Game talkInterdependent systems

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Apr 222008
 

Next Generation has an informative email from Russell Williams, the CEO of Flying Lab, giving the reasons why they are having to merge servers. It’s a great insight into the complex equation involved in estimating how many servers to have.

One of the items in particular caught my eye:

Game systems
Pirates’ gameplay is very organic, designed in such a way that the different systems feed into one another. In a PvE-only game, focusing mainly on content, this isn’t a big deal. But in Pirates of the Burning Sea we have systems that require a minimum number of players to function correctly, such as our economy, and they break other systems if they’re not working correctly (such as PvP). If we didn’t have these kinds of interdependent systems, we wouldn’t even be considering server merges.

This was an issue with SWG as well. It made it difficult to test systems that required a certain critical mass of players in order to function, and it resulted in “ghost town syndrome” a lot because of player movement — people would abandon a player city, for example, which needed a lot of players acting in concert in order to be viable.

The lesson to be drawn, perhaps, is “don’t make heavily interdependent systems.” But that lesson kind of sucks, because there is so much interesting gameplay and design territory out there in player interdependence land. Player economies, guilds, player towns — all fail if there isn’t a certain size there. No entertainers in the (old-school) SWG cantina, and the whole combat experience fell apart. No combat guys out there by the harvesters and the crafting system could fall apart (though there was never a shortage of combat guys). And so on.

It’s worth pointing out that if anything, these sorts of systems are easier to coordinate than a raid, for a player, since they don’t require synchronicity. They are often based on weak-tie links. You don’t know the entertainer at the cantina very well, but you want them to be there.

A big part of the reason to design with this sort of approach in mind is because it drives normally insular players to meet other people. These days, this has become a bigger struggle than ever; the default assumption is that everyone comes to an MMO with their pre-made circle of friends. This is great for the player who comes with that circle, and not so much for those who don’t, of course.

But more subtly, it’s better for the player than the game, since it means that each player is held to the game mostly by the strong ties they have with their friends. When the friends leave, you are that much more likely to lose the whole group.

Webbing the group in more thoroughly requires getting them to do something that we do normally and naturally in the real world — be a member of more than one strong social group at a time. A raiding guild is basically like being on a league sports team. But even if that’s what you do, there is likely a group of folks from work you hang out with, or a group of folks who like you share your passion for stamp collecting. And if the league folds, you don’t move away just because of it; the stamp collecting helps compensate.

These sorts of weak tie social designs are, to my mind, the biggest side effect of “worldy” MMO design, and are the part that years and years afterward makes people say “man, that game had a community like none other.” In many of these games, the social structure is impoverished enough that most everyone “does the same thing” on a pretty fundamental level. In a weak tie system, people’s activities are diverse enough that you can intersect with someone regularly, and only have a vague sense of what they do in the game. And that also creates a sense of endless possibility.

You can have a more siloed game design where you create that sense of possibility, and compensate when there’s an absence of players by having the game system take up the slack. Provide a crafting system, but don’t rely on players to do crafting; supplement it with NPC shops. There’s all sorts of tricky balance things to work out, but it can be done. It drives more gently towards the weak ties.

The thing that makes it hard is that the siloed systems are sure candidates for getting cut from your game. :) Requiring interdependence is one of the ways that an ambitious designer keeps stuff in the design! This is a sneaky and underhanded thing to do, of course, and I wouldn’t advocate it at all. After all, you have other problems if your producers and management aren’t bought into the vision of a world with diverse activities.

(This, for the SWG followers, is why stuff like vehicles, cities, and mounts, were more easily pushed off than dancing. Design interdependence. Vehicles improved the game, but they weren’t required for it to function. Neither was hairdressing, but it was such a small task that it got done first as a test of whether the dynamic character customization system worked, as a way to ramp people up on the scripting, and so on… many little systems often make the cut because they serve practical needs like that, regardless of their actual importance).

In the end, I think there is much left to be done in exploring systems that require large-scale interdependent gameplay. Once critical mass is achieved, they provide much of what is most intriguing about virtual worlds: EQ strategy sites. Bloodpledges in Lineage. All of A Tale in the Desert. WoW’s auction house. SWG’s strange and complex economy (originally). UO’s spontaneous player towns. And as the worldwide audience for virtual worlds keeps spiking, there is going to be plenty of chance to grab a sizable enough population to get the flywheel going, despite increasing nichification.

  49 Responses to “Interdependent systems”

  1. Filed under: Historical, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Events, real-world, MMO industry, AcademicThe closure of many Pirates of the Burning Sea servers last week is regrettable, but not terribly surprising. In the Next Generation article exploring that event, CEO Russell Williams explains that the interdependence of their ambitious MMO’s systems

  2. You have to keep doing it, don’t you? Remind me how darn great SWG was when I played it all those years ago! :-)

  3. I knew there was a reason I liked reading you blog. This is another one of those great inspirational post that says “Just keep reaching for all those stars” And oh yeah, it gives you pointers for along the way.
    Thanks Raph.

