Tobold's Blog
Friday, October 12, 2007
Overcoming player separation

The discussion of the World of Warcraft patch 2.3 faster leveling modifications continues, with some interesting input from GSH over at Blessing of Kings, who asks whether Time to Max Level should depend on the value of the max level. We didn't get anywhere near a consensus, because some people (including me) still believe that leveling up is the game in a MMORPG, while others believe that leveling up is the obstacle before the game, which only begins at the level cap. So while I compared a WoW expansion to another book in the Harry Potter series, prolonging the entertainment, others said this wasn't a valid comparison, because your friends still talk to you when you haven't read all 7 Harry Potter books, but they don't talk to you if you haven't reached the level cap in WoW.

Of course I have to remark that this is a great bunch of friends you must be having if they judge you on your level and gear in WoW. But snide remarks apart, I can see the problem. You see, the "World" of Warcraft isn't a world, it is a linear series of places with certain levels. For example if you are not between level 42 and 50 (or looking for resource nodes of that level), there is no reason why you should hang out in the Hinterlands. If you are lower than that level range, every wandering mob there kills you. If you are higher than that range, you don't get any xp any more and the loot you can get isn't interesting either.

But it isn't only that the level range is fixed, it is also that the content is static. If you did the quests of the Hinterlands with one character, and thus explored the zone a bit, you know where everything is. And if a year later you make an alt, get to level 42 and head to the Hinterlands, everything will still be at exactly the same place. The quests will still be the same. You can free Rin'ji again from his cage in the Quel'Danil Lodge, and five minutes later he will be back in that cage and wait patiently for the next rescuer. It *is* boring to do the same zone twice, so I can see how people would cheer when Blizzard enables them to rush through that content faster.

Adding more level 40-50 zones isn't a miracle cure for that problem either. Server demographics make it that there are less and less people of any level range below the cap around, and the more zones there are, the more diluted this already small population becomes. Besides making leveling faster, patch 2.3 also turns most elite quests and mobs into non-elite, for the simple reason that people below level cap nowadays are highly unlikely to be able to find a group to do an elite quest. The addition of content to Dustwallow Marsh in patch 2.3 fixes a bottleneck in the linear progression from zone to zone. But that is probably going to be it, we can't count on Blizzard adding any more content to the old world in the foreseeable future. They understandably don't want the 10 people of any one level online to hang out lonely in 10 different zones.

One of my readers added a long comment to the previous discussion of patch 2.3, in which he describes the situation in Final Fantasy XI. In some respects the situation there is even worse now, because you actually *need* a group to level up, you just can't gather xp solo. So with the same sort of server demographic "aging", new players or alts simply get stuck with no way to advance in FFXI. They'd probably much prefer being able to solo and at increased speed to catch up to the level where everyone else is. And this is something that seems to happen in all games that have this "zone of level X" sort of gameplay. I remember once partaking in a "rediscover EQ1 for a free trial", and found all of the zones where I used to hang out now totally empty. There were very few players of low and mid levels around, and those that were on were in the zones added in the latest expansion, not the classic zones.

And in the long run this has a negative effect on the longevity of the MMORPGs which work like that. There are always players leaving for one reason or another. The only way to keep up your subscription numbers is to attract new players. But the new player to World of Warcraft today has a much inferior experience of the game than a new player had in 2004 / 2005, because the world at low levels is empty now. Grouping and other interaction with other players is a major selling point of a MMORPG. Telling people they have to solo for x hundreds of hours until they reach the point where they can finally group isn't going to sell as well.

And the crazy thing is that it doesn't have to be that way. There *are* enough players of any level around at any given time to be able to play together. They are just separated by artificial barriers: Americans can't play with Europeans or Asians. Players from different servers can't play together because you can't hop from one server to another easily. Horde players can't play with Alliance players, even if they are both on the same neutral quest. And even players of the same faction and server can't easily find each other, because the looking-for-group system isn't working well enough.

