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:
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.