Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Crowd control

I didn't go to Gamescom this weekend. I easily could have, it's less than 2 hours away by train, and neither train tickets nor entry tickets were prohibitively priced. But based on my experience with conventions and videos I saw from previous Gamescoms, I decided that it would probably be too crowded to be enjoyable for me. That turned out to be an accurate prediction, with people reporting dangerously crowded conditions at the entrance, and queues of up to 4 hours wait for the privilege of trying out a new game for 10 minutes on Sunday. I probably got more info staying at home and watching videos on various websites about the games presented in Cologne than what I would have seen if I had been there.

Now one of the videos I saw was Total Biscuit's 25 minutes of SWTOR commented gameplay. And one thing that struck me was that obviously there were problems in the starter zone shown with mobs not spawning fast enough for the handful of people trying to kill them for their quests. I got flashbacks to the best screenshot of World of Warcraft that I failed to take: 10 players in Elwynn Forest on launch days camping a level 1 kobold spawn spot.

Now the video also showed the main story line quest locations being instanced, and I'm not sure if you could simply skip all the side quests and play without being bothered too much by the inevitable crowding on the first days. But the whole thing makes me wonder whether there isn't a better way to start a new MMORPG.

The problem in this sort of game for the moment is that your location is linked to your level. There simply aren't all that many places where a level 1 character can go in these quest-based, level-based games. By choosing your faction and class, you automatically already chose the list of chores and errands disguised as "quests" that your character is going to do early on in his career. And on launch day, everybody is level 1, and thus has the same laundry list of stuff to do as those of the same class. "Kill 10 womp rats" type of quests are already by themselves not very interesting. But if the 10 womp rat spawn points are camped by 50 players, those quests are getting downright annoying. And even if the main story is instanced, you can't help but constantly run across other players which are obviously on the same story, which makes it hard to feel special.

Now ideally in an open world setting there would be a huge wilderness populated by low-level monsters, in which starting players would be randomly distributed. So players would be alone, would get quests not from NPCs but by some sort of long-distance communication, and would spend their early days learning how to fight mobs in the wilderness and getting towards a city somewhere in the center of it. But even that approach is probably not going to work if you consider SWTOR already having sold 350,000 pre-orders in the US alone.

So I question the value of having the start be open world in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Wouldn't it be better if the first 10 levels would be completely instanced before releasing players into an open world? It isn't as if they were likely to want to group for the low levels anyway. Somebody starting a new character half a year after launch is likely to play through an empty starter zone anyway, so why not offer that experience to everybody right from the start?
I think the key to solving this is making questing more dynamic. Ie make players work on the same goal. By making quests public area quests you would allow people to not only finish their quests but to actually help each other complete said quests. That said you would want to romp up the number of spawns and the quest completion amount based on the players.

That said you could even spawn smaller versions of said quests in groups to speed people through lvling so it isn't all so grouped anyway.
Thinking of it from the developer side, wouldn't there be the fear that a newbie player seeing no other players for the first 10 levels would completely miss the "community" point of MMOs? For many people, that is actually a draw for playing the game. As it is, people complain that they don't see enough other players in various games (except during that short initial rush for everyone seeing new content), and I think that an instanced starter zone would make that complaining even louder.

There would also be complaints about players not being able to give stuff to their new friends or who like to go help newbies.

That being said, I personally would prefer an instanced starter zone so I can spend those first few hours really getting a feel for my character without having to compete for mobs and resources with other players. The starting stories are often the best lore and nothing ruins the immersion more than watching multiple others run the exact same path you are.
This problem afflicts any new content, not just newbie zones in new games - the worst example I can recall was the day Forochel (a new high/max-level zone) opened in LotRO and half the population of the server showed up to check out the new area.

Part of the problem can be ameliorated by tweaking spawn rates (either manually or automagically) based on zone population and/or by creating multiple instances of open world zones, limiting the population in each copy of the zone (although that can be problematic for people who want to group together but end up in different instances of the zone).

