The Daily Grind: How many people should an MMO be designed for?

Too little.

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about tabletop games and designed sizes. That sounds a bit complex, but it really isn’t; it’s just about how many people are expected to be playing a given tabletop game. Is the game designed for groups of four people? Five? Three? It’s variable, and it has a pretty big impact on how the game’s adventures, abilities, and so forth are written.

Of course, MMOs are the same way. Not in terms of group size, but in terms of how many people are expected to be around at any given time. If you have a game where having a house is expected but there aren’t enough houses for people to actually own, you have too many people for the game you designed. (ArcheAge and Final Fantasy XIV, I’m looking in your direction.) On the other hand, if you design your game to be sustained on the 1% of the population serving as hardcore raiders and that 1% isn’t enough for a full raid group, you have too few people for the game you designed. (This is also known as pulling a WildStar.)

It’s hard to know how many people are playing a given game at this point, of course, because basically no game studio gives out firm numbers any longer, even World of Warcraft. But today, rather than speculating about sizes, we’re going to take a slightly different tack. How many people should an MMO be designed for? How many people should be on a single server or data center (or instance of the world for single-shard games), and which games do the best job of hitting that target?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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4 years ago

I think the question is better the other way around: how few people should a MMO still be fun with and economically sustainable (I mean real world for the company AND ingame). There is this odd idea that MMO’s need to have several 1000 player actively playing plus scale then for loads more. And everything is designed nomadically (zones for levels and you are supposed to leave a zone and move on to the next as there is no more content in that zone) – and that forces that the playerbase covers all levels so newbies are not feeling isolated or worseless. This linear thinking is what in my opinion kills them all.
Nothing worse than a MMO that has everyone scratching on the level cap and in the last few zones and new content is for those high level players and the only way of helping to bring in new customers to compensate for loss of burned out players is … bonus xp and accelerated leveling or free high level chars. Which means you throw away ALL THAT CONTENT made in lower levels.
Ridiculously short sighted in my opinion, might come from historic perspectives of offline single player RPG’s: you always move on,

In my opinion a MMO should be designed so that 100 concurrent player can sustain its ingame economy and all content types. That means essentially doing what ESO did: no levels or it all scales to everyone. Equipment can change but that isn’t the point, content is and beating the content is. Crafting would rely on resources that ideally are combined for stats (alloys etc) as Crowfall seems to aim for, so there is no such thing as “useless/outlevelled” resources. Everything retains its value and the thing is actually sustainable by any level of player or gatherer.
And then it should be able to scale by area (dungeon copies, ideally phased entry), instanced/phased housing and people in groups should be able to port to each other to alleviate issues if the landmass is actually too large for the small concurrent player base left over at some time in the game’s life cycle but it can be viable still as a game and be revived by patches or new content or such.
Rewards must come from any type of content, there can’t be a linear progression to herd people or you naturally over the maturation of a MMO (for some that can be unfortunately rather short, adoption is a big risk) creating that abyss between newbies who don’t feel connected anymore and “endgame” player.

But adding land as “progression rail” is simply deadly as is tiers of resources or progression content or level based areas.

Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross
4 years ago

+1. Make it so the game’s fun enough for, say, 2 people, but bringing a 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc also feels “fun.” I don’t specifically need raids, but if you’re going to do them, don’t worry about them as a competitive sport (unless you want to make that an option for achievement hunters).

Darkfall is actually an interesting example of this. It was fun for me to break into an enemy base and harvest their ore. It was more fun if a few people came with me. If my whole guild came, we could move from simply harvesting their ore secretly to destroying some property. When on the reverse side of this, it was a good way to recall guidlies to defend what was ours and to investigate where the enemies were holding up. Sometimes it turned into a zerg war, but other times (since we didn’t have any “faction language” to deal with) we were able to recruit people or strike a deal. That’s supposed to be a strength of the genre.

The problem, however, was balancing that with the huge world with limited fast travel (for the average player not abusing bugged mobs ;P ). Once they split the server and their fan base, you could feel how empty the world was. I love non-instanced worlds with little fast travel in theory, but in practice, it can be depressing and tedious. It’s why smaller, instanced games keep catching my attention.

Kickstarter Donor
4 years ago

Seems a lot are designed for a single solo player these days.

4 years ago

There is no magic number. Look at Firefall. It was an mmo. The limit per ‘server’ was around 80-100 people. But they hid it well with an open map, and easy to find friends.

Most would call that lobby based just on the number. But you can never base an mmo on the number of players in the game world simultaneously solely.

I base it off of persistence of characters. And how accessible players are to other players.

There is absolutely 0 need for 1000 players to be around me in any game, period.

