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The Quinquennial (or sometimes more often)

Various thoughts on online gaming, often pulled from articles I've written for other sources.

Author: Quizzical

The other way to compare game business models

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday December 30 2008 at 2:24AM
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A lot of people evaluate the payment methods of a game in terms of, how much will I have to pay to play the game? That has its place, I suppose, and can be a major restriction on kids without access to a credit card.

But for people with a real job, $15/month for dozens of hours of entertainment really isn’t that expensive. The difference between $0/month and $20/month is far less than the value of the difference in quality from one game to another.

Some game mechanics are often dictated by the business model. Corporations exist to make a profit, and the relative profitability of various game mechanics can vary by business model. I would argue that, in many cases, the most important effect of the business model is the incentives that it creates for companies. That is, different business models push companies to design their games in different ways—and that can greatly impact the quality of a game. Let’s look at some examples.

Perhaps the classic (pre-Internet, even) example is a game where you buy a box, and then can play the game basically forever after that. If people have to buy the game before they can play it, this pushes companies to heavily hype a game and take lots of pre-orders, to sell as many boxes as possible.

The quality of the game matters somewhat, because the company does wish to sell future products to consumers, and not everyone who buys the game will do so immediately at launch. But with many players choosing to buy a game without personally knowing whether the game is any good, the quality of the game isn’t as important as with some other business models. Customer service is especially devalued, if the customer has already paid for the game, so that the company will never get another dime from him on that game. And the long-term depth of the game is especially unimportant, particularly since the early reviewers won’t have a clue about that before they have to file their review.

The rise of online gaming brought the monthly subscription model. Here, you have to keep customers happy or they’ll quit. If someone picks up your game, plays it for a couple weeks, decides it is stupid, and quits, you don’t get much money from that player. Keep him happy and paying the monthly fee for two years and you get quite a lot of money from him.

This model creates much stronger incentives to keep players happy than the one-time buy-a-box approach, which is a good thing. The ideal approach would be for companies to have an enormous amount of well-designed and balanced content for players to enjoy. But with development resources finite, that simply isn’t the case.

That leads to the monthly fee model pushing companies to stretch out their content. One common result of this is grinding for levels. If half the time you play the game, you have to do something stupid for the sake of leveling, which means it takes you twice as long to get through all of the content. That means you pay the monthly fee twice as many times, and the company gets twice the money from you.

Various other game-slowing nuisances are intentionally inserted into games for the same reason. These include spending large amounts of time running back and forth. Sometimes, instead of “running”, it’s flying or waiting for some public transportation system that takes time, even if it lets you go AFK. Some games require groups for some content without providing an easy way to actually get a group, so that players have to spend much of their time trying to find a group. Raid lockouts serve the same purpose: if you’re going to do a raid ten times, it takes a lot longer at once per week than once per day. In all of these, the purpose is the same: slow players down, so that they’ll have to pay the monthly fee more times before they run out of content.

Games with monthly fees can have truly awful end-games for the same reason. The basic goal of an end-game is to keep the player paying essentially forever, without having high development costs for the end-game content. That requires heavy doses of grinding and various other nuisances.

If, however, a company confronts a player with a bunch of nuisances from the very start, he’ll quickly catch on that the game is stupid and quit. Rather, the company needs to let players play for a while with minimal nuisances, and slowly increase the grinding and other waiting time as the player levels up. Someone who has already spent several months on a game is less inclined to quit and start over with a different game than someone who first played the game yesterday.

If the only way that the company gets money is from box sales, the company doesn’t care how long you play the game. Indeed, with server costs, they’d almost prefer that you quit more quickly, all else equal. Thus, the incentives to put lots of grinding and stupid nuisances into the game simply aren’t there.

That brings us to the model that has become more common of late: “free to play” with an item mall. With no money paid up front, nor even for quite a while into the game, the company has to make the game of sufficiently good quality for players to hang around quite a while. This can sometimes only mean of good quality compared to other “free to play” games, as the game will attract a lot of people who would never have played if they had to pay up front.

The problem that arises is that if players can play the game with only minor disadvantages without paying, then most players will. The company thus gets no revenue at all from such players. And that is a huge problem, since the company exists to make a profit.

