Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Designing massively multiplayer games for multiple players

I was browsing the web and came across the PC Gamer review of The Elder Scrolls Online. And what struck me about the review was the following paragraphs:
One of The Elder Scrolls Online's biggest weaknesses as an MMO is that it often becomes a worse game when large numbers of players are involved in the same activity. While questing in the High Rock area of Stormhaven I was directed to a monastery that was under attack by bandits. I was given two quests: put out six fires, and deliver healing to four injured monks. Credit for completing these objectives is only granted to the player that performs them, which means that I was put in indirect competition with every other player in the area—and given the linear nature of the game's zone, that means a lot of other people. The monastery might have been on fire, but there weren't enough fires for everybody: which meant hanging around waiting for fires to respawn so that I could get the credit for putting them out. Badly-designed quests like this one are common, and even when your objective is more deftly constructed you are always aware of the conga-line of players waiting to do the exact same thing that you are doing. This takes the game to some strange places: I'll never forget the time I traveled back in time in the guise of an ancient warrior only to find a room full of doppelgangers jumping about, dancing, and waiting for a boss to spawn. Immersive it isn't.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think this is a particular weakness of The Elder Scrolls Online. I pretty much had the same experience in my Wildstar beta weekends: Wildstar has a feature called challenges. The first time you kill a certain type of mob in a area or click on a certain type of item, you get a loud "Challenge begins!" message, telling you that you should now kill X of those monsters or click on Y of those items within a time limit. Sometimes there are several levels possible, with numbers displayed on how many monsters/items you need for bronze, silver, and gold level. And rewards for those challenges are good, for example bags, gear, or crafting resources. But these challenges are obviously designed so that you can achieve them IF, and only if, you are the only player in the area. If you start the challenge and then realize that another player is also doing it, you'll both fail, or at best get bronze.

I consider that to be extremely bad game design for a massively multiplayer game. What those challenges teach the players is that other players are the enemy, who make you fail your challenges. With the timed challenges of Wildstar the effect is especially harsh, because you get an actual "You failed!" message shouted at you. But of course outside challenges Wildstar has exactly the same problems as mentioned by PC Gamer above: Players compete for mob or resource spawns, and it breaks immersion if you are one of many "Chosen Ones" all doing exactly the same stuff.

All this teaches players that the optimum number of other players in the same zone as you is zero. If you had the choice to play through that zone with other players or alone, you'd chose alone for most of the content and only do group content with others. At some point in the future we might actually see a MMORPG which offers the option to play through single-player instances as a feature. There certainly would be interest in that. But then the whole business model of MMORPGs collapses: Why should you be required to pay more money to play multiplayer TESO than to play single-player Skyrim, if most of the time when playing TESO you wished you were alone in the zone? Same for Wildstar, although it doesn't have that obvious single-player game to compare it to.

Fortunately there are also some bright spots. For example in Wildstar, if you need to kill a boss mob for a quest, you don't need to kill that boss mob alone, or be the first one to touch it. If you come across that boss mob already in a fight with other players, you just need to get a single hit in, and you still get full credit for your quest. And then Wildstar, as many previous games, has public events, which are hard or impossible to solo, and thus make you quite happy if there are other players around when you want to do them. So designing a MMORPG in which other players are actually an advantage is possible. I just think that developers need to carefully design all the features in the game to check how they are influenced by there being multiple players around. Telling somebody that he failed because somebody else tried the same challenge is a bad idea. Creating situations where players are automatically helpful to each other would be a much better plan.

Of course, from about six weeks after launch until the day the last server closes down, almost no-one will be having the experiences described. They are a phenomenon of the bubble, where vast numbers of players level together at roughly the same pace using the same content.

What looks like poor game design now is more likely just tuned for the population density those areas can expect to see for most of the life of the game. Early adopters generally get a much worse experience than customers who wait a while. It's the penalty you pay for being able to say you were there first.
Fortunately there aren't that many of those quests in ESO or at least a lot less than in older games like wow.

For me, the opposite was true. I almost never had the problem, that I could not complete a quest because of other player, but quite often other players made quest objectives trivial. For example supposedly harder open air boss mobs die in a second instead of being anything like a chellenge, or sometimes I even get the "quest completed" text as soon as I enter a room - and miss out on the story, for example if the bad guy I'm supposed to kill wanted to tell me something before I engaged him...

