Massively Overthinking: Is ‘layering’ tech actually MMO community poison?

Well, maybe this part.

MOP reader ACuriousTanuki left a brilliant comment on a Palia article earlier this month that I thought deserved more discussion. Tanuki wondered about how the game reconcile instancing and layering with its plans for community, given similar situations in World of Warcraft where layering ensures that we seldom meet the same players twice. This isn’t the case for WoW Classic, however.

“Within a few sessions of Classic, I’d crossed paths with several players frequently enough to know their name, race, class, and in a couple instances even their professions. This wasn’t through forced grouping or any in-game mechanic, it was a natural consequence of organically encountering these players multiple times as I played through early zones. The part that stood out to me was how much I (as someone usually reserved in social settings) actually wanted to reach out and chat with these players. It occurred to me that this sense of organic recognition was an important first step to building a relationship with another player, and to building a broader sense of community. The layering in Modern WoW undermines this foundational process for social development by juggling players across layers and instances, preventing the repeated natural encounters that build this early sense of recognition. Instead it just repeatedly groups you with new sets of strangers and hopes that you’ll overcome any social barriers by yourself.”

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to tackle this because ACuriousTanuki made me wonder whether this isn’t a far bigger issue than everyone’s favorite whipping boy (LFG tools), at least in some MMOs. Is “layering” technology actually MMO community poison? Are there MMOs where it offers more than it takes away? Or are we missing something bigger here?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m going to be a little more extreme than I usually am say yes, layering is MMO community poison. A lot of the things that made early MMOs stand out from other games – online, multiplayer games with persistent power-effecting-stats that carry over in environments not completely dominated by combat or scoreboards – clearly work in smaller online games these days. But persistent worlds are something I just can’t see happening in mainstream Monster Hunter or even Pokemon games, as much as I’d love them (though the former has had Asia-exclusive MMOs).

While layering is a good crowd management tool and can help treasure hunters find rare spawns, it also fractures the community. It’s also why I liked how many early MMOs, such as the Asheron’s Call series and Horizons/Istaria, would have pockets of high-level content mixed with low-level content. While there certainly were areas that were meant more for high levels, low levels could still often wander into something that was clearly meant for them to return to one day.

Similarly, and again for both of these games, having high-level mobs that wander also created not only a sense of realism, but gave players challenges to come together as a community or request help from higher level friends. There were glimpses of this in World of Warcraft with its outdoor raid bosses, but like much of WoW, they were very carefully crafted and curated so as not to impede on the player too much. I know not everyone will agree with me, but I still feel as though a player who is in an MMO that dislikes an ever-changing world might do better in smaller-scale online games that are more mechanical games than virtual worlds.

I’d much rather have a larger map with randomly generated content than a smaller one with dozens of copies. I think we can see some of the benefits from older games, like EVE and even Darkfall, where large maps can help spread the player base out but still result in strong player communities, even when said communities may be at war with each other. I even remember when people I’d fight against would become allies when one of us would remember guild tags didn’t dictate who that person was, just their social circle. The fluidity of relationships that grow and even get severed in a large virtual world is probably why an old game like EVE still makes a name for itself in the genre while so many newer raid/mechanic heavy MMOs die out.

MMOs should work better as virtual worlds with game mechanics than game mechanics with lore-based virtual worlds that come into the picture as the designers need it, and the big thing about a virtual world is its in-game community. Smaller online games are great for bringing friends into virtual worlds, but don’t often feel great for building in-game communities. MMOs have been a great way to meet people to play with, but as technology is often used to break us up (aside from MMOARGs which, with the exception of spoofers, exist in the physical world), the genre’s community-building aspects feel more about progress-based communities unless you’re a roleplayer.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m a bit skeptical here, but that’s probably because I long since quit WoW Retail and don’t think the problem is quite as prevalent in other MMOs that aren’t as invested in hiding their playerbase numbers and avoiding merges. But I can definitely see how it’s become a problem in a game like WoW. On the other hand, empty zones are an even bigger problem, one that layering solves in a quiet and seamless way. I suspect layering helps more than it hurts, but it doesn’t actually resolve the underlying problem and therefore shouldn’t be blamed for it.