The company basically has to ensure that a large fraction of players will eventually feel compelled to either buy from the item mall or quit. And, of course, the company wants players to choose buying from the item mall, rather than quitting.

As with the monthly fee model, players are more hesitant to quit a game that they’ve already spent several months playing than one they just picked up yesterday. If item mall items don’t seem to offer much of an advantage for quite a ways into the game, then players aren’t faced with the “buy or quit” dilemma until they’re far more likely to choose to buy than if they had to choose right away.

Likewise, if it’s a choice between pay $1 or quit, paying is a lot more likely than if it’s a choice between pay $100 or quit. While companies want to eventually get players to spend a lot of money on the item mall, the way to do that is to start small and make players pay progressively more as the game goes on.

The item mall model thus encourages games with minimal grinding early on, but add more grinding or other obstacles that you need the item mall to get around as you get higher level. The item mall encourages this to a considerably greater extent than the monthly fee model, as the goal is not merely to slow players down, but to slow them down enough that playing without buying things from the item mall becomes intolerable.

Conversely, for players who do buy things from the item mall, there isn’t a need to slow the players down, at least if they’re buying one-time use items. If a player is going to spend $2 per level in a certain level range, it doesn’t particularly matter to the company if he gains a level once per day or once per week. Needing to slow players down only happens if item mall items are useful for particular amounts of real-life time, as in, you can do something for 30 days. Then the usual incentives of a monthly fee apply.

Where this really gets insidious, however, is that making higher level content more dependent on item mall items isn’t the only way to push players to buy them. A company can add brand new items to its item mall that didn’t previously exist. Someone who figures that he’ll pay a particular amount of money to be competitive now has to either pay more or not be competitive.

Again, if a company makes the amount that players have to pay jump by too much at once, players are likely to be shocked by it and quit. But scale it up a little bit at a time and some players will pay far more than they thought they would before playing the game. That’s the way to make a lot of money off of players through an item mall.

There are, of course, a lot of other business models out there, but most are some combination of the above, and hence yield some combination of the game incentives. For example, a free trial followed by a monthly fee has the item mall incentives to get players who actually play the game to like the game initially rather than the hype and overpromise incentives of a buy-a-box system, but the long-run incentives are indistinguishable from a game where you have to pay a monthly fee right from the start. Having to buy a box and then also pay a monthly fee combines the company incentives of both models. Having to buy repeated boxes for expansions is really just several iterations of the buy a box model.

A knowledgeable reader can probably cite exceptions to quite a few of the general statements made above. Indeed, there are quite a few out there. Sometimes it’s a case of good gameplay taking preeminence over immediate business incentives, as repeat customers are good for business in the long-term. Sometimes it’s a business mistake that the company will correct with time.

So why does all of this matter? It matters because the business model often tells you quite a bit about the game mechanics. From a player’s perspective, the game mechanics are the dominant factor that makes a game fun. The business model matters because they influence the game mechanics, and indeed, this can sometimes be a more important effect than the amount of money a game costs you to play. $20/month to play a game you love is a great deal, but even completely free is far too expensive for a game you hate.

A game where the company expects the average player to be completely done with all content in the game within two months is unlikely to go with a monthly fee. A game where the company adds enough grinding that it thinks it will take an average player two years to get through all the content once isn’t going to let a player play all that time after only buying a box once, with no additional revenue. A game where the company will never add anything unbalancing to the item mall will not rely on the item mall as the main source of revenue in the first place.

Reading up on a game can tell you a lot about game mechanics, too, but the business model can often tell you a fair bit that hasn’t even been officially announced to the public yet. The business model dictates not merely where the game is right now, but where it is headed in the future. That should matter greatly to any players considering whether they will play the game in that future. 

The world is flat!

Posted by Quizzical Saturday December 27 2008 at 5:02AM
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Contrary to the title of this post, the world is round. At least some human societies have known this since ancient times. In some circles, referring to one as a “flat-earther” is a reasonably common insult.

In computer games, however, the world is flat, with only a handful of exceptions. This is largely because it is much easier to code a rectangular map than a spherical one. Spheres can actually be pretty hard to draw in 2-dimensions. Common map projections all have considerable distortions.