Kickstarter Donor
Rees Racer
4 years ago

If I had an idea for an MMO (and many of us have probably thought about it, really). ideally it would conform to my artistic vision first and foremost. A single, seamless world on one server for every player would be next. Technical requirements would limit the size, there is no question, presently.

Then, if all goes well, and the server fills up, then it does. At some point, there would not only be a queue to get into the game proper, but also a wait-list to purchase the game at all. If players are idle in-game for more than a half-hour, they get the boot. If players do not log into the game at all for more than a month, then they must pay a $1 re-application fee in order to play again.

The game will expand the player-base when the technology and cost reasonable converge to a point where it makes any sort of business sense. This would understandably frustrate many if the game became popular enough, but would also mean the integrity of the game’s world remains intact for those committed to playing.

4 years ago

As others have stated, it entirely depends upon the game’s features.

That said, to be classified as an MMO, it needs to be able to handle 250+ players within the same game world (Richard Garriott and Raph Kosters definition from 20 years ago), so that should be your starting point. I would personally say you want to aim to have a minimum of 500 online within your game world at any time, preferably 1000+.

To achieve 1000 online, you probably want a server that can handle 10,000 active accounts.

But, look at the features. Do you want endgame raids in your game? Most devs that release stats show that only 10-15% of players engage in endgame raiding. So, if you have 1000 online, thats only 100-150 raiders. Split those up by class / role, gear levels, whether they already have locks and stuff……yeh, very quickly you end up with a very small pool of players.

PvP? Again, devs that release stats show 10-20% of their playerbase participate in PvP (yup, its more than raiding), so 100-200 pvpers? That is OK if all there is is open world pvp limited to a few zones, but if there are lots of zones, plus instanced arenas…..again, very quickly you end up with a small pool of players.

So, if you are sticking typical MMORPG mechanics that massively segregate the playerbase (by levels, gear, class, roles) then you need a very large server playerbase in order to support even small scale group activities. If you get rid of those segregation mechanics, then more people can play together so you can get away with a smaller server playerbase.

4 years ago
Reply to  Anstalt

If you get rid of those segregation mechanics, then more people can play together so you can get away with a smaller server playerbase.

Much of the allure of PvP not-quite-MMO games that focus on instanced fights with matchmaking is this. They remove all, or nearly all, mechanics that segregate players, which allows players to freely play with each other and find matches far more easily than when playing PvP in a similarly popular MMO.

This, BTW, is part of the reason I usually avoid PvP in MMOs even when the PvP is to my liking. Why bother with developing a PvP character, gearing up, etc, when I can just launch some arena PvP game where I already start at an even footing with everyone else, no grind involved?

4 years ago

I don’t think there’s a clear-cut number.

Rather, it’s about when players start butting heads just for being in the same space. When too many players start to resent the presence of others there is clearly more players than the current game design can accommodate, and thus either the number of players needs to be reduced or the design needs to be changed.

The key for changing the design to accommodate more players in the same space is to reduce competition and conflict between players; things like per-player gathering nodes, instanced housing, loot that rewards individual players as much for a group kill as if the player had soloed the same monster, and so on. It’s not applicable for every kind of game (MMOs driven by player conflict, in particular, are not a good match for those), but for other games this can change meeting someone else from irritating to gleeful.

Simply increasing the play area can work too, but this means a lower chance of meeting other players, longer travel times (which means players less willing to join anyone that isn’t already close to them), and makes the servers feel even more barren when the game’s population starts to decline.

4 years ago

I think you have to build your game first (at least conceptually) and then design your servers around that. If you start with the idea that “we’re doing megaservers!” and then build a game like FFXIV, you f***d up. It’s better to build your game and then say “OK, what server structure fits this best?”.

That said, the answer to the question depends on the game. BDO needs tons of people in the same server because of how much there is to do. FFXIV can get away with fewer because there’s so much less to do. Just depends on the game.

Oleg Chebeneev
4 years ago

Im a strong believer that future MMOs aka virtual worlds should not be separated by servers and have one megaserver like in EVE Online where everyone can meet anyone. And worlds should be big enough to fit in millions or there should be tech like in Star Citizen to help deal with overpopulation.
I also dont like instances and group number limitations. Virtual worlds should be as much close to real world as possible.

Patreon Donor
4 years ago

An MMO should be able to support thousands per server, with hundreds playing at the same time in open world zones. Yes I said per server, yes I prefer oldschool servers over the one server / megaserver thing. But really, a game that lags or causes FPS to go into single digits when over 20 people are nearby is a pitiful excuse for an MMO and should take a look at Camelot Unchained’s approach to numbers of people.