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Player Perspectives (Archived): The Magic Number

By Jaime Skelton on January 29, 2010 | Columns | Comments

The Magic Number

I think we can all agree that underneath it all, MMORPGs are a bunch of numbers. Programming is, of course, more complicated than 1s and 0s, but ultimately all MMORPGs come down to a complex interchange of formulas, from experience, levels, and skills; to damage, attributes, and RNG. You could strip away the story, strip away the fancy armor and rare mounts, and run numbers and formulas in spreadsheets and the basest form of game and achieve the same functional result.

The problem with numbers is that alone, they strip away all the fun that a game can offer. Numbers don't make awesome weapons, incredible plots, or a world worth living in. Numbers can't create social interactions; they can't force two individuals to meet, like each other, form a bond, learn team-work, start a guild or PvP team, melt faces and boast of their prowess. Yet numbers hold the restraints for these interactions in an MMO. Numbers place limits on skill, restrict the usefulness of a person based on their choices as a character, and often are the deciding factor over whether a person is even needed.

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Every game has its own character limit on parties and raids. Somewhere early in a game's lifespan, developers decide on the special number of players that offers their optimal balance of class types (tanks, healers, and DPS, assuming the formulaic trinity) and required skill for success. This number is usually 4, 5 or 6, either because developers roll a six sided dice and eliminate all rolls of 1, 2, and 3 as being insufficient, or more likely because the balance of tanks, healers, and DPS always falls heavy in the DPS field, and thus results in the need to offer more spots for DPS rather than tanks or healers. This is amusing, actually, because despite the strange belief that a single tank and single healer are equivalent in population numbers to 2, 3, or even 4 DPS, the numbers are more likely inclined to that same tank and healer pair being balanced against 10 or more DPS players.

When raids come into play, that special, magic number is multiplied by a certain (or varying) amount to create a larger group. This, too, is when the true ratio of tanks, healers, and DPS comes into play. For instance, in World of Warcraft's Icecrown Citadel, three tanks and five healers can support 17 DPS, in a 25 person raid, with room for fluctuation where only one or two tanks are needed, or up to seven healers.

Ratios of these roles are a fascinating topic in their own right, but today I'm going to opt to touch on the number of a raid group in whole. Those of you who hate World of Warcraft will need to either forgive me, or turn away now, because the game's balance of raid group ratios makes an excellent case study. Originally, World of Warcraft started out with eight times the normal group size (eight times five, forty players in a raid) plus a few places that took twice the normal group size (ten) and a couple of instances with four times the regular group size (twenty). In later content, this was tapered to the current numbers of twice the group size (ten) and five times the group size (twenty-five).

Now, World of Warcraft has not offered the largest raids by a long shot (there have been 72, 100, and larger raid sizes in MMOs) but for the content offered, 40-man offered a solid core of people. The number was initially created as a balance of an "epic" feeling and individual contribution. The numbers were eventually toned down for many reasons, including (as Jeff Kaplan stated in an interview with Game Informer in December) the amount of stress 40 players put on guild leadership, and the mercenary style recruiting that many had done to meet the large raid requirements. Said Kaplan, "It was a very unhealthy social dynamic going on."

Yet for those who hated the social dynamic and process of getting together 40 people for a weekend raid, there were those of us, myself included, who found no trouble with the process. The guild I belonged to for these raids never over-recruited for the sake of meeting raid requirements, and we had so many good people offer to come to the raids, we regularly had to sit over five people, sometimes over 10, for each raid event. It led to some strict attendance policies which favored those who were there and ready to go, but the drama that took place was never related to raid numbers and the ability to over- or under-fill them.

So when raid group sizes changed to 25 in The Burning Crusade expansion, many guilds complained that in order to handle the new dynamic, they would have to either cut almost half their regular raid dynamic, or over-recruit to include 50 regular players in their roster to accommodate the 15 that would be cut off from the content. There were no other options, and many guilds broke apart or grew beyond their preferred numbers in order to accommodate the change. The World of Warcraft moved on.

Even today, there are guilds and raiding coalitions that struggle to maintain the magic number. They must keep the balance between what is needed (the numbers) versus the people who fill that need. A guild may have a large group of fifty players who are all on very good, friendly terms and who can work interchangeably with each other on, but of those fifty, only about 30 can be present for any one night. It becomes necessary then to sit multiple people, perhaps on a rotating basis, to fit the maximum number of people into the raid. Not only does the guild leader have to balance maximum numbers, and ratio numbers, he or she must also balance many social relationships to be able to keep the group together as a whole. As we know, MMOs are just as much about social relationships as numbers.

Is scaling, in which the dungeon or raid in question adjusts its difficulty up or down depending on the size of the raid, the solution? It's idealistic; with scaling instances, no one will ever get offended because everyone is welcome, like a big happy Thanksgiving where there's an infinite amount of turkey and stuffing for everyone. Like everything else idealistic, the idea doesn't work.

One major problem with scaling is that it assumes everyone is equal. This is easy in a game like Diablo II, where the game is based on a "kill stuff or die" scenario and everyone is approximately equal in filling the role. In a game where there are tanks, healers, and DPS (and DPS further split into several specs depending on utility and throughput) the same cannot be assumed. Everyone present must be made useful in the fight if it is to scale properly, which means that a scaled fight must also accommodate for more tanks and more healers, not simply more DPS killing things faster. Although some boss strategies can accommodate more easily for these kinds of changes, others cannot. This means in order to scale properly, a fight must belong to a set list of formula that suppresses innovative fights. Scaled fights also require a baseline, and in a limitless scaling system, how do you determine what that is? How do you balance rewards around it? The technical difficulties of scaling an MMO's content in more than a small scale, such as Lord of the Rings Online's skirmish system are simply too large to overcome.

There's something to be said about numerical limits in games besides technical challenges. Although the challenges of finding a certain amount of people - no more, no less - for a piece of content is certainly a piece of socially balancing work, it is not as challenging as the more delicate work of finding that number of skilled players that can all agree on a general raiding philosophy. Anyone can make a pick-up raid and hope that things fall into place; it takes thought, planning, and discussion to reach a group consensus. It takes even more to take possibly "untrained" individuals who haven't seen the content or experienced it with a competent group, and tailor them into excellent raiders. Those who do it may not think what they do is much, and yet it only takes one pick up group to realize just how much they do.

So what's to be done about raid limits? Like many other parts of our MMO gaming experience, we are left to accept the hold of numbers on us. Despite its social aspects, it is the nature of our genre to require limits, just as a society must accept certain rules imposed on it by a government. While in the real world, some rules do demand change - and certainly raid limits do have some flexibility in their structure to face change - we as players must accept the technical limitations and challenges of our world from time to time. It is unfortunate that at times, not everyone can be included in a raid event; however, those who are willing to stretch their comfort zones will find there are more friends to be made and more adventures to be found.

Jaime Skelton / For fourteen years - since the days of Ultima Online - I've been playing MMORPGs with a passion, from paid subscriptions to free imports. Online gaming has become one of my most passionate hobbies, as the games internally and externally evolve over time, providing an ever-changing gaming experience. I write for several websites about MMOs, including MMOSite, Examiner, and BrightHub.
Player Perspectives (Archived) Player Perspectives (Archived) Editorials
Jaime Skelton has been playing MMORPGs religiously since Ultima Online and brings the unique voice of an experienced player to her weekly MMORPG.com column. Based out of Utah, more of her content can be found over at The Examiner.

Her column looks at the industry from the eyes of a gamer and appears every Friday.
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