This makes perfect sense for some games, of course. If the entire game takes place in only a small portion of the world (e.g., a single city, or even one continent), then a small portion of a sphere is more or less flat.

Some games such as the Civilization or Europa Universalis series use a cylindrical map instead of a flat one, which at least lets players go around the world in one direction. This can make sense for games where the technology level is assumed to be low enough as to make the polar regions impassible, and the rest of the surface of the planet is more or less cylindrical.

But a game where the technology is advanced enough to fly long distances or even from one planet to another has no such excuse. If a war spans an entire planet, a rectangular map makes no sense. Yet that’s what we’re usually handed.

Doesn’t anyone know how to make a map with a non-trivial second homology group?

Well yes, actually. Asteroids did in 1979. Some other games have used the same “go off one side of the map and back onto the other” approach. Still, while the world isn’t flat, it certainly isn’t a torus, either.

For a game with frequent loading screens, a somewhat round world wouldn’t actually be that hard to implement. Pick some arbitrary polyhedron, assign a map region to each facet, and make sure that you can get directly from each region to its adjacent ones by going in the appropriate direction. The polyhedron could be something reasonably symmetric, such as a pseudorhombicuboctahedron, or just some arbitrary, irregular shape.

For a seamless world, this would be harder to do, but could still be done. Make the world shaped like an icosahedron, with each facet divided into many triangular tiles. The regions near the vertices would need to either be impassible, or have a loading screen as you approach. Otherwise, as a player approaches an edge, the game effectively folds up the two triangular regions and lets the player pass from one to the next, without even realizing that he’s moved from one triangle to another.

A round world is a small thing, really. It’s not going to make or break a game. But why doesn’t some game leave the ranks of the flat-earthers behind? Why not create a game where the map doesn’t have a canonical “up” direction? Why not make the shape of the map actually fit the lore? 

Making grouping viable

Posted by Quizzical Sunday December 21 2008 at 12:15AM
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When I was younger, I’d sometimes imagine playing a multiplayer equivalent of some of the single-player games I liked. I didn’t expect it would ever happen, as Internet was hardly suitable for MMORPGs yet.

Today, of course, we can play online games with (or against) other people whom we’ve never met in real life. Fighting alongside a good group in a good MMORPG can be a lot of fun. But it hasn’t worked out the way I imagined it.

I hadn’t really considered the question of where the other people to group with would come from. Unfortunately, a lot of MMORPG designers seem not to have considered that question, either.

While fighting with a good group can be fun, taking half an hour to try to assemble that group is not. People who commonly play for five hours in one sitting may not be terribly bothered by spending half an hour to get a group together at the start of that session. But for people who are only going to be on for half an hour in total, it’s a much bigger problem.

The great advantage of single-player games is that you can start playing whenever you like or as fits your real-life schedule, play the game for a while, and then turn the game off when you wish to do so. There’s no need to spend a considerable fraction of your time trying in vain to find people to group with. That’s why so many people who play MMORPGs treat them mostly as single-player games.

That can work out pretty well if you’re playing primarily an economic game. Competing against other players allows for much greater economic depth than the AI in any single-player game can offer. But most MMORPGs don’t have much of an economy. If they have a crafting system, it’s often just something stupid to grind levels in. You can do that just as well in a single-player game.

Otherwise, an MMORPG is essentially a Massively Multiplayer Online Single Player Game. Single player games can be fun, but if that’s what you’re after, you might as well pick one that doesn’t require an internet connection or charge a monthly fee.

The question, then, is how to make an MMORPG where you group with other players to do quests or whatever, but don’t have to spend much time searching for groups to get one. Some purely pvp games can do this by distributing players into teams at random to let them fight each other, but that’s not really an MMORPG. As I’m not aware of any MMORPG that has a viable solution to this, I’d like to propose one.

The first key point is that the game has to force players to group. Doing content solo cannot be viable. There can be a handful of exceptions, such as a tutorial at the very start of a game. But beyond that, if players can solo, then many will, and that will leave fewer potential group mates available for those who wish to group.

Next, if there are enough players who wish to do the same content, they should be able to form a group. Many games have a variety of classes that fill different roles within a group. If you have all but one slot full, and need some particular role for that last group spot, it can be a major pain to find the last player of a particular class that you need.