All this makes me wonder how the situation would be if the server architecture would be different. Games like EVE or Guild Wars don't have a server selection screen at the start. City of Heroes / Villains produces copies of every zone depending on how many players are in that zone. Instead of 300 WoW servers having 300 Hinterlands, we could have a game in which the devs determine a good number of player density for every zone, and if for example they think that the Hinterlands should have around 100 players, and there are 3,756 players world-wide online in the Hinterlands, there would be 38 copies of that zone, all with a near-perfect player density. A new player logging into a 3-year old game would find it as easy to get into a group as a the players who were there since release. There wouldn't be a need to rush through content just to arrive to where everybody else is. Add some better tools to find friends and strangers to group with, and the game could be a social one even at lower levels, with nobody being forced to solo. I'm aware it isn't technically trivial to do for very large games, but I'd think that since the time of the original Everquest the technology has advanced. Why are we still separated by artificial borders and prevented from playing with each other?
Blizzard already sort of solved the problem with Battlegrounds. The best we could realistically hope for is cross-realm instance PUGs.

A stop-gap solution might be a "levelling realm" with free character transfers for people who really do want the social levelling experience.

Just instancing the levelling zones themselves has too many problems that Blizz introduced themselves -- what if you make cross-realm friends, but then have to hearth and come back -- will you get kicked to a different zone-instance and lose them? How would summoning work? What about PvE vs PvP realms? Will your level 70 buddy be able to come along?
One thing I often wonder is what the longevity of a game /can/ be. I know from experience that the crowd tends to rush through in a front loaded way. Then the game gets more complicated, most people are at max level, and gradually it gets less friendly to new players and more accomodating to players who have been there longer, then it slowly dies off. Expansions can extend this, as long as they don't complicate the game so much that new players can't grok it without help.

But I saw this pattern in MUSHes too. Eventually, it's just not a friendly place for new players to be, just because all the social networks are already in place.

I just wonder if it's even possible to design a game that would last longer than a few years, before people went to something else just because it was new and fresh and a chance to be in at the ground floor.

(I think part of WoW's current success is, bizarrely enough, the sheer number of servers. Even if you break for a few months, you can always start again somewhere new.)
This has now been an issue in both EQ and WoW and I'm of the mind that content in a mmorpg should boil down to solo pve and raiding. Otherwise, new players can't enjoy all the content unless they get a "sugar daddy" to rush them though quest, while they obediently follow behind and collect the loot and quest items. That simply makes a mockery of the game.
I've certainly seen Blizzard statement regarding player population (or more specifically Blizzard CM statement -- probably Caydiem's). They said something along the lines of "limiting server population to a (relatively) low number allows (more) people change to become 'someone' rather than just being 'just another'".

While they may have said for reasons that are wildly different from what is stated (e.g. server infrastructure limitations), I have to agree that limiting server population DOES have that effect. As others pointed out in e.g. discussion about cross-server instances / cross-server battlegrounds.
"But I saw this pattern in MUSHes too. Eventually, it's just not a friendly place for new players to be, just because all the social networks are already in place."

Ah a fellow MUSHer :)

I think it all depends on the game. A more RP centric game is generally more open to new players since stats/gear are not an issue. I used to play one called Hemlock (space based) MUSH and I remember new players coming on, making an impact and becoming major players in the meta-game (politics etc).
if for example they think that the Hinterlands should have around 100 players, and there are 3,756 players world-wide online in the Hinterlands, there would be 38 copies of that zone, all with a near-perfect player density.

I could be pulling this out of my behind, but this is the impression I get of how GW2 will work: the world being kinda instanced, but for [number of people] rather than a single group.
Grouping and other interaction with other players is a major selling point of a MMORPG. Telling people they have to solo for x hundreds of hours until they reach the point where they can finally group isn't going to sell as well.