  4. The lesson to be drawn, perhaps, is “don’t make heavily interdependent systems.”

    Uhm, no. I’d say the lesson is: “Don’t make an mmo that requires small servers”.

    I can see the problem of single-server-mmos (and then some), but why aren’t more developers trying it? EVE somewhat prooves that there are benefits of one huge community of people playing an mmo together instead of side by side. Users are playing facebook and myspace as well in one huge place, so if a developer really wants to do interconnected, interdependant systems – why not go for the big one? Because there really IS much to be explored here.

  5. Well, mostly because it is Officially Hard. :)

  6. [...] 22, 2008 in DAOC, Eve, WoW, mmorpg From Raph’s blog today: In the end, I think there is much left to be done in exploring systems that require [...]

  7. The fact that EVE is set in easy-to-author outer space instead of hard-to-author landscape on some planet has a lot to do with how they can have one giant server with no instancing. Virtually infinite hand-crafted environments aren’t really an option for most settings.

    Next time around the biggest thing I intend to do is get rid of “hard” shards so that the players can move more easily from shard to shard without the pain and the question of how much server capacity we need isn’t something that’s nearly as visible to the players.

  8. @Dirk

    It’s also likely that those interdependent systems break down when the scope becomes too large or too small. So it’s not just a matter of having critical mass but of having the range of players that the mechanic was designed for.

    Not saying you couldn’t take that into account but it does make it harder.

  9. Still not a huge fan of interdependent systems, particularly “player-driven” economies. Why? ‘Cause at their root, they promote competition more so than cooperation, which in my experience still fosters insular playing… not to mention exuberant drama.

    Sure, that might be the very thing that exemplifies “interesting gameplay”, but frankly I could do without it.

    Soaking up my precious few moments of free time available to curry favor with some “leet”, power-gamer kiddie or disgruntled stay-at-home diva is not my idea of good fun, especially so if progress hinges upon it. I’d much rather socialize on my terms and with people who’s company I genuinely enjoy.

    That’s not to say I’m advocating single-player games or LAN parties. I like to meet new people and make new friends. But by the same token, I don’t enjoy being fodder for up-and-coming megalomaniacs or borderline sociopaths either.

  10. Next time around the biggest thing I intend to do is get rid of “hard” shards so that the players can move more easily from shard to shard without the pain and the question of how much server capacity we need isn’t something that’s nearly as visible to the players.

    In Runescape (and Toontown, I believe), they simply let you move from shard to shard, and users tend to self-load-balance by avoiding laggy shards! Maybe we overthink this problem. :)

  11. ‘Cause at their root, they promote competition more so than cooperation, which in my experience still fosters insular playing… not to mention exuberant drama.

    They promote horizontal competition, but vertical cooperation, I think is a more accurate way to think about it.

    Soaking up my precious few moments of free time available to curry favor with some “leet”, power-gamer kiddie or disgruntled stay-at-home diva is not my idea of good fun

    I think is entirely a question of whether the service provided is mediated or not. You probably never felt that way about a crafter, since you could interact via the shop UI. You may have over something like a healer, where the experience required direct contact. The crafter is a weaker tie than the healer, which is weaker than a guildmate.

  12. Still not a huge fan of interdependent systems, particularly “player-driven” economies. Why? ‘Cause at their root, they promote competition more so than cooperation, which in my experience still fosters insular playing… not to mention exuberant drama.

    On the other hand they’re fodder for altoholics like me. Instead of developing a character I can develop an ensemble. [start bitter tone]Unless it’s a single character system [end bitter tone]. In that case I have to buy multiple subs which limits the size of the ensemble.

  13. They promote horizontal competition, but vertical cooperation, I think is a more accurate way to think about it.

    No offense, but I have no idea what you just said. :-)

    I think is entirely a question of whether the service provided is mediated or not. You probably never felt that way about a crafter, since you could interact via the shop UI. You may have over something like a healer, where the experience required direct contact. The crafter is a weaker tie than the healer, which is weaker than a guildmate.

    Oh trust me, there were *numerous* crafters (or more to the point, vendors) I never directly interacted with, yet despised *greatly* in SWG. I could cite many anecdotes, but to generalize, there were several who came into large sums of game currency (either via power-gaming or more “questionable” avenues) and would leverage it to effectively create pseudo-monopolies. This was especially troublesome during the height of the “holo-grind” phase, when the resource market became so grossly inflated it was largely inaccessible to a significant portion of the player base. One individual on the Gorath server immediately comes to mind. Not only did he capitalize on this, but was also notorious for misrepresenting items on his vendors.

  14. On the other hand they’re fodder for altoholics like me. Instead of developing a character I can develop an ensemble. [start bitter tone]Unless it’s a single character system [end bitter tone]. In that case I have to buy multiple subs which limits the size of the ensemble.