The solution is to have AI characters who can function as group members. Guild Wars did this with henchmen and heroes, and it works pretty well for what it does. Unfortunately, if you need a group of eight and can bring seven AI characters, most players do. That puts you back in single-player territory, so for our grouping game, that can’t be allowed.

Restrict the group to one AI character per human player and you’re fine. The AI characters could be locals from whatever town sends you out on the quest. For reasons that I’ll get to later, I wouldn’t favor letting players level their own heroes as Guild Wars does in this proposal.

The great advantage of this is that you no longer need to find players of particular classes. If you need a group of eight, in order to get the right class mix, you might need 12 players before some subset of eight of them is a suitable class mix. Even if you get 12 players, they can’t all be in the same group, so some of them still don’t have a group.

On the other hand, if you get five or six players at random, most of the time it’s possible to selectively pick the classes for the remaining spots to fill out a well-rounded group. Being able to fill in AI characters for your group makes this easy to do.

It is essential that players be able to easily join and leave a group. The solution on joining a group is to let a player who joins a group immediately warp to the group. However unrealistic this may be, having to wait 15 minutes every time you replace a player is a major nuisance.

Letting players leave a group is easy enough. The problem is what happens to the group when players leave. Leaving a group shorthanded and unable to finish its content can be disastrous. It’s not fun to be 45 minutes into a one hour mission, and then be unable to finish and have to start over because someone else in your group got called away by his parents to go eat dinner.

This can be partially fixed by letting late joiners warp to join the group at any time. But it can be almost entirely fixed by letting groups summon or dismiss the AI group members at will, or at least when out of combat.

For example, suppose that you need eight characters for a quest. You fish around a bit and come up with five players. You look at your class distribution, pick out which classes would be nice for the remaining spot, and bring AI characters of those classes. Meanwhile, you leave a group recruiting message up on some in-game bulletin board to organize groups.

Five minutes into the quest, another player of a class you want contacts you asking to join your group. You kick one of the AI characters from your group, invite the player, he warps to your group, and you resume work on the quest. Ten minutes later, someone else in your group has to log off and can’t finish the quest. He leaves the group, and you summon an AI character of a suitable replacement class, and go on to complete the quest. In both cases, the group has under a minute of downtime caused by the membership change. That’s a huge advantage over the grouping systems commonly in place in the existing MMORPGs that I‘m aware of.

This would greatly improve the quality of pickup groups, and not just the ease of organizing them. If you get a group together and find out that one of the people in your group is an idiot, in most games, to replace him could be a considerable hassle, and sometimes even require restarting. Here, you could kick the idiot and immediately summon an AI character to replace him. The rest of the group could fight on while you hope for another player to fill in. No longer would you need to drag the idiot along with you to avoid being shorthanded.

One of the implicit assumptions here is that there are enough people who want to do the same quest. That needs to be addressed as well.

One of the big dividers that prevents players from grouping with each other is level and gear differences. If a level 30 player and a level 50 player happen to be in the same guild, or friends in real life, and would like to group together, well, they really can’t. If they do level 50 content, then the level 30 player is probably pretty useless and just tagging along. If they do level 30 content, then the level 50 player is way too strong and handily slaughters everything, which is rather boring.

The solution is to make the various regions of the game particular levels, and set everyone in a given region to that level. Players would not be able to access regions above their “real” level, but going to lower level regions would be easy. If a level 50 player wishes to group with his level 30 friend, he goes to a level 30 region and is magically level 30 himself, with all of the restrictions that entails. He cannot use skills obtained after level 30, equip gear that requires a level above 30, and so forth.

This would require switching to alternate gear, skill builds, and so forth, which could become an enormous hassle if handled improperly. To avoid the hassle, the game would record the gear and skills that a player had when he was at each level, immediately before he gained a level. When the level 50 player goes back to the level 30 zone, it gives him back the gear and skills he had when he was level 30. He could update them if he has since obtained better gear also useable at level 30, for example, and the changes would be saved as his new level 30 build.

To avoid twinking, all gear dropped in a particular area should require the level of that area. If you’re in a level 30 area, all gear dropped requires you to be level 30 or higher to equip it. Thus, you could never get gear in a higher level area and use it to make a lower level area trivial. That preserves the challenge necessary to make the combat interesting.

