for some of the quests are rare materials/items that aren’t very easy to obtain. As another example, say in the starter town there’s the Grand Alchemist Godfrey, who’s come here to retire. His quest is designed for high-levels and involves tracking down and slaying a powerful monster who’s recently moved into the area. In return, he’ll give you your choice of one of three powerful alchemical reagents: A Golem’s Heart, Elemental Essence, or Dragon Scales. Now, all three of these reagents can be obtained by hunting/farming in high level areas, but the monsters they come from are rare and can be hard to find. Doing his quest is a much quicker way of obtaining one of these rare reagents, which you may need for upgrading your equipment, researching rare spells etc.

    I guess my approach is trying to eliminate the entire concept of ‘level zones’. There’s only geographical regions in the game world. While some areas may be more dangerous than most (due to more dangerous monsters in the area or whatever), there’s content for characters of any level to do in any place in the world.

    • Teldurn says:

      What is the name of your game and where can I buy it?! This is one of the most refreshing takes on this problem I’ve seen in a long time.

    • Joshua says:

      I had a slightly different take on the issue(I played LOTRO for two years and so know full well the point of this article)- I was thinking that there should be random quest generators for each playthrough, so quests you get one time may not be available the second time- instead, a lot of these quests should take you to the same areas, where you could find others to join up with. For example, Player A is going to the bandits to search for a stolen barrel of pipeweed, whereas Player B is going there to destroy some of their weaponry.

      If you do either of these approaches or combined them, one thing you would need to do in any case is get rid of their rigid questing system that prevents you from sharing a quest with a person unless they’re at the same stage you are, possibly even allowing someone to replay a part they’ve done before.

  6. Turbine also did Dungeons and Dragons )nline, and they don’t seem to have a problem with this. For one, the game started out as pay-to-play and now is free-to-play (for some of the content, anyway), so there are still and probably always will be lots of people at just about every level. You don’t start to hit group only quests until around level 8, and for the most part it’s REALLY easy to find a group. (Whenever I advertise for one, I usually have all slots filled in under 5 minutes.)

    Granted, some people are worthless for grouping, but in general the game is far less punishing on the group end.

    The quests themselves also really encourage people to group and play nice–there are often rewards that you can only get if you’re in a group. Add to this the fact that the game assigns treasure to people, and there’s no reason NOT to group unless you really like quests taking 10 times as long.

  7. Dev Null says:

    A decent group-finding interface helps a lot. WoW’s recent addition of cross-server groups also helps a lot; ok, so there’s only 4 level 5-10 hobbits in the entire multiverse trying to do that quest right now – at least let them play together rather than punish them for not choosing to play on the same server.

    I also don’t really understand why things need to be grouped geographically by level. I mean ok, said level 5 hobbits don’t want to accidentally be tripping over level 50 dragons, but there’s no real reason why the Cave of Enormous Dragons can’t be located right near the same city as the Sewer of Annoying Rats. Then the endgame and starter characters are at least inhabiting the same space _between_ adventures, giving you that all-important feeling of sharing a world. And as a bonus, the newbs can actually _see_ the lofty heights to which they aspire, which gives them a little incentive.

  8. MogTM says:

    This is idea kinda half-baked, but I think there may at least be a kernel of a decent idea in there:

    What if servers only stated open to new players for a certain period of time? The way I’m imagining it, a new server would open up and fill up to it’s caring capacity fairly quickly. Then the server would be closed to new players and the original cohort would move through the content as a group (more or less). Soon enough, the starter levels would be deserted — but that wouldn’t matter to new players who are all off in the currently open server playing the starter areas “as they are meant to be played.” The only people who would be left in the deserted starter areas would be alts who really don’t care that they aren’t getting the full story experience so long as they can level quickly to join their players’ mains.

    The flaw in this is that it kinda screws over those latecomers who still want to play on the same server as their friends. Maybe instead of blocking them, the game could flash a warning saying something like “This server has existed for more than X years and is not recommended for a new player”?

    At the very least, having some indication as to the age of the server (the same way you are told its population) might go a long way to solving this problem. I know that, when staring at the long list of (to me) identical servers, I would choose one that has an average level of 20 over one with an average level of 70, for example.

    Y’all think something like this might work?