    Kinda emphasizes my point regarding insular playing. :D

  15. No offense, but I have no idea what you just said.

    What I meant was, they promote competition across peers, so to speak. A crafter competes with the other crafters in their space, but cooperates with the guy who gets them their supplies. The combat guy competes with the other combat guys but cooperates with the healer, and so on.

    Oh trust me, there were *numerous* crafters (or more to the point, vendors) I never directly interacted with, yet despised *greatly* in SWG. I could cite many anecdotes, but to generalize, there were several who came into large sums of game currency (either via power-gaming or more “questionable” avenues) and would leverage it to effectively create pseudo-monopolies. This was especially troublesome during the height of the “holo-grind” phase, when the resource market became so grossly inflated it was largely inaccessible to a significant portion of the player base. One individual on the Gorath server immediately comes to mind. Not only did he capitalize on this, but was also notorious for misrepresenting items on his vendors.

    I get to say this because it was my fault: that’s an implementation issue with a particular game system, not with the basic premise. The fact that someone developed a monopoly is the issue.

  16. My first impression from the Next-Gen article was that Pirates shut down because there weren’t enough players. I can accept the fact that the game design contradicted the server design, but what if there had simply been more players? Perhaps I am over-simplifying.

  17. There’s no such thing as competition without cooperation. Competition and cooperation are interdependent systems.

  18. There’s no such thing as competition without cooperation. Competition and cooperation are interdependent systems.

    Last time I played a Quake-type FPS Deathmatch game (bear with me, it’s been a loooong time) it was most certainly pure competition and zero cooperation. Same holds true whenever I play poker.

    On the other hand, I’ve played PvE games that were exclusively cooperative — assuming of course you accept the premise that fighting computer-controlled opponents isn’t necessarily competitive. :D

  19. Last time I played a Quake-type FPS Deathmatch game (bear with me, it’s been a loooong time) it was most certainly pure competition and zero cooperation.

    When I used to play Quake 2, religiously, on MPlayer—I was one of the highest-ranking players—deathmatches were not devoid of collaboration. Granted, sustained collaboration would simply be called cheating, so more often, there were moments of cooperation between players such as to defeat a more skilled opponent or to ensure that resources were not wasted by newbies. Systems of competition and collaboration do not have to be hardcoded into the game. They can be forms of emergent gameplay.

    On the other hand, I’ve played PvE games that were exclusively cooperative — assuming of course you accept the premise that fighting computer-controlled opponents isn’t necessarily competitive.

    I’m currently playing the Mythos beta. Mythos is akin to Diablo 2, heavily instanced, with various means of cooperation; however, there’s still a competitive environment as players strive to earn Achievements, gain levels and improve their character builds, acquire wealth, and obtain the best equipment. Players, although competing with each other, engage in sustained collaboration through “preferred playing partners” (i.e., “Friends”) and through guilds. Players also trade goods and exchange crafting services, or help other players develop their characters to a point where they can begin to compete, whether in the aforementioned forms or in the PvP battlegrounds.

  20. [...] his experience on past titles (especially Star Wars Galaxies) Koster describes the enormous complexity of getting different systems in MMOs to work. The challenge is that while interdependent elements are complicated to test, they’re also [...]

  21. For Pirates in particular part of the issue is that the two interdependent systems attract players with different goals who don’t always enjoy the other sides world.

    For example, my wife really enjoys tradeskills and the economy of these games and was having a blast with the economy in Pirates. I enjoy going out and exploring the world and when I first looked at the game what I really wanted to do was be a trader and move goods from point A to point B. Sadly, there was no real reason to be a trader but early on I still enjoyed hauling my wife’s wares to ports to get the best prices while enjoying the scenery and chatting.

    But the other system, and the more important one in the devs and many players eyes, was PvP. As they started making adjustments to increase the amount of PvP available in the world I found it harder and harder to do what I enjoyed. At the same time my wife was finding it harder and harder to sell stuff since it was getting to be all but impossible to move goods from the port they were made in to a port with a larger market without risking losing the entire cargo. It only took a couple of nights of not being able to zone out of the current port without being jumped by groups of people higher level than we were to just make us move on.

    I doubt we were the only ones that felt this way or just kind of faded away from the game.

  22. In Runescape (and Toontown, I believe), they simply let you move from shard to shard, and users tend to self-load-balance by avoiding laggy shards! Maybe we overthink this problem. :)

    In our case we have world state that affects what players can do (or how much it costs them to do it) as well as rules to restrict players to one faction per shard. For many games what you’re describing would probably work just fine though. After all, it was good enough for Kesmai. :)

  23. But the other system, and the more important one in the devs and many players eyes, was PvP.

    Not to sound unsympathetic to your situation, but I’m of the opinion that participation in a player-driven economy (particularly the one in PotBS) *is* as much a form of PvP as shooting a cannon.

    And with all due respect, while attempting to ferry goods to a lucrative port, you were distressed to find your merchant ship(s) attacked on the high seas… in a game about pirates? Really??