Major selling point to whom? Read any number of MMO forums and I'll guarantee the posts and threads in favor of solo content vastly, vastly outweigh those in favor of grouping. Especially if, like EQ and FFXI, it's forced grouping.

In almost every MMO I've played where I made friends of strangers and guildies, there are plenty of people who are there for the social aspects of chatting (general and guild chat), emoting with other players, etc. and they've all been great people I still have lasting memories of. But when it came to grouping, no way, they absolutely did not ever want to group with anyone. For every positive point grouping has, there's a negative counter-point and for those people, either based on past experiences or their own personalities, avoiding the negatives was higher on their priority list.

I don't buy any MMO because "yay, I can group with people all day" but rather because it's something I might find engaging and eventually I may be able to group here and there. My job doesn't afford me the luxury of always playing at the same times on the same days to make friends and group with the same people, so in turn I'm forced to rely on PUGs to get by.

but this is the impression I get of how GW2 will work: the world being kinda instanced, but for [number of people] rather than a single group.

I haven't checked to see if ArenaNet has said how the GW2 tech will work, but I can easily see this approach since it's a minor step up from how GW1 and DDO use population-controlled public instance zones in their quest hubs. Each world zone could be a population-controlled public instance as well rather than private instances. However, I do think they've said they'll be using the Choose Your Server approach this time, and I think they're trying for a more seamless world as well, with instances comprising of the missions and dungeons like we're used to. At least I seem to recall reading that, I could be mistaken.
I've been thinking about the longevity of games as well, and particularly the switch at the "end" of levelling.

Like you, I considered the levelling part of WoW to be "the game", but for purposes of longevity, that can't be the case.

The technology certainly exists, EVE does this currently. Even 4 years after release, the most populated area is Jita, a Caldari 'starting' area.

The reason EQ and WoW fall into this 'dead zone' trap is not so much the players, but how the game is structured. They were not designed to last 2-4 years, unlike EVE. Starting zones in EQ/WoW serve NO purpose once you outlevel them, while in EVE starting areas are still useful, if only for the market and trade aspects.
syncaine, Blizzard tried to overcome this by forcing players to go back to Azeroth to use the Auction Houses, as well as setting the Caverns of Time instances in Tanaris.
I don't think it has worked particularly well. Whenver I'm at the AH, I get low levels beggig for money or boosts, all of which I ignore with a passion.
To be fair, there's a lot of technical issues in the method you describe - there are, of course, ways around it, but I think some of these issues would require a major rethinking of some serious infrastructure.

As near as I can tell, WoW, for example, uses your character name as their database key on each server. This simplifies a lot of things (mail, for example). Moving to a different zoning system would be a seriously complex job. Not impossible, merely really difficult. If they thought the payback was there, maybe they would do it. But it's a lot easier to generate buzz with new content, than with an infrastructure change. And that's the exchange you'd be making.
Make all PVE quest solo, but doing them with a group increases the quality of loot drops?
And this is something that seems to happen in all games that have this "zone of level X" sort of gameplay.

Except City of Heroes/Villains, where the sidekick/exemplar mechanic makes it much easier to group with each other, regardless of actual levels.

So it does not really matter if you have played for 5 days and your friend for 3 years, you can still group together with pretty much whatever character you may have.

The shared instance approach is something Cryptic also has been considering to make characters "server-less" or able to play together cross servers. Will still be some time away if they make that happen though.
I agree that leveling (in games like WOW) is a big part of the game itself but is very dependent on what stage of the MMO’s life cycle it is in (as was pointed out).

Personally I feel Blizzard is heading in the right direction but is still stopping short of what I think needs to be done.

I hate to self pimp but I did write something about this topic here:

It is too long to repost but it provides some thoughts on how old content can be reused and the leveling process of new players.
Sorry here is the direct link
Horde players can't play with Alliance players, even if they are both on the same neutral quest.