    • Uselesstwit says:

      Actually I just posted something like this over on the escapist thread. You flushed it out a good deal though. My thought was that you’d have a starter server and then people would graduate to the next server. That way everyone you could play with would be similar. The advancement would be voluntary so you wouldn’t have to move until you whole clan or group was advanced enough for it. It’d probably also help the server load since the entire world would have to be installed on every server.

      • MogTM says:

        Oh, I like that version better! If I understand your idea, each server would be split into (say) three sub-severs. So instead of having server 1, you’d have server 1a, 1b and 1c and whenever people were ready to move on from 1a to 1b they could do so. This would mean that it’s a little harder for higher-level players to go back and stomp on the mobs that used to challenge them, which can be fun. But it might be worth it.

        This may be getting a little complex, but what if each server was matched with a group of servers? So in server 1 (a, b & c) would be joined with severs 2 (a,b & c) and 3(a, b & c). Then each sub-server could be united or separated as needed to balance the population.

        In practice, how would this work? At the bigging, 1a, 2a and 3a would all have a lot of low-level players. But 1b, 2b, and 3b would be almost deserted. Thus the “a” sub-servers would each be separate. The “b” sub-severs, on the other hand, would be joined, so the (small) populations of all three servers would be playing in the same game world. Then latter, when everyone is clustered in the late-game content, it would be the “c” sub-servers that are separated out and everyone from all three servers would play together in the “a” level.

        The downside to this would be that someone you group up with at level 12 might not “really” be in the same server as you and by the time you were both level 77, you might not be playing in the same world anymore. But I think allowing chat (well, directed chat, ie whispers) to go between all three servers and making it fairly easy to switch servers would help make this no big deal. It may be that someone invites you do join their guild at level 17 and you get the message “Lulzy has invited you to join her guild! To do this you must change from Serve 2 to Server 3. Accept? Y/N.” That way, if you liked someone, you could join their guild and auto-switch to their server. And even if you didn’t, you could still talk/ be social with them if you want.

        Or has this just gone of the deep end and is too crazy?

  9. AGrey says:

    The wrath of the lich king expansion to WoW had an interesting mechanic called “phasing”

    essentially, you complete a quest that changes the world in some tangible way, like the good guys overrun an enemy fortress. The next time you go there, you will see it as a friendly fortress and quest hub, but someone who has not done the quest will still see enemies.

    more importantly, two people in different phases will not see each other.

    If you want to limit the crowding in lower level areas, simply put every twenty or so characters in a different ‘phase’. Essentially, you’re shunting extra players into an identical looking, but different startup zone.

    Adjust the number of phases to match the number of active characters, And you’re all set.

    now, if two players in different phases want to quest together, when they party up, they will be pulled into phase with each other. All you need is a separate mechanic for distinguishing “Overcrowding phases” from “Quest-triggered phases”

    • Jabor says:

      Instancing, basically.

      Guild Wars does this in pretty much every adventure zone.

      • Heron says:

        Yeah, that’s basically how Star Trek Online and Champions Online work, too.

      • Pickly says:

        After reading this, I was about to suggest something similar.

        It does seem strange that few games have used larger server “clusters” that characters can easily move between, plus what guild wars does to equalize populations, to keep areas at about the right number of people. (Of course, more games may be doing this, and I just haven’t noticed thanks to not playing MMOs anymore.)

  10. Kdansky says:

    As someone who tried World of Warcraft in 2008, I was able to break the economy just by selling my excess herbs at the auction house. Training, repair, upgrades and other supposed money-sinks were always trivial compared to my herb-gathering fortune. Then again, this might have been a distortion particular to the server I was on.

    Nope, this happens to everyone who is not an idiot and uses the AH. I made a couple thousand gold in one week by spending an hour a day on my inscription twink, without research nor planning, but just scribbling whatever glyphs I could. But the market was not saturated, and I just sold 30% below everyone else, instantly giving me a huge market share. Capitalism at its best.
    But there are lots of idiots. Gevlon might have a word on that, I am sure.