  24. To be fair to Sisca, our promise was that an attentive PvE player could avoid PvP. Our players found a way to keep a port in PvP indefinitely (for all intents and purposes). The 1.3 patch introduces a change to reduce that problem, while encouraging PvP to move around the map more.

    Also, to respond to Philip Isles, yes, if we had more players, we wouldn’t be shutting down servers. However, unless your problem is WoW style rampages of users coming in, you have to make an estimate for server deployment, and we blew that estimate.

  25. “but I’m of the opinion that participation in a player-driven economy (particularly the one in PotBS) *is* as much a form of PvP as shooting a cannon.”

    Yes, you’re correct. The vast majority of our current systems and those coming down the pike could be interpreted in this way, though players don’t seem to think of it in those terms. From our point of view, what we’re really interested in is player-created content for other players. Typically, this has some sort of competition amongst players, and you could make the argument that it’s PvP. I think using that term, though, clouds the issue for the average user.

  26. @Sisca

    Pirates certainly isn’t the first game to create this sort of situation for players who don’t want to engage in PvP. It seems to me that this is one of the outcomes of creating a very “worldy” game, and represents an excellent opportunity to develop the kind of interdependent systems that Raph was talking about in his blog post.

    In EVE, for example, players that operate in the areas of space that have PvP without penalties, it would be impossible to transfer any sizable portion of goods from one location to another without being jumped by other ships. The only way to get around this is to operate as a group, to join a corporation (guild) or alliance (group of corporations). Other members of that group protect the traders as they move through hostile space because the good fortune of the trader is the good fortune of the group.

    The ties between these players, being guildmates, are much stronger than those of the dancers and combat players in SWG. You could however, hire a mercenary to guard your cargo as you transport it through space, and many crafting/trade only corporations do. In this situation the ties might not be as strong, but they still require you to learn something about the other players you deal with, otherwise you run the risk that they might decide to take your cargo for themselves.

    Overall, having this kind of “problem” allows the players to solve it in a very worldy manner, one that deepens the gameplay as a whole. You must rely on your other players not because the game tells you directly that you must, but because the laws of the world in conjunction with the other players dictate it. These systems form a deeper sense of community, much more so than if you were simply able to abstain from PvP altogether and act as though the other players didn’t exist.

  27. @Charles Ellis

    There are some pretty big problems with starting your design out from that stand point though. Not unsolvable ones, but they’re still very difficult ones. For these sort of worldy systems to work, you need the critical mass that Raph was talking about, and it’s very hard to get that if you’ve got a game that’s not easily accesible and welcoming to newer players. Forcing any sort of interdependce immediately makes a game less appealing to a new user, the stronger the tie being forced, the harder it is for a new player to get into the game. Weak ties might not provide too much of a stumbling block, as long as they’re somewhat asynchronous, but the more direct contact you need with someone, the harder it is to develop the very vital critical mass that you need for the game to even function.

    There’s competetion in the market today; someone who gets trapped at a port and can’t get their ship out to do what they want (move goods around) and has only the options of doing something they don’t really want to do (socialize heavily), or leave, is going to leave. Everyone time someone does that, you slip that much closer to having the entire system collapse. You’re struck with a number of server merges, and are left with a very heavily dedicated but small core of players. This isn’t that great a place to be in as you’re then on a downwards spiral to collapse. Depending on the size of your core and the initial investment, you can do okay with what you’ve got, but there’s very little room for growth.

    World-like games can be made, but they need to make sure that they provide an inviting, easy to get into beginning point. It’s okay to have high levels of interdependence, but there needs to be some sort of process to ease players into that interdependence. You need to be able to build your numbers up sufficiently that you can even begin to think about turning those numbers into a real community, if you can’t do that, you’re going to spiral downwards. You also need to be very careful in how open ended the community is too; there’s a strong potential for entrenched groups to not be all that welcoming to newer users, especially if there’s no benefit for them to be.

    But it’s really hard to talk about some of these things with any sort of real world examples, as every game that’s attempted worldy mechanics has had a host of other problems. SWG’s combat and quest systems left something to be desired and there were server stability issues, EVE’s combat system is about as fun for most people as watching paint dry – it really only shines when you’ve got a large group of players – and it’s got some severe accesibility issues making it hard for newer players to jump in. EVE’s success is mostly in spite of itself, though it does show that people do want something more. UO had… well… better not to go into UO’s problems, but UO was the only one that really forced people to deal with them so it’s hard to use it as any sort of example anyway. We’re not in the same world as when it came out. (And don’t get me wrong, I really loved UO, but it had many, many, many, issues.)