I like this idea. There are plenty of times I've "grouped" with a horde character on my pvp server when I was levelling, because we both simple wanted to get the quest done and move on to the next. There's nothing worse then getting those "suggested number of players" quest and not being able to find anyone. It might help mid-level players finish neutral quest. The only caveat I'd make is you still can't communicate directly with each because hard-core pvp players would abuse it, and you'd have long hate-on rants of players screaming at each when they get camped. It would also have to work outside Blizzards in game LFG system as players would abuse this to "lure" lowbies to a certain area. I guess you'd have see the opposing factions character and then click on him to invite to group.

Like dyslexic I've also helped Horde with their quests, and been helped in return. The Warlock quest where you visit Tabitha in Dustwallow Marsh (& have to kill an Elite) is one example that springs to mind, where an Undead Warlock helped me kill the Mob, then I stuck around to help her do the same.

I also accidentally caused a Hordie to fail the Robot Chicken Escort quest in Feralas when I aggroed the Mobs that should have attacked the Chicken. The Hordie stayed to fight the Mobs while the Chicken kept running, and in my head I heard that familiar and oh so horrible "Quest Failed" sound. Feeling extremely guilty I stuck around and when the Hordie restarted the Escort Quest I killed Mobs beside him, all the way to the beach.

An hour or so later I ran across the same Hordie in northern Feralas, killing the Harpies but having a tough time of it. With both of us being a shade low for that area we took it in turns tagging Harpies, then double-teamed them. I'd just completed my quest when a higher level Hordie turned up to help his out lowbie buddy.
So with a /bow /thank /bye I went on my way. Alliance may not be able to talk to the Horde, but we can still communicate to some degree.
It's an intriguing proposition for sure and a followup to why there is no cross-server pve.

Trouble is the economy. Currently the server enconomy is contained within a specific population. If you however suddenly instance zone accross servers and do this dynamically, the economy gets globalized and cross-linked.

I do have sympathy that there is specific trickery here. If there isn't in fact one virtual global server, you get all sorts of issues.

So you quested with a new aquaintence in feralas and decide to go to an instance the next day. But low and behold, you don't show up in the same instantiation again the next day so you cannot actually play with your buddy of yesterday.

Instancing shouldn't appear to be a server load issue that is visible from a game-play perspective. Currently the pool of socializable people is fixed. And the economy is fixed. Battlegrounds, while being xserver do not impact the economy, and it's not progressive content that you may continue on, so the friend issue is less of a problem.

Now if the idea is a global server without artificial segregation, i am wondering if technology is indeed ready to have a population of a millions active and together. Iron forge can at peak times (brewfest) be worse than rio during the carneval.

If however, you cannot whisper your new buddy the next day that you just did your chicken quest with today, it seriously interferes with the socializability aspect of MMOs.

I do believe that future MMO architectures can try to be creative in this department but it's very tricky propositon.
Either there should be the possibility to communicate with the opposing faction, or there should be stronger opposition and possibility to utilise that.

IF the Alliance and Horde resent to each other so badly in Old World that they don't want to communicate, and there is no way to learn other faction's language even at the high levels, there should be the possibility to siege the opposing factions towns and villages and 'control' the neutral areas. That would make the difference, and that is what WAR is going to do.

I have never been too keen on WAR goblin/snottling/squiggly humour, so I'm not looking forward to that game. I would much rather see Azeroth alive and the new ideas installed into the current system.

And because I'm 'only' a player, a paying customer, I don't care at all about the technical problems or technical issues these changes may cause. I'm there paying the fees, they (Blizzard) should take care that I stay there as paying customer.

in Wow it used to be possible to communicate via emotes. But player greifing killed that. I read on the forums about an incident where a horde guild camped the battleground instances, (before you had reps in the major cities). And had an alliance alt taking a toll. If you didn't pay or didn't have a big guild to fight your way in you didn't get in. Stuff like that is why cross faction communication is unlikely to ever come back.
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