    As to how one can solve the distribution of people? Get rid of crappy level concepts. I know, people love their pixel trinkets and achievements, but in the end, gameplay would be far better if there wasn’t so much tediousness. Take WoW, and increase leveling speed by a factor 10 or 100, but remove all the boring filler-quests. People would play more alts and have more choice where to level. If you feel like leveling is grinding, then the game is not a game, but work. Actually, I prefer my job to grinding mobs, because my job is interesting. And on top of that, I get money for it!

    Player designed content, randomized quests and more, sensible text (!) would make the game more enjoyable for me. A real RPG, so to speak, instead of a huge collection of “travel to [nearby place], kill [n] [local animal]” objectives. There does not even need that much choice in it, but if I can talk to two NPCs about their common (failing) love, then that is a lot more interesting.

    It’s not the leveling that is flawed, it’s the whole game idea, which is not a proper game anymore, but a treadmill disguised with shiny graphics and fake rewards which people gobble up like addicts. Ask a WoW-player why he did the “All Quests Everywhere” achievement. I know some of those people, and their answers are on the level of alcoholics. When achievements were introduced, I realized how stupid the game had become. In the beginning, I played for the exploration, seeing a new area, getting new skills, reading new stories. Now, it was just about doing the most efficient thing to clear the most (utterly pointless) objectives. Again, Gevlon has the gist of it: The same people that buy an expensive car to impress their neighbours try to get the most objectives in WoW to impress their imaginary friends. It got obvious with achievements which have no other purpose.

    I did drift off topic there, but at least I managed to not insult anyone. Except the idiots :D

    • Gahazakul says:

      At this stage WoW has done some wondrous things. The best thing they have ever done to the game is the new Dungeon Finder. You que up to do a dungeon, it asks you what you are(tank, healer, dps or a combination) and then it matches you with 4 other people in the system from a group of servers, not just your own. This makes it easy as pie to do the dungeons when it used to be 30 minutes of “lfg ST, need healer plz”. They also demoted many of the elite mobs that are part of the solo game. They have boosted the amount of XP gained from quests, and made mounts available at lower levels and for a huge discount.

      • Kdansky says:

        Basically, one can do the same questionably interesting things with less annoyance now. The game is still not interesting except for high-end PVP or hard mode raiding. Everything else is just grind.

      • MogTM says:

        Ok, this (which I had not heard of) is a better idea of my idea @7 above. I should have known that any idea I could come up with in 5 minutes had already been thought of by the good folks at Blizzard.

    • Jabor says:

      Take WoW, and increase leveling speed by a factor 10 or 100, but remove all the boring filler-quests.

      I honestly had a bunch of fun on a x20 private server at one point.

      Overall, I think cutting the filler and upping level speed by about that amount would make the game a whole lot better.

    • Legal Tender says:

      This, a thousand times THIS.

      I’ve tried WoW, Guild Wars, Age of Conan and Eve Online but I just can’t keep playing. The constant grind just kills any interest I might have for the story/mechanics/lore/story/whatever

      Age of Conan was particularly disappointing for me. The setting, art, lore, characters, interactions were IMO all brilliantly done (it helped that I had just finished reading the collected stories) but I just couldn’t get past the tedium of having to kill mobs over and over again just so I could survive the encounters that advanced the story. Not that the story was THAT good but it was so very much in keeping with the essence of Howard’s short stories that I really hated having to put the game down. Gah.

      http://www.darkdaysarecoming.com will be the last chance I give to MMOs. Sounds brilliant again and I can only hope it won’t become another grind-fest

      • Eidolon says:

        Wait, Guild Wars? A grind?

        It’s possible to hit the maximum level in about 3-4 hours in Guild Wars, at least in Factions. Doesn’t take that much longer in Nightfall. How can that possibly be considered a grind?

    • Pickly says:

      I’d probably flip this around somewhat, and instead of increasing leveling speed, decrease the amount of levels, or the difference in levels.

      Otherwise, the grind issues are what I found when playing WoW, and why I’ve lost interest in most MMO’s in general, because they’ve mostly gotten stuck in the grindy leveling model. (Guild Wars is the only one I’ve stuck to playing, since things take a lot less time to do, and I’ve also gotten a bunch of max level characters at the moment and as a result can do just about anything in the game.)

  11. Malimar says:

    This is one thing that City of Heroes/Villains does pretty well in a lot of ways (or did, last I played, maybe a year ago, it may have changed since then).