This would make guild groups work a lot better, too. If several people in a guild wish to group together, they usually aren’t terribly close to each other in level. Under this system, they could all go to an area suitable for the lowest level member of the prospective group, and all be an appropriate level for that area. That would allow guild groups not at the level cap to do content of a suitable level for the members of the group.

Players would still gain experience from killing mobs, of course, even in an area far below their “real“ level. In order to avoid accidentally creating incentives to stay in low level areas for a long time, the game should give experience at a faster rate in higher level areas, as most games do.

What the experience level would do is to give players access to higher level areas, rather than making them directly stronger everywhere. Players would be stronger, have better gear, better skills, and the rest of the usual benefits of being higher level, but only in the higher level areas that they could now access.

The next problem that makes it difficult to group is that the players who are in a given area and are of a suitable level for the area often wish to do different quests. If a server has 2000 players online, but the game has 1000 quests, most of the quests aren’t going to have five people who wish to do the quest at any given time. Someone may wish to do one quest, while someone else of the same level and in the same area has already done that quest and doesn’t want to repeat it.

This could be fixed by making all quests repeatable. The obvious problem with this is that players will pick out the quests that give the best rewards and do those repeatedly, while ignoring the other quests. Doing one quest twenty times in a row is a lot less interesting than doing twenty quests once each.

That can be fixed by having the game scale quest rewards by how often players are doing the quest. Keep track of how many groups complete a quest each day (or week or whatever). If a lot more players are doing one quest than are doing another in the same area, tone down the rewards for the former quest, while increasing the rewards for the latter. Keep incrementally changing the rewards until, in equlibrium, all quests in an area give rewards commensurate with the length and difficulty of the quest.

Above, it was assumed that groups would sometimes get replacement players in the middle of a quest. This requires that players be willing to join in the middle of a quest. With quest structure as it is often done, if you need to kill 50 furbolgs and a group has already killed 10, when you join, they’ll probably want to kill 40 more and then stop. You’d thus have to get another group to finish the quest.

The solution to this is to make it so that when a group finishes a quest, everyone gets credit, even if they joined late. Late joiners should only get a pro-rated portion of the quest reward based on how much of the quest they were present for, to prevent abuse from people inviting their friends seconds before a quest is completed. This would still make joining a group late an attractive prospect, as it would mean you could jump in and immediately be in a group that is ready to go, rather than having to fish around a while for people to group with.

I’m not arguing that all MMORPGs ought to implement the above system or something vaguely like it. However, if a game is going to be built around players doing content in groups, then the game ought to provide the means to quickly organize groups. 

An easy game or a hard game?

Posted by Quizzical Friday December 19 2008 at 1:37AM
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It is common for players to complain that this or that aspect of a game is too hard, and that it should be made easier. It is likewise common for players to complain that something in the game is too easy. Often, the two groups of players are even talking about exactly the same portion of the game. Still, it is often not the case that the former type of player wants an easy game and the latter wants a hard game.

Most people want to "win", in whatever sense is applicable. People bring different sets of skills to a game, so different people will win depending on what winning is based on. People thus want winning to be based on whatever it needs to be based on to ensure that they personally win as best as is possible. Among the different things that some want winning to be based on:

*having a lot of free time
*being willing to schedule your life around a game
*knowing how to create and run bots
*having good social/organizational skills
*being able to devise a smart combat strategy
*having fast reflexes
*spending a lot of real-life money
*everyone (or no one) wins, without regard to any attribute in particular

Because different people want winning to be based on different things, there are different games made to cater to different types of players. A company has to pick which type(s) of players it will cater to, and stick with it, over the objections of other types of players who want winning to be based on something else. Try to make winning based on everything and you end up with a muddled mess of a game that satisfies no one.

When a player asks for something in particular to be made easier, what he’s picked up on is that winning is based on something that will make him lose. As such, he wants that criterion for winning to be removed, and replaced by something that will give him a better chance of winning.

Conversely, when a player asks for something in particular to be made harder, it means it’s something that will make him more likely to win. He’s not so much asking that the game be made unambiguously harder, as merely that winning depend more on that particular area--and thus, less on others, so that other components of winning be made relatively easier.

