Yesterday, Gamasutra ran a feature about how players can only process about 200 social connections drawing attention to Dunbar’s Number theory. It brought up a very interesting point in the MMO world and how important the true size of a game really need to be? The vast worlds of 2000 to 2010 have given way to highly instanced MMOs like Elder Scrolls Online and Guild Wars 2. However, these changes to a smaller size game herald back to Dark Age of Camelot and its three faction system. Let’s explore how this works.
In DAOC the server was split into three separate factions. The player base was fully divided. On any given night my server had about 1500-2000 players online. Break this number down by three and you are looking at between 500 and roughly 633 players per realm. When you crossed over into PvP you suddenly faced off against the other two factions. Not every player was in PvP though and there were about 6-8 RvR zones that you could explore to hunt for other players. This break down seemed to balance the game nicely.
For a while, MMOs became vast and too big to easily fix or maintain. They expected thousands of people to populate these worlds. Using vast resources to host servers and build out large environments. As Dunbar’s Number proves, this way of thinking may have just been far too big. More recent games have made use of instancing to separate players into their open worlds giving them a much smoother experience. Also server technology has become infinitely stronger over the past decade making it easier to host these instances and build them out as needed based on population.
So, back to our question, what really defines an MMO? Even years ago we used to say it was 60 or more players in a shared space playing the same game. That covers a lot of ground especially now-a-days with the types of games we are seeing made. I would point to Destiny as an example. This game took the console shooter into the MMO space and did it successfully. It added lots of content and systems into the shooter genre which extended game play for fans.
Overall if you take the console market’s top games and add on MMO elements to them, they will get better over time. MMO concepts extend game play. So when developers say that all games will become MMOs it is true!
The genre has changed a lot from the full scope MMORPG we know in Everquest and Warcraft. Shared worlds really are the future and will host smaller groups to make it easier to manage. Players will get more out of the experience too. Games like DayZ allowed players to host their own servers and a lot of new MMOs are leaning this way. It will bring in smaller groups of friends who want to play together.
So Dunbar’s Number theory may actually be correct. MMOs will be smaller in a sense but more games will come online and make use of the core genre’s best mechanics. The question is not how many MMOs will we see in the future? It is how many games will turn into MMOs. I think quite a few.