Zone design also plays a big role - a zone that starts "wide" (say, five areas you can visit in any order, which once completed pass you along to three areas you can do in any order, that then feed you to a single final area) will handle population explosions much better than one that packs everybody into a single area at the start then opens up (Forochel was particularly bad in this respect, since a lot of the later parts of the zone were essentially gated behind completion of the first hub.)

Extensive use of quest instancing can both help and hurt - you don't have overpopulation issues, but at the cost of feeling like you're playing the game with other people. Spreading the population over a large area creates the same problem, and is actively hostile to people who want to play with their friends.

Other mechanical considerations: ensuring everybody in the group gets updates provides incentives to group and can help balance population issues, since multiple people get credit for each rat killed. Eliminating the concept of 'tagging mobs' works too, but can create a different set of problems.

The two worst offenders I can recall from Forochel came from not considering the impact of a high population in the area:

- a "click 10 glowies" quest which not only didn't update for the whole group (just the person who did the actual clicking), the glowies despawned for a couple of minutes after they were clicked and respawned in a semi-random location, leading to people dropping out of the groups they'd formed for the "Kill 10 moose" quests and packing elbow-to-armpit in the area where the glowies spawned.

- an escort quest where you had to protect the usual suicidal NPC as he kamikazed his way from A to B, aggroing on everything in his path. The good news was, success updated the quest for the entire group. The bad news was that the game only spawned one copy of the NPC at a time, and it took him about 5 minutes to walk his route. At one point I had a screenshot of 50 or 60 people standing in a neat queue at his spawn point waiting for their group's opportunity to do the quest.
The actual answer is for players to figure out that if they group up, they can all get the quests done without having to fight every single other player for the mobs.

This isn't broken. Although open groups (like in WAR) where you can just add yourself do make it easier.
It's been a long time since I played it, but didn't Age of Conan use this method? You'd start on an instanced island before making your way to Tortage. All that happened was that the bottleneck would get pushed down further in the level bracket.

I'm not sure what the solution is - multiple start points or levelling paths, a lower population cap on the server (or variable population caps based on level bracket), dynamic spawn rates or phased content. It's a difficult nut to crack with no simple solution readily available.

Still, this is what you pay level and game designers for!
@Spinks - first developers have to figure this out. Sadly not all games auto-update all objectives for all quests for all members of a group. When all party members have to individually escort their own NPC, carry their own FedEx package, or fling their own orc poo before the quest updates, that really is broken
Doesn't each class in TOR have their own starting zone? If that's the case then it reduces how many people you will see running around.

One of the biggest strengths of WoW is that every race has its own starting zone. It helps disperse the leveling and allows for replayability when choosing a different class.

It seems like with TOR you will be picking a favorite race and then picking your class to select your favorite starting zone.

Perhaps adding some background to the character will allow for a different beginning and therefore a different starting zone. Say put all of class type X with all of background A and C together, while putting all of class type Y and X with background B together, and finally all people with class type Y and background A and C.
My feeling is that instancing in the traditional sense would do more harm than good, but would rather developers expand on the idea of phasing a bit.

In these obvious areas where this type of bottleneck is likely to happen, It would make sense to have "phased mobs" that are only visible to that player, or members of the same group.

The trick to pulling this off is coming up with a way to seamlessly allow multiple players to stand beside each other without the phasing being too obvious. Perhaps as one player engages in combat with one of these phased mobs, that mob becomes visible to anyone else in the area so that you're not watching players fighting empty air.
Doesn't each class in TOR have their own starting zone?

Starting zones are "by class", but as far as I know there are two classes in the same starting zone, for example Sith Inquisitor together with Sith Warrior.

Starting zones by race not only serve the same purpose of distributing players better, but also allow them to form more meaningful groups than if you can only group with people of one or two classes, one of which is your own.
Age of Conan did it right. The first 5 levels are totally solo and you can cruise through it in about 30 minutes. From 5 to 20 you are in tortage which, while it has other players, is instanced and capped to prevent things from getting too crazy. After 20 it becomes open world with a couple of zones to choose from.

Changing instances to be with friends can be done and I believe it bumps you both to the newest (and therefore least populated) instance.

The Age of Conan launch was horrendous, but it's still possibly the best early game experience with regards to it's structure that I have played.
Wouldn't it be better if the first 10 levels would be completely instanced before releasing players into an open world?