    They solved the overpopulation problem (which still strikes on a daily basis in the high-level zones, and in every other zone when a new Issue comes out) by something like the “phasing” solution mentioned upthread. If there’s too many people in a zone (I think the limit is somewhere in the area of 50-75 people), the server makes a second, identical zone and shunts the overflow there. There are still problems if everybody in the zone clusters in one area, which happens sometimes, but mostly it’s fine.

    They solved the low-levels-are-deserted problem in a couple ways. Particularly, once you get to 50, there are a handful of level 50 things to do, or you can go back and get all the stuff you missed on the way up, or you can perfect your character by earning merits from task forces, or you can roll up a new alt. All but one of these things involves doing low-level content.

    At all levels, there will always be people leveling new alts to play with. There will always be badgers looking for all the stuff they missed, much of which involves teaming. And the merit reward for a TF is proportionate to the amount of time and effort you’re likely to put in to complete it, so the low-level TFs are just as rewarding for high-level characters to exemplar down and play as the high-level TFs. So even though most TFs require a team to complete, it’s never difficult to find a team for them.

    Probably that last bit is the most important part. If every MMO built in the equivalent of an exemplar/sidekick option, and made the rewards for exemplaring/sidekicking roughly comparable in some way to the rewards for doing content of your own level, it instantly solves the population problem.

  12. atarlost says:

    Permadeath would probably solve the clustering at high levels in old servers. It’d make low level clustering a permanent issue, but a permanent issue can be designed around. Leveling would need to be a lot less painful than in most MMOs for that to be viable though.

    Maybe a mostly quest-less model on an extremely large (ie fuel sized) map would work. Instead of going on quest related raids you’d go on XP raids, and you’d group because it let you go where the more dangerous/higher XP enemies lived.

    Basically a roguelike MMO.

    • TSED says:

      Are you kidding? Unconditional permadeath means an internet hiccup means starting over again. You’d never be able to get high levels.

      You MIGHT be on to something, though. Some kind of ‘resurrection’ with a timer (10 minutes, maybe) for groups / luck / etc. or else you can’t play that character for a week (IRL)?

      This means your super high level awesome guy with max gear won’t have all that time wasted with some bad luck, but you’ll definitely be playing alts more often than him.

      That might solve overpopulation, but you’re going to have a lot of folks frustrated with not being able to play the toon they want to play. Or “YAY I can play again… wait.. FRIG”. Maybe a day’s grace period of not needing to recuperate… I don’t know.

      • Atarlost says:

        I think you can get around the connection loss death by throwing the character into metaphorical stasis. Bad for grouping because if the dark god of dropped connections strikes down your tank or healer you can get a quick TPK, and they’ll be alone in hostile territory when they wake up, but soloing should be relatively safe. Add a mechanism for polite party members to drag a disconnected friend to safety and it could work.

        The whole thing is useless if it isn’t true permadeath though. Maybe mandatory retirement for high level characters would work similarly, but high level characters need to be permanently removed from circulation for the system to reach an equilibrium other than high level only.

  13. Ramsus says:

    “It’s like trying to balance a load in the washing machine when the only items in the laundry are a pair of socks and a cinderblock.”
    That had me laughing to tears.

    I think what is needed is actual stories, not just pointless fetch quests with flavor text, being added at regular intervals to all ranges of play for the game. That way people will be making new characters (or running around low level areas with their high level characters) to experience the new stuff and to get the new loot and hopefully to experience the new area on occasion. I think CoH’s sidekicking mechanic would help remove weirdness from high level characters in low level areas.

  14. MogTM says:

    Of course, there is a brute force solution available to under-population: simply populate the area with NPC heroes who may be grouped with. This might require some better AI, but would certainly ensure that no area ever feels deserted.

  15. DKellis says:

    I’m curious about the relationship between a MMOG being “alt-friendly” and the robustness of its character creation system. If a player can have a large number of characters all highly distinct from each other in playstyle and appearance, does that help the alt population?

  16. Zak McKracken says:

    I confess at this point that I have never played WoW, but know several who do play it.
    From what I’ve gathered it appears to me to be
    1. A huge money-sink (like buying the same game over and over every three months)
    2. Basically just running around, killing creeps for XP, sometimes with others, sometimes not.