    As an aside: SWG’s combat probably would’ve worked if not for armor and stupid huge buffs. It was actually kinda fun early on before everyone discovered that you could end up with enough of a buff from dancers and doctors that you could completely negate any of the penalities for wearing armor and then some. It turned Fort Tusken from being a scary place that a large group would have trouble with into something soloable. It would’ve been nice if we beta testers had ever gotten far enough along the advancement ladders to figure that out so it could be corrected earlier on, but such is life. At least you guys managed to launch with a chat server that worked, I remember how much hell that thing was in Beta 2. (No offense to Raph and the launch team; I just wish we had been able to foresee more of the problems before the game had gotten that established. Early SWG was actually pretty decent, it just broke down after a certain point. By the time we ended up with bots handing out buffs left and right it was pretty much too late)

  28. Good summary. I did some reading research into social systems for business two years ago that uncovered strikingly similar conclusions but go a bit further:

    1. Businesses that continually bring on new players with weak ties to different domains prosper. Part of this is opportunity costs. Part of this is chaos (unpredicted differentiation) as the engine of evolution.

    2. Businesses that prospered more included core or primary partners with very strong ties to neighboring businesses (classic keiretsu).

    3. Businesses that prospered the most have the oldest near neighbor ties.

    Beating Dunbar numbers requires a layered set of ties because the primary requirement for sustainability is energy at a predictable rate, whereas for growth, bursty systems such as occur in the weak ties are required.

    This sounds simple to maintain, but it isn’t. Relationship management has to be balanced by relationship culling and acquisition. It isn’t simple when those relationships include both competitors and cooperators as Morgan points out.

  29. You can’t design interdependent systems in one pass. There’s an iterative design that has to happen before launch. Eolirin is right about ‘worldy’ games tending to be unaccessible to new players and as a server ages, this problem only becomes more intense. That said, there are ways to solve the problems with a ‘worldy’ type game.

    I’d start by giving users the ability to belong to more than one group of players. The idea that I can only be a member of a single guild in a game without creating another character is an artificial barrier to emergent game play and at times I think it hampers retention when the group dies and takes all of its members with it.

    More so than this, these groups need to be recognized in game and have a purpose. A minimum scaffolding needs to be setup so that there is something there for the players to build upon. Cities need to have meaning that is not derived from other player-dependent systems. Perhaps a player run city can become a starting location on your map for newbies. Maybe a player run city has control over a specific piece of land. Is there governance powers granted to the controlling player-run city? How about being able to belong to a crafting guild, an adventuring guild and part of a larger player run city? I think it is a good goal to encourage the weaker-tie groups to form but you have to facilitate them to some degree in the game in order to formalize the basic ties you need to support interdependent game systems.

    Lastly, the veteran experience has to tie into the newbie experience in meaningful ways to ensure that these weak-ties are continually reborn. Weaker ties break more easily so the game needs to incent players to rebuild them. Connect this with the weak-tie group based goals and the whole system should present a feedback loop that helps sustain the ‘worldy’ game. Things like control of land being a function of the population size of your city. Perhaps your crafting guild earns titles based on the number of mentored players. There’s a whole host of ways that one can encourage veterans to interract and the possibilities open up dramatically when groups can have goals within your gameplay.

    I could go on an on about how to solve ‘worldy’ game issues and there are always exceptions to every proposed solution, so solve is probably too strong of a word. Facilitate is a better word because when you’re talking about player driven anything, it’s more like herding sheep than it is building a widget. Needless to say complex psychology-based game design is very scary from a risk/reward investment scenario, especially as the $$$ from today’s MMO’s continue to climb.

  30. I’m Sisca’s spouse, and the economy-minded carebear. I actually really enjoyed Pirates, and I want to give it another try (we’re on station access anyway, so doesn’t cost us anything). We had a multi-pronged issue: We were Spanish, on Bonny (great server, small populations, dying Spain). Our primary economic ports were perma-locked in pvp, an unintentional situation as Russel mentioned above. Further, as our non-econ avatars hit the mid-30s, we realized we couldn’t even level effectively, as the level-appropriate hunting grounds were *also* permalocked.

    I could actually have moved all but about 3 of our production structures to one port, and thus done all my building/buying/selling there, and never set foot outside of Havana. But that rather eliminated the whole fun of the challenge involved in ‘can I get there and sell to the pirates’. I didn’t mind having to work for it — I did mind the realization that 1) my port could be perma-red, 2) due to a bug, gankers could sit right at my zone-out and keep me from zoning back in, and 3) stealth was a bit unbalanced, such that to be effective one’s trader really should level to 50, which was not what I had anticipated (I’m not really that inclined to race to level-cap, and hated feeling forced to do so. Especially with my economic, not military, avatar).

    I actually agree that economic activity should be a contributor to pvp; the irony is — Freetraders were the most-favorite target for sinking (cause, hey, we have the loot!) but the truth is what we sold, where, didn’t impact nation balance *unless* we sold directly rather then on the auction house, because buyers go to where the goods are, and we can’t prevent the British, say, from buying Spanish goods. And because the economy driven unrest missions were unbalancing (see econ-bomb) they were, rightly, adjusted, thus furthering limiting the impact that we could make.

    I’m still leaning towards trying again, because I love the concept, and I’m in a great society, but I am having a lot of fun in my primary game right now (EQ2) so will probably wait a few months to see how things shake out. I do hope the game survives though!