Thus, people don’t want everything to be easy. They only want the portions that they’re not good at to be easy. They want the components that they are good at to be hard, so that they can still do whatever it is that is necessary, but a lot of other people can’t.

The great use of item malls

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday December 16 2008 at 5:23PM
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Or, “How to stop gold farmers from ruining your game”

The problem of gold farmers in online games goes back years. You’re probably familiar with it, so I won’t recap here. The question is how to stop it.

The answer that some people would push for is for companies to aggressively track down, catch, and ban gold farmers and the people who buy gold from them. There’s a place for that, and it can contain the problem somewhat. It also costs the company money to do so, at not much benefit to the company, which is why a lot of companies don’t bother.

But banning gold farmers by itself can never work. Players will often say, hey, this particular characters in the game are gold farmers! The company should come ban them! And yes, some companies are negligent on this, or perhaps make buying gold “illegal” only in the sense of “if you get scammed, don’t complain to us”.

But there isn’t an easy way to identify all gold farmers. Gold farmers can find a way around any particular test that you can put into place. And remember that it’s vital to avoid false positives here. A company that annually bans 1% of its customers on suspicion of being gold farmers even though they didn’t do anything wrong would take a huge PR hit for it.

The fundamental problem is that there are people with more money than skill (or common sense, or if you want to be charitable to them, free time), who wish to buy their way to victory in online games. There’s a lot of money to be made off of people willing to spend $100/month on online games. The question is who is going to get their money.

For years, it’s largely been gold farmers that made the money off of those people. A company spends millions of dollars to create and host an online game, and then a substantial chunk of the money made from it goes into the pockets of gold farmers who are despised by most of the game‘s playerbase. Something seems wrong with this picture, doesn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be better if it were game companies that made the money? That would make creating online games more profitable, and hence more companies would be inclined to make more of them. That’s a good thing, right?

A couple paragraphs ago, you likely objected, but item malls unbalance games! Why play if someone else is going to buy better gear than you have and win just because he spends more money on the game? Certainly, I agree with that sentiment. So does the idiot who will add a comment to this post saying as much denouncing the post without reading it. I’m not saying that every game should have an item mall, nor even that games with an item mall should allow access to it on all servers.

Suppose that you were one of these people with more money than common sense, and willing to spend a ton of money on a game to buy your way to dominance. What sort of game would you want to play? Would you prefer a game where the company aggressively cracks down on gold farmers, so that if you try to buy gold, you’re likely to get scammed, and even if successful, you may get your account banned for it? Or would you prefer to buy gold and items directly from the company that makes the game, so that you’re guaranteed to get what you paid for, and with the game company’s blessing, no less?

If some games have item malls to suck up the people willing to spend a lot of money on the game, that means fewer of those people are likely to play the games without item malls. That depresses demand for buying items with real-life money in the other games. That is, it reduces the demand for gold farmers, which reduces the number of gold farmers--and hence their impact upon the game.

There is, however, a problem with this. If you want to buy your way to victory, you probably want to do so in a game you like, not some cheesy Korean grindfest. Item malls taking the big money spenders off the market will only work if they exist in a wide enough variety of games--including some big-budget games with cutting-edge graphics.

It’s even possible for a game to have some servers that have an item mall, and other servers for the same game that do not. One problem with some servers having item malls and some not is that anyone who will pay a subscription, but not additionally buy from the item mall, will not want to play on servers with an item mall. The servers that do have one will just have people willing to pay a lot of money competing against each other to spend the most money. And there’s no real point in paying $50/month to have less than most other people on the server if you could pay only $15/month to have a level playing field.

The solution is that there has to be some advantage to playing on servers that give access to the item mall. The obvious way would be to allow players to play at a discount if they’ll only play on servers that have the item mall. Some games take the approach of letting such players play completely for free, though higher server costs in some big-budget games may torpedo that approach. Another possibility would be letting players make an account and have a free month before paying a subscription, but in order to get access to servers that don’t have an item mall, you have to buy a box.