I like the stories in ESO, I like the attention to detail, but still I feel that many of the mistakes of ESO should have been avoided and seem like they result from being overconfident as a seasoned, but single player game developer.
Regarding single-player instances, The Secret World actually features quite a few of these. Perhaps you are referring specifically to dungeons which you can turn down to solo mode, but still.

So the solution comes when there are no players around any more...but this does not lead into an MMO experience but rather into a single player one.

If any you should be happy seeing other people around, not frustrating. GW2 have achieved this feeling greatly.. I was always happy to see other players around because the content was easier and more efficient.

There are two options to solve this.. you either make leveling a group activity so every single task require group to do it or make it like GW2.
"If any you should be happy seeing other people around, not frustrating. GW2 have achieved this feeling greatly.. I was always happy to see other players around because the content was easier and more efficient."

Yeah, but that assumes everyone wants things to be easier and more efficient. I actually prefer a bit of challenge (but not too much) and slow leveling.

So GW2 solved the problem for some people, but not everyone.

ESO would be a lot better for me if there were an option to choose less populated instances (like Cryptic does in their games).
That experience only happens in waves, like when a new expac drops.

Throughout most of Cata and Mists I could travel throughout all of Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms and hardly see another soul. The exceptions to that were the starting zones and the areas just after those (Darkshore, Ghostlands, Hellfire Peninsula (DKs' first zone out), etc.), where I'd see some toons out in the wild. Hell, when I finally leveled my current main up to set sail for Pandaria (some 8+ months after launch) those zones were just as empty as those that came before it.

It's not a new phenomenon, and that's the curse of the MMO format.

Good points, though I find myself wondering if there's some better middle ground when playing Guild Wars 2. The shared credit mechanisms there avoid most of what the post describes. On the other hand, you end up with informally-gathered groups of people running around a zone "zerging" events in sequence. It's efficient, but it is also (at least in my opinion) incredibly boring and subjects individuals to ridicule if they do their own thing and finish an event out of order.
Age of Conan had single player phasing ... at least for the first bunch of levels. Champions Online and City of Heroes even had scaling for most quests.
My experience with completing Challenges in Wildstar was quite different from the OP. In fact my partner and I remarked on it. It was this: If you did any damage to the critter during a challenge you got the credit for it --even if ten ungrouped players hit that critter at the same time.This also happened with normal kills, also you got loot even if someone else , not in your group, started and finished it, if you at least hit it.

I agree about the collection Challenges though. They were rough.
@The Guilty Party

I assume you didn't play GW2 much because the Leveling could be pretty challenging when solo. Far more difficult than the other big MMO's like WoW, Rift, Star Wars etc.

Anyway I am glad that thanks to GW2 it appears as though the worm has finally turned against the old WoW "player versus player PVE" experience with mainstream publications now openly marking games down for it. That would have been unheard of a few years back.
It is interesting to see how this gets solved over time.

WoW started using dynamic mob spawning then allowed tap credit for the named mobs and sometimes gives credit for being in the zone.

SWTOR being the multiplayer single player game that it is puts you into your own mini-dungeon for about half the quests.

For mass killing/looting quests, giving group credit should encourage grouping (since you co-operate instead of complete so you go faster).
For putting out fire type quests I think everyone with the "Firefighter" buff obtained from picking up the water bucket should get credit for every fire that is extinguished.
Other games have certainly done this better. Our experiences of trying to quest as a trio in the beta weekends in ESO were painful, the phasing system is (or at least was) totally against any idea of cooperative gaming.

SWTOR is an excellent small group game if you can live with all the endless load screens.

Neverwinter, actually for the most part, has no tapping of mobs and individually phased interactive items - some do actually vanish so there's some competition in some quests but they're the minority.

Guild Wars 2 did this idea of collaborative gaming (without necessarily grouping) to the greatest degree so far but then it also has encouraged a zerg-mentality more than any other MMO I've played and that's no good thing in my book.
There are a number of MMOs that give you the option of playing through much of the content solo and in instances, like the first Guild Wars and Phantasy Star Online. Unless you mean you want the instances along with a high player capped open world, and not just a massively multiplayer city center only.
Don't know if you saw this. From an interview between PC Gamer and Wildstar Developer Stephen Frost.

PC Gamer: I suppose that gives players a reason to group throughout the levelling process?

Stephan Frost: We have a system for that as well. When you group together, you get a grouping currency called Renown. So when you earn that, you can actually buy things that you can only get by grouping together. We're trying to reward players for doing things that we think are good gameplay.
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