  31. @hanshot “And with all due respect, while attempting to ferry goods to a lucrative port, you were distressed to find your merchant ship(s) attacked on the high seas… in a game about pirates? Really??”

    You know, neither of us were that surprised that in a merchant ship we’re going to be popular targets. Here’s what I hate though — it’s not like I’d get jumped by a single person in a similar-leveled ship, where hey, I at least had a shot. No, I’d get jumped by a group of 50s who had ignored that group of 45s (who might at least be an interesting pvp fight) in favor of my ship, and the cargo they can’t actually carry. At least on my server they usually accepted surrenders, but that’s far from a given.

  32. These sorts of weak tie social designs are, to my mind, the biggest side effect of “worldy” MMO design, and are the part that years and years afterward makes people say “man, that game had a community like none other.”

    Yeah, 2-1/2 years later I’m back on StarSider. SS is in the midst of a population explosion with returning vets and server transfer migrants. The community has hardened in some ways. They do not seem to be putting up with drama llamas I’ve ranted about on this board. This does make it a little harder to ‘break in’ to the community, as folks will want to see you’re a stable sort that can be RPd with pleasantly. However, if your introduce yourself to the core community (starsidergalaxy.com), be seen around, and have some interesting aspects of your personality that can be tied into, you’ll usually find yourself swept into an adventure within a few weeks.

    Interesting that in RP, you find the same tie issue. Folks that have ‘ironclad’ characters with no weaknesses, bland ‘seen it 1000 times’ bio entries (rebel terrorists murdered my innocent civilian parents when they bombed our peaceful little city… o.0) aren’t going to get the same interaction as folks with interesting quirks and personality blind spots that make them dependant on a group of trusted associates to compensate for. A room full of ‘uber’ RPers is an invitation to have an argument about who is metagaming since they can all dodge blaster bolts like a star-wars version of Neo. A room full of imperfect screw-ups who have nowhere close to a silver tongue might find some conflict ICly, but are probably enjoying it immensely as the player behind the character.

  33. HI Loredena,

    With the higher density of players, we’re starting to see behaviors we expected to see earlier on. Relating it to your issue, my wife (who plays a Freetrader) wanted to get into a PvP area, and there were groups offering a paid escort service to take her safely into the port. These are things we expected to happen much earlier on, but with the lower density, there weren’t enough customers to keep people incented to do this.

  34. And with all due respect, while attempting to ferry goods to a lucrative port, you were distressed to find your merchant ship(s) attacked on the high seas… in a game about pirates? Really??

    Not at all, I would have found that an interesting challenge. What I found distressing was that almost 3/4′s of the map was in some sort of PvP so I couldn’t even just go off and level if I didn’t feel like facing that particular challenge.

    I think it boils down to the fact that I felt like I had no control over how I played the game. One of the things I liked about the game early on was that the PvP areas were few and far between and I could choose to go out of my way to avoid them or I could risk the circle if I felt up to the challenge. Later on, after some of the changes to improve the PvP game I felt like that choice was taken away from me.

    That said I’m not really knocking Pirates as a game, I think they have some interesting concepts. I will probably log back in in the near future to see if the server merges have tweaked the game back to something that fits my style better. But even if they haven’t and I find it’s still not my cup of tea I can still say it’s a good game with a passionate developer and I’m glad it’s there. I think there need to be more games out there trying new and different things, willing to accept their niche and not trying to be the next WoW.

  35. I think there need to be more games out there trying new and different things, willing to accept their niche and not trying to be the next WoW.

    Not long ago there was a time when 400,000 subscriptions was king of the hill and made for a profitable game as well unless someone somewhow wants to tell me that EQ/UO/SWG didn’t return their investors money. Many look at the success of WoW and want to be that game only to miss out on a very successful and profitable couple hundred thousand subscription game idea.

  36. my wife was finding it harder and harder to sell stuff since it was getting to be all but impossible to move goods from the port they were made in to a port with a larger market without risking losing the entire cargo.

    This sort of thing begs for player escorts and caravan guards. This is a fun NPC-driven adventure, but nobody ever wants to do this if it’s all players. Personally, I can’t imagine how it could be fun, or if it should be attempted at all.

  37. @Derek

    Oh, it’s quite possible to maintain profitability even with a relatively low amount of subs… but you can only really do that if you don’t over spend on the initial dev costs. UO, EQ, and SWG may have returned on their investment, but they also didn’t launch with something like an 80 million dollar start up cost. WoW would not have been all that profitable with 400,000 subs. But even if you keep the budget down, most MMOGs are not instantly profitable either as far as I know. Because of the sub fees, dev costs are recouped over time, not all at once. This is a strength long term, but it also means that if you flub your launch bad enough you may be in a tight spot since you don’t have immediate incoming profits. So it’s hard to get more “indie” companies into the game, since the barrier to entry is so high. Big companies like Big money, and little companies that would be more prone to innovate simply can’t afford to try.

  38. Oops, hit send too soon. Also wanted to respond to Slyfeind.

    I dunno, Russell’s comment seems to indicate that there is a decent amount of that going on, even without a formal system for it.