At this, some may point to SOE’s Station Cash system as a counterexample: if some servers have an item mall and some don’t, what’s to stop the company from eventually sticking it (or something like it) on all servers? One could just as well ask, if a game has no item mall at all, what’s to stop the company from eventually adding it? Furthermore, that SOE can’t do something right doesn’t mean that it can’t be done right.

Indeed, it already has been done right. Puzzle Pirates has both subscription servers and doubloon servers (well, only one subscription server last time I checked). On a subscription server, you pay $10/month to play, and buying PoE (the local currency) with real-life money is forbidden. On a doubloon server, there is no monthly fee, but a lot of items have both a PoE cost and a doubloon cost (that is, instead of costing 2000 PoE on a subscription server, an item may cost 2000 PoE plus one doubloon).

Doubloons are only created when people buy them with real-life money, but can be bought and sold in-game for PoE. Someone who wishes to buy a lot of gold for real-life money can buy a bunch of doubloons and sell them in-game for PoE. For such a person to buy PoE with real money on the black market on a subscription server would be catastrophically stupid. If there’s no money for gold farmers to make on the game, then they don’t bother. 

The right way to instance open-world content

Posted by Quizzical Thursday December 11 2008 at 9:59PM
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The most common complaint about Guild Wars from people who don't like the game seems to be the extensive instancing. Everywhere you go outside of town gets a separate instance just for you (or rather, your party). I happen to like a lot of the consequences of that, such other players not interfering with my fights, and mobs staying dead when killed rather than respawning ten minutes later. But it is a very different experience without seeing a lot of other players fighting nearby.

But what annoys me about the complaints is that the people making it don't seem to recognize that nearly all games heavily instance their content. Suppose, for example, that you play WoW and stand in Ironforge, just outside the bank. Do you see everyone else in the game who happens to be standing just outside the bank in Ironforge? No, you most certainly do not. 99% of them are on other servers, and hence invisible to you. That is, they are in separate instances of Ironforge.

There are some exceptions to this, of course. The main ones are games with too small of a playerbase to overfill a single server--meaning the company would like to instance content, but can't. The only other exceptions I'm aware of are EVE, which has an enormous world to let players adequately spread out, and Puzzle Pirates, which has separate servers, but gives each a separate map, so that a player standing on Tinga must necessarily be in the Midnight Ocean, and other servers have no analogous geographical location.

I understand that EVE has some very devoted fans, and people who want that sort of non-instancing may well have a decent case. But apart from that, the question is not whether a company will instance content, but how. The fans of WoW, WAR, LotRO, EQ2, etc. who decry the instancing of Guild Wars often seem to not recognize that their own preferred game is extensively instanced via servers--on top of the Guild Wars-style instancing of a separate instance for each party in selected locations.

If the question is how a game is going to be instanced, then separate servers is a rather clumsy way to go about it. Suppose that you need a party of six players to clear a dungeon, and there are sixty players online at the time who would like to party for that particular dungeon. That sounds like it should work nicely: partition the players into ten groups of six each, and let each of the ten groups do the instance.

But instancing by separate servers says no, you can't do that. The sixty players who would like to do the instance are spread across twenty different servers. Only one of those servers actually has six players who want to do the instance. Those six can't form a party and go, either, because none of them is a healer.

I'm not against games requiring parties to do some content. What I am strongly against is games requiring parties to do content without providing the means for players to form such parties fairly easily. And the separate servers issue is worse still: it actually prevents players who would have liked to form a party and should have been able to do so from forming said party. That is catastrophically stupid.

But the separate servers solution to instancing doesn't work so well in the open-world content that many players think of as non-instanced, either. Suppose that there are two different zones of about the same size, and built to hold about the same number of players. For whatever reason, five times as many players wish to fight in zone A as in zone B. If each zone gets one instance per server, then either zone A will be overcrowded or zone B will be nearly empty--or both.

One might hope that a company rebalances the zones such that zone A and zone B will attract the same number of players, but that's impractical. The ratio of high level players to low level players tends to increase as a game ages. Even if the player density of both high and low level areas can be about right at some particular point in time, there will be too few high level players well before that time, and too few low level players well after it. Even for zones of the same level range, players will figure out that farming one is more effective than farming the other, and some players will spend a lot more time in the former zone.