Does this solve the problem, or as Gazimoff said, just push the problem down the road a bit?

It seems to me the problem with launch day is...launch day.
What about GW2 and their dynamic content?
- public quests (dynamic events)
- automatically joinable when players come to that area
- event scales by number of player participation in that event
- level of player is scaled to level of event
- everybody who participate is rewarded (three groups of increasing reward)
- no quest like kill 10 mobs, player actually dont see number, just bar and can estimate percentage to finishing quest (which is scaled even during progress)
- no stealing mobs, everybody who does enough damage is fully rewarded

To my mind instancing is bad. It's separating players and mmo (one ”m“ is even for multiplayer) should go the another way and connect them together…
You don't give players a shotgun start because you want to craft an interesting world and then let players experience it. Not showing them great content you took the time to make, or making enough generic content for everyone to see see both fall short of that goal.

The instance thing is a pretty good idea though. In my dreams every future MMO is just a single seamless realm with instanced zones, kind of a WoW meets Guild Wars server model. So everyone can play together when they want, but you can still spawn enough starting zones whenever you launch. Here's hoping Titan, whatever it is, does that.
It's frustrating to log in to the newest WoW expansion @ 00.00 and see very single mob camped. My solution was to log in at 8am the next day and it was quite bearable then. From there on stay ahead of 90% of the people.

I do like your idea of a huge starting area and slowly going towards a big city. It might work as those 350.000 players will be distributed across multiple servers.

PS: can't you get a vip press ticket for gamescon?
The ideal solution to me would be server shards for the first month or so where they invisibly split up players into different mini-versions of the server with less players. To make sure you can still get with friends, have player lookups and groups function across the entire actual server and shift players around so they can group together.

Might be a LITTLE confusing, but it both assuages the too many people complaint and the there are no other people here complaint.
Tobold, the crowd doesn't dissipate after the starting day. Some people lag behind, but the majority of players move through the levelling zones simultaneously.
If starting zones are instanced, on the Day 1 every player plays by himself and gets accustomed to absence of quest-camping and Barrens-chatting. On Day 2, s/he levels up enough and emerges into multiplayer zone, in for some shock. All people who levelled in instances on Day 1, are here too. They camp quest mobs and swear horribly in /1.
Being instanced on Day 1 won't save the player from overwhelming crowd on Day 2, unless we instance Day 2 zones too. It's only logical from this point that to prevent unpleasnt levelling process due to too many people, we need to instance all zones up to the level cap...
Conan did that and everyone complained about. I think games lose too many people when the get on and have no one to talk to. It's the puzzle of MMO's. Other people are why they play the game but other people are the biggest pain in the game.
masterlooter said...

It seems to me the problem with launch day is...launch day.

Indeed that is often the case. I server queued during the launch of F2P LOTRO (and me a VIP customer) and again during the launch of Rift.

What's EA solution to launch day bottlenecks for SWTOR? Limit the amount of retail & digital copies available for sale prior to launch.

I'm somewhat done with the traditional approach of progressing through the quest chain via hubs etc.

I much prefer the "encounter quests in an ad-hoc manner through randomly exploring the environment" that some far sighted companies seem to be considering nowadays.

For the more patient player, don't be an early adopter, is the easiest solution.
Short of purchasing more servers, which cost money, there isn't a great solution for the short term problem of the launch day rush. Everyone looks at server queues and tries to come up with a solution that ends up being a long term solution, to a fairly short lived problem.

I like the idea of staggered starts. Let Collector Editions in a week or so early. You can even extend the start to different pay scales.

CE gets in 7 days early. Some slightly less than CE copy gets in 4 days early... then you could do Digital Downloads 2 days early, then the rest of the world. You could even extend it out over two weeks, though I think some people would complain over the fact that they feel "forced" to purchase the CE to start with everyone.
the solution as always are, being first, before the hordes of the servers come online, you just need to get a small headstart and then you and some few others will level and have a nice time, when there are thousands behind your back clogging up the time slowing their own experience and making the way to you longer each mibnute.
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