    I know Guild Wars has or had (not sure how much the dynamic has changed as the player base matured) lots of people who’ll be more than willing to escort players through dangerous zones so that they can get to certain outposts where they can get skills or unique armor. Runners were pretty common back before the first “expansion”, and there wasn’t even any cargo hauling or pvp involved either. Just a bunch of players running from point A to point B so they can get to certain bits of content faster. And people would pay for it, and there was enough of a market that some people made a bit of a profession out of it.

  39. The problem is, it doesn’t take long before folks figure out that a protection racket is a lucrative endeavor. On some level you’re still left with players imposing a sort of tax on shipping with brute force as the enforcement tool rather than some kind of elective governance. If a port has tarrifs, I can figure that into the cost of business. Its far harder to guess what the troll at the bridge into town is charging today (I use the term in an older fairy tale sense, not the more modern internet slang :9).

  40. @Sisca & Loredena

    Believe it or not, I do feel for you. I hope I didn’t come across as inordinately callous.

    I saw the foreshadowing of what you experienced during Pirate’s beta. I’m sorry to say it was enough to put me off the game. I’m just not a fan of Open PvP environments (I learned that the hard way during my foray into Lineage II). Perhaps I just don’t have the patience for it; whenever I start to feel compelled to provide content for the amusement of others — at my own expense — that’s generally when I move on to greener pastures.

    In fairness to PotBS, I really did appreciate the dedication and hard work that obviously went into it. There’s a lot of neat things in that game, and I loved the hands-on approach and candor the developers give on their forums. I just don’t see how they could go much further to appease my “carebear” sensibilities without either compromising the game’s vision or alienating their die-hard “phallus versus phallus” enthusiasts. :)

  41. @hanshotfirst
    I didn’t take offense – you were a little sarcastic maybe, but I’m good with that. I really love the core of the game, but I’m too much of a carebear at heart to truly enjoy open pvp myself, much as I tried to make it work for me.

    The biggest problem I see for PotBS is this: those who truly enjoy the economy, but not the pvp, find themselves the sheep to the ravening wolves. The pvpers who really enjoy pvp, but dislike the economy, either must play the econ anyway, or target the economy players in pvp (because that’s where the money is!). If they enjoy ganking, well, that’s a short term win for them, but a long term loss, as the gankees throw up their hands in disgust and leave. If they’d rather have a fair fight, it’s not even a short-term win.

    Now, I know the devs are working hard to balance that — they are adding more cash flow into the equation on the pvp side (so less need to focus on rich targets) and adding reasons for the pve-ers to buy what the pvp-ers produce (marks of victory).

    @Russell I love that the increased populations are leading to escort services, and perhaps carrier services will come in as well. I know that when I was really feeling the pain of trying to move even raw materials due to the red circles, I could have asked for an escort. But, populations being what they were, if there were only 3 on in my society, and 10 on in my nation, I hated to ask them to stop building contention to defend a port so I could move goods around.

  42. I think it boils down to the fact that I felt like I had no control over how I played the game.

    This, I think, is the number one issue with strong versus weak ties and interdependant systems. I think there is a direct and natural connection between the loss of control that PvP represents, and the loss of control that occurs when a player is put at the mercy of other players through other, less agressive mechanisms.

    Take, for example, the severe interdependencies in the crafting system EQ2 launched with. For a time, Alchemists had all other crafters at their mercy due to being the only ones able to produce a set of needed crafting reagents. Just as a PvPer may keep me from adventuring by killing and corpse-camping, here I would be kept from crafting by not having access to a player-made component. (For those who weren’t there originally, the crafing system was such that nearly all recipes were interdependent between exclusive choices of crafting class, so there was effectively not an option to craft items that did not require these reagents.)

    Likewise, “You need a guild” puts you at the mercy of said guilds, or at least takes control away from the player. They can’t follow their own motivations; they have to seek a guild. Naturally, players that are inherently motivated to seek a guild will not see the requirement as an issue. This is true whether it’s “You need a guild” or “You need to know a crafter” or “You need to engage in PvP a certain number of times”. There’s an abstract equivalency here, that I think is reflected in the similarity of experience of the barriers to smooth / immersive play that one encounters.

    Interdependency and forced forming of Strong Ties is specifically that sort of problem situation. Or rather, people inherently motivated toward the activity do not perceive it as problematic, but unless you’re okay, by design, with self-selection of that sort (such as designing a game specifically to be a PvP game and thus not caring about attracting or retaining non-PvPers) then it needs to be addressed. Requiring weaker ties and/or asynchronous ties (or both) lowers how high of a barrier there is, the downside being that the barrier works both ways; the high barrier makes people more hesitant to leave than the low one.