But… I will say that I’ve had a similar experience lately in SWG Legends as I’ve been working on the Entertainer quests in Bespin (or was, prior to the nerfs). I see the same people every day; we’re creatures of habit, I suppose, and even though it’s a really big cantina, people keep setting up shop in the same corners night after night, and I definitely feel that ambient community. But I also felt the ambient community in games like Guild Wars 1 and City of Heroes, which both had a sort of proto-layering tech built in for managing player load. Regardless, I hope Palia has a solid plan because what the devs have said about how they’re going to make sure you can keep finding your friends doesn’t really address how you’ll find a community in the social tiers outside your friends.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I don’t know that layering is community poison so much as community spoiled milk. What do I mean by that? Basically, these systems can be thrown out by the player. You can be sociable in a PUG or with randos in the open world. You don’t need to drink that spoiled milk. Toss it.

That sort of mitigates the problem but it doesn’t really remove it, of course. For that to be done, it’s up to developers to actually build a sandbox that encourages something other than competition. I think back to Steven Sharif’s railing against people not socializing in an open sandbox MMORPG in his recent AMA as if it’s a fault of the player and not the fault of devs making rules-light lands. You can’t honestly expect people to be on their best digital behavior unless there are actual controls or systems that actively reward social activity. Even if it’ s something as simple as an actual flagging system.

These solutions have been crafted already. And layering is just a symptom of a larger disease; specifically, an acute case of developer amnesia.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’d never really thought about layering from a community stand point, but it does seem to add an additional layer of distance between players.

It’s been close to 15 years since I played FFXI, but I still remember the character who remained in the kneeling position by the shops vividly. He wore a pumpkin head and was always there, like a fixture of the landscape. I even remember when he ran to the trading post one day. It was like the whole map was involved, like a celebrity was moving amongst us. While I don’t get heavily involved in these things usually, the fact that I remember that so well after all these years says something. Most modern games would auto log the player out or roll the layer down after its population got low enough to move players to one with more activity.

So I suppose I can agree with Tanuki. Layering does take something away.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I find this whole perspective completely bizarre. Firstly, it has been my experience that it is extremely rare to make any meaningful connections simply by bumping into people in the game world. Most of the time, I think people tend to play with existing friends, rather than trying to make new friends while adventuring. That’s even more true now that we have such robust out of game social media platforms, like Discord.

Secondly, layering and instancing don’t prevent making connections with other players. You’re still surrounded by other people, just maybe slightly less. There’s still nothing stopping you from adding someone to your friends list after completing a group quest with them. You’re still a part of the game’s larger community; you’re just not interacting with all of them at once. Which has always been the the case. Servers and even the distance of in-game geography have always served to spread out the playerbase.

Third, I’d like to point out both modern and classic WoW use layering, so with all due respect to the commenter, if they are noticing a difference between the two, it’s probably a matter of perception or culture rather than the tech. If both versions of the game use the same layering technology, it’s not the fault of layering if you find one more social than the other.

Finally, even if we do assume that layering is actually a problem, I ask what you suggest as an alternative? Layering wasn’t added for no reason. It exists to solve a technological problem — that of there being more players than there is space on the servers. What would you do instead? Of course it’s easy to say they should simply make the servers able to handle larger crowds, but if that was a viable option, the developers would have done that. And I don’t think anyone views hours-long queues and constant server crashes as a good alternative.

Even if it was technically feasible to cram everyone onto a single server with no technical issues, I don’t think that would make for a good game experience. Imagine a thousand players all crammed into Northshire Valley trying to kill the same kobolds. It would be miserable, even if the servers ran perfectly. You wouldn’t be able to see the land for all the players.

At worst, layering is a necessary evil, but I’m not convinced it’s an “evil” at all.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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