    I know I must have missed some aspect, otherwise there wouldn’t be millions of people playing it and pumping money into Blizzards reeaallly deep pockets. So feel free to correct me.

    Whatever, one MM online game that did appeal to me was a turn-based space-combat strategy type of thing. Some of this might not be applicable, but this game never had the problem of player migration, due to several factors:
    1. It was strictly PvP, no creeps. Thus, as you became more powerful, so became your enemies.
    2. It had a “newcomer protection mechanism”: Players who started later than others spawned in a different galaxy, until that was full, then the next and so on. Until a certain time after a galaxy was filled with players, the galaxy could not be entered from one of the older galaxies, so they were safe from the more powerful guys
    3. Games were limited in duration. After a given time, the game was frozen, scores were counted, and then everything was reset.

    I suppose if you started introducing any of that in WoW, there’d be a rebellion, but it could solve lots of continuity problems (why do they need a noob to go kill three dire rats in a world overflowing with chamions who kill a black dragon before breakfast? Why are there rats anyway, didn’t they get killed five minutes ago by someone else?).
    There’d be little migration, because mostly people would stay in place or maybe expand a bit, to places where others had been before.
    “Missions” wouldn’t be as repetitive because the events would not be scripted but a results of what other players do.

    But then, I’m probably not in the target group anyway … why am I writing this again?

  17. Susie Day says:

    I would love to see a game where the world wasn’t as static – where sort of like in second life, but more so where the players can create physical objects. Want your character to look like Zorro? Commission the tailor to make one for you – or make it yourself. Of course the tailor would be another player who enjoys making costumes more than killing mobs. Players could start in various “kingdoms” as in WOW and then fight it out – but gaining and losing real ground – not the pretend wars that you fight in WOW where one side or the other can never actually win.

    The only problem that I see is where player 1 has built up their tailoring business, and is having fun – or player 2 has created this complex labyrinth made of hedges or whatever. Then, the neighboring kingdom attack, slaughtering everyone, or at least drives them from their homes … no longer fun for those who don’t like fighting. Maybe create some non-violent servers :-D

  18. Elethiomel says:

    I would solve it by using a system like the one Cryptic uses (one login server, multiple instances for each area in game that the players can move freely between) and have the number of instances for any given area scale dynamically with the number of players in that area, with automated merging of instances when they fall below a certain amount of players, and automated creation of new instances when the existing ones are starting to get too crowded.

  19. Lanal says:

    Have you ever heard/tried Kingdom Of Loathing? It’s a webbased RPG, but it has a unique ascension system (I heard DDO is trying a similar system), which basically means your max level (or whatever arbitrary level to ascend) character would start back at level 1 with maybe bonuses, restrictions on his current “run” (going up to finish the ascension quest), the game world would change for that particular character, etc.

    This would be interesting as it would give several different end-game choices as well as spread around the population. There could still be raids, bracketed PVP, or you could try asceding as much as you can, or maybe as fast as you can.

  20. WarlockofOz says:

    “Leave out the midgame” seems a reasonably obvious solution.

    Seriously – once players get past the starter/tutorial zones, they’re heroes. Open the rest of the world to them right then and there. Do have content intended for players with different lengths of time in game and different group sizes but leave it up to the player to decide between ‘get my guild to carry this alt through last patch’s content to gear him up fast’ and ‘follow that breadcrumb quest to the area intended for new players just finishing the tutorial’.

    For instance Age of Conan would have been so much better if the level cap was 20, so you got out of Tortage and were ready to play instead of looking at grinding sixty more levels in a game with only twenty more levels of ready content.

  21. Dev Null says:

    Some of you guys suggesting cutting out the midgame are missing the entire point of MMORPGs; they want you to keep playing – and paying – for as long as possible.

    They want you to be mad with desire to reach the endgame content, and at least entertained enough in the middle to not give up and quit, but they don’t want you to actually get there _quickly_, because once you’ve played all of the content there’s less incentive to stick around. Or likewise, if the midgame entertainment was just as good as the end, then you might just decide it was more of the same and quit before you got there; they need to keep dangling a carrot in front of you for as long as possible.

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