    Er, at least, that’s my two cents. I need some sort of shoulder-mounted pet that can read what I type and warn me when I’m ranting. :P

  43. @Peter

    Actually, the *really* strong ties probably aren’t that effective in keeping people around long term. Yes, it may stave off player loss for a while, but when it happens, the entire group goes, not just the individual. I believe Raph has commented on this before: the strongest ties leave the bounds of the game itself; you cannot rely on them. So there’s an inherent problem with that. Weak ties are probably more effective long term since they foster a sense of community, but it’s a community that has replaceable members. Since people can come and go more easily with weaker ties, you don’t get huge drop offs when, say, a guild collapses. You obviously don’t want to make it hard to make strong ties, but you absolutely need to support weak ties if you want to foster a sense of community across the game.

  44. “@Russell I love that the increased populations are leading to escort services, and perhaps carrier services will come in as well. I know that when I was really feeling the pain of trying to move even raw materials due to the red circles, I could have asked for an escort.”

    Yep. It’s a delicate balancing act that worked really well in beta, and got drunk and stumbled into traffic in release. On Tuesday we release the first stage of fixing this, which is to give ports a time of immunity after they come out of PvP. It helps the PvE people for obvious reasons, and it helps the PvP guys by incenting them to go after different ports and have different experiences.

  45. “In fairness to PotBS, I really did appreciate the dedication and hard work that obviously went into it. There’s a lot of neat things in that game, and I loved the hands-on approach and candor the developers give on their forums. I just don’t see how they could go much further to appease my “carebear” sensibilities without either compromising the game’s vision or alienating their die-hard “phallus versus phallus” enthusiasts.”

    First, thanks! And second, check back in around 1.5 and let us know what you think, we should have a much better balance by then.

  46. @Eolirin,

    I know that all too well. I’m an indie trying to get a worldy game off the ground and I’ve been at it for a few years now. We’ve spoken with so much Big Money and been turned down left and right. I won’t get into a sob story about it but I’ve learned the lesson you speak of the hard way. Unfortunately, I’m married to the idea we’ve created and I’m at the point where I’ll do whatever it takes to get the thing developed. In the end I hold out hope that it will happen but as time moves on… Nah, I refuse to believe that we’re doomed to WoW clones for the rest of our waking days. That just seems rather bland to me and I can’t for the life of me give up on the idea that the MMO medium hasn’t yet begun to show its full potential. WoW’s nice but there has to be more and I’m surprised that with all this recession talk and games making 30%+ growth year over year that we haven’t seen increased funding of games. It’s like a whole segment of financial markets has yet to realize that games are an adult pastime and not just something their kids play. I hold out hope for games like PotBS and Eve because should any of them break a million subs, we’ll finally see the financial folks pay attention to projects not WoW.

  47. I don’t think we’re doomed Derek… I just think they won’t be nearly as pretty or as big in scope. Scale stuff down to a core that can be built on, get those 200k users so you have some stable income, and start from there. Even if you have to cut half your features, if you can get to the point where you can sell it as a cheap investment, and you can get some active return on it, you can move to adding that stuff back in later. And if you can get your concept to work with something like Metaplace, so much the better. The barrier for entry there is much lower. You have to give up something to get something though. It’s unfortunate. The people most able to take risks are the people least likely to do so.

  48. @Derek

    You know, I remember seeing the same “follow the leader” pattern with EQ1, how a lot of games were either mangled to be more Everquest-y, or dropped altogether in favor of clone products (I mean sheesh, remember AC2? Bad mojo.). Shame that it’s now a “WoW or Nothing” philosophy; you’d think business majors would know about expanding a market and establishing new product space, but apparently not. In other words, you have my sympathy and I’d really love to see you make it.

    @Eolirin

    Personally, I think the strong ties work both ways: it tends to make people behave as a group, which increases their inertia either way. If the group starts to leave, then sure, everyone goes. But how many folks still play a game *only* because of the people they know? The “I would quit, but then I’d never see these folks again” crowd? I don’t think that makes the players more reliable (in the aggregate), but rather that it does make individuals more hesitant to leave (and specifically to the extent that leaving would mean the breaking or diminishing of those strong ties).

    Maybe it would be better to say that strong ties mitigate the fickle nature of the individual, but at the cost of reducing the stochasticity of the aggregate?

  49. Peter, that’s why I said you don’t want to make it hard to form strong ties, but you also don’t want to rely on them either. Strong ties cannot be formed in large enough aggregates that you end up with a stable community. They also tend to be much more insular than weak ties. Weak ties can upgrade too of course, which makes them a much better thing to develop in. So while everything you’re saying is indeed quite accurate, it missed my point, which is that you really need to foster the weak ones more than you need to worry about the strong ones. You get a lot of benefits for having institutionalized weak ties, and almost no benefits for attempting to institutionalize strong ones (not to mention that you almost always fail to pull that off well anyway; strong ties are *hard* to force). Weak ties often turn into strong ties too, so there’s no real need to bother trying to cater to that specifically either.

  50. Ah. Sorry for misunderstanding you.

    Also, I agree, I hate it when I’m forced to group… er, I mean, forge strong ties to random strangers. :P

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