Another problem is time of day dependence. Most players are more likely to play a game at 7 pm in their local time zone than at 5 am. Most games have their playerbase fairly concentrated in particular areas. Language barriers encourage this when a game has different servers for different languages. If a game has separate servers for separate geographical regions (so that some people don't get a dreadful ping time because the server is 10000 miles away), this is guaranteed to be the case.

This leads to a given server often having several times as many players online at one time of day as at another. Even if the company could distribute the playerbase among the various regions of the game as they wish, a given zone can easily be overcrowded at peak times and then nearly empty in the middle of the night.

The solution is to allow the number of instances of a given zone to vary. If zone A has enough players to fill 15 instances, while zone B can't have more than 5 without seeming underpopulated, then let zone A have fifteen instances and zone B have five. Don't insist on one per server. If the playerbase dwindles at off-peak times, then let zone A have six instances and zone B two at the times when that's all that the playerbase can fill. Let instances be created and closed dynamically as players enter and leave. In case a player wishes to party with a friend who is placed in a different instance of the same zone, let players switch from one instance of a zone to another while inside the zone (perhaps in selected safe areas, to avoid landing on top of some mobs).

This isn't a completely new idea. It's basically what Guild Wars does with towns already (and theoretically outposts and mission areas, though most rarely have enough players to force a second instance). The number of players in an instance of a town is far less important than in an area where fighting occurs, of course. I've also seen this done in Infantry, which as a purely PvP game, was highly dependent on the number of players in a zone in order to function properly. But it's possible to refine the system of either game to work better for open-world content.

The key is to keep the population relatively balanced among the instances. It is essential to quickly go from the players roughly evenly divided among three instances to pretty evenly divided among four instances, or vice versa. This can for the most part be done without obstructing players simply by setting up the default way of distributing players among instances intelligently. So long as players aren't placed into an overcrowded or nearly empty instance for extended periods of time, most will simply accept their default instance.

Suppose, for example, that the game designers think that a zone ought to have n players per instance. Suppose furthermore that at a given time, there are k instances open. The game should keep k instances open so long as the total number of players in the zone stays between (k-2/3)n and (k+2/3)n. So long as this happens, any new players entering the area should be placed in whichever instance has the fewest players.

If the number of players exceeds (k+2/3)n, then it's time to open a new instance. Create the instance and it will immediately be the lowest population instance. All players entering the zone will be put in this new instance by default for a while. Player turnover, as some players leave an area while others enter it, will fill up the new instance pretty quickly.

If the number of players falls below (k-2/3)n, then it's time to close an instance. This is a little harder. Pick an instance to close (e.g., the lowest population one), and stop putting new players into that instance by default. After several minutes, notify players in that instance that it is closing down, and let them switch to a higher population instance if they prefer, but don't kick them out just yet. Don't block players from manually switching to the closing instance immediately, either. Let the playerbase in the closing instance dwindle for a while, but don't close it until all players leave, or perhaps kick out the last few stragglers after an hour or so.

This can be kind of rough when trying to go from one instance to two or vice versa. But even there, it's a far superior approach to having separate servers. It really only breaks down entirely when there aren't nearly enough players to fill one instance--in which case, the system would break down no matter how you distribute players among servers or instances. The transition will be very smooth when there is a larger number of instances, such as going from four instances to five or vice versa.

This would allow all players to play in an instance with the appropriate player density at nearly all times. More importantly, it would greatly facilitate grouping. If the playerbase is spread across 20 different servers, then on average, only 1/20 of the players who show up wishing to do the same quest as you will be allowed to group with you. With separate instances and an easy way for players looking for groups to communicate with those in other instances, every single player who wishes to do the same quest as you is eligible for the group. That means a new potential group-mate shows up 20 times as often, so you're not stuck waiting half an hour hoping that someone else will come along.

And most importantly, that can often be the difference between content that requires a group being viable or not. I don't have much objection to taking a couple minutes to get a group together. I object much more strongly to taking half an hour to get a group, especially if I'm only going to be on for 45 minutes in total. That would not only mean that more of the players who wish to do a given group quest will be eligible to group with you, but also that more players will come along wishing to do that group quest. Thus, the game would have more fun and less frustration. Unless, of course, you really, really hate PUGs.