Vague Patch Notes: Playerbase size doesn’t have to be everything in MMOs

With special guest appearance by the janitor problem

    
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Big.

I’m already worried about Crowfall. Not because of personal experiences, mind you; I haven’t yet played it or anything, and all I have to go by are Andrew’s anecdotal experiences in the game. But those anecdotal experiences reminded me of a thing that happens an awful lot with new MMOs, and that’s when the designers start by developing around a certain critical mass of players materializing in the game who all happily want to perform the roles that need performing within the game’s overarching economy.

Not that this is unique to Crowfall, exactly, or any MMO. But there’s a certain problem of assuming certain playerbases that persistently shows up in a lot of new MMOs. You see it any time a game boasts about having, say, 100v100 PvP modes, or 40-player raids, or… you know, a lot of size-based things. And so today we should talk about this and what I like to call the janitor problem. They’re all connected.

Any time I see a game boasting about the size of the PvP matches it can support, my eye immediately gets a little twitch.

Size is a metric that gets used a lot for these things. It’s impressive to say that, say, your game is capable of fielding 200 players in the same area at any given time. Assuming that your game can actually do that and manage things so that it doesn’t become a laggy nightmare, hey, great work! You did something that I have absolutely no doubt was technically very hard to do.

Quick question, though – what happens when only 30 people show up? Because that’s going to happen sometimes. Does that mode just not happen? Is there no way to scale it up or down? If so, people are going to stop trying to participate in that mode pretty quickly. That, in turn, makes it less likely that people will show up for it again. Pretty soon you’re looking at a game that was designed around a 200-person match no one ever actually gets to play.

Or a game that’s shut down entirely because you put all of your eggs in that massive player count on the same battlefield. And that’s not an ideal situation for anyone because clearly some technical skill went into the game in the first place. And “fewer games” is a bad situation, full stop.

So gross.

Every MMO has to deal with some degree of population imbalance. In some games, this is an inconvenient thing and a notable problem, but not devastating. While you’re definitely going to have a harder time finding progression raid groups right now in World of Warcraft as an Alliance player rather than a Horde player, the game doesn’t need that to be equal. It’s not a requirement for everyone.

But sometimes, it becomes a problem. That’s where we run into the janitor problem, which is simply understood by a genre exercise: In a superhero universe, there are far more janitors than superheroes.

We know that intellectually, of course. Assuming the story takes place in something resembling the real world, most of the time you need more of the former than the latter. But the problem is that if you give people the choice, far more of them are going to pick “superhero” over “janitor.” And this is also pretty understandable. Fighting off hordes of androids looks way cooler than refilling paper towels in the second floor bathroom.

Now, what happens when you get to pick what you want to be but you still have a world structured around needing more janitors than it does superheroes?

Obviously, the example here is intentionally lopsided. If the game is structured so that you need, say, one crafter for every five people who have no interest in ever crafting anything, that’s not actually an insane ratio, and it’s not like asking people to choose between fighting supervillains or refilling paper towels. But it is very possible for that ratio to get skewed in either direction. You might wind up attracting so many crafters that, well, there are mostly people who craft things and a minority of people who want to fight. Or maybe you have fewer crafters attracted to the title than you need to keep the economy running.

The janitor problem, at its heart, is needing people to do certain things in order to make the game’s design work. And sometimes the things you need those players to do is actively at odds with their main goals.

Custom.

Let me go back to WoW for a moment: One of its big goals with Shadowlands was to make crafting more relevant again by forcing crafters to churn out base items for Legendary items. But that ran into problems because there were far fewer dedicated crafters than expected, the resource requirements were steep, and the game has a long tradition of doing everything possible to drive away gamers who played MMOs for crafting. As a result, on many servers the price of the base items is insane, simply because the supply and demand setup is intensely lopsided.

Or, well… look at Crowfall. There’s a certain percentage of people who are just not going to touch a heavy PvP game, no matter what. What percentage of that audience are exactly the sorts of crafters that the game needs in order to function properly?

The answer to that question is, realistically, that I don’t know. I haven’t done market research, and I would like to assume that the people actively running the game actually have crunched these numbers. (If not, uh… well, let’s just say that I now have many additional concerns.) But from my admittedly limited perspective, it feels a lot like the game has designed itself right into the janitor problem and hoping that now that doesn’t really manifest the way it has so many times before.

And make no mistake, the ground is littered with games that made assumptions about the size of its playerbase and how many people would flock to certain things. WildStar made egregious bets about how many people it could attract to its ultra-hardcore raids for 40 people. That went so well that the game had to quickly trim down the requirements to even get to those raids, then trim down player counts, and… well, now there’s a reason we talk about that game in the past tense.

I get a certain amount of deja vu when looking at how designers choose to structure their games for exactly this reason.

Am I saying that, say, 100v100 modes of PvP are inherently bad? Heck no. Bringing in lots of players for something is a lot of fun. What I’m saying is that realistically, you have to design around what happens if these player counts don’t materialize. You can’t just assume 200 people will show up on time for this mode, and if it doesn’t work with less, the most impressive mode in the world will essentially become empty air you devoted a lot of time and resources to programming into the game.

Size is great. But plan around not having that critical mass so that the game will still work even when things go wrong with the size. Otherwise… well, you’re in for a rude awakening when that critical mass fails to happen, and by then it’s too late.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Arktouros

What percentage of that audience are exactly the sorts of crafters that the game needs in order to function properly?

This nonsense that PvP players don’t craft is always an obnoxiously bad argument.

There’s literally whole logistics divisions in major corporations in EVE. Every major PvP guild I’ve ever seen or been a part of always has a number of people that craft and gather the day away. Our group in Crowfall the other day had 4 people screening for PvP and the other 4 of us were group mining (!) motherlode nodes for stone. Competitive players will do whatever it takes to be successful and if that means sending 20 killers out to go gather branches so you can cook them into charcoal for gunpowder or whatever they’ll all go out and pick up some twigs.

This idea that us crafters don’t like PvP and only want PvE content is just ignorant and based on your own timid play style preferences.

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Bruno Brito

I’m also highly sure not all PvPers think that a game without a decent skybox is “playable” just because of combat. Most of these groups tend to overlap in one way or another. Not everyone is purely a PvPer of PvEr, or Soloer, or Crafter.

For sure there are PvPers that are as concerned as i am for decent graphics and world-appearance.

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Arktouros

I mean there still has to be a game there fundamentally. Just mindless murder dome where people in equalized gear with equalized stats on equalized characters isn’t a very interesting game.

Graphics are good and all for sure, but functionality trumps a lot of it. It’s probably the only sole interest I have in anything Mark Jacobs is doing because it sounds like he has the technology on lock down for large scale fights be it PvE or PvP. However if I end up with a plastic hairdo #2 and generic human face #4 so I can get 20 extra FPS in a 40 v 40 fight then I’m willing to accept that trade personally.

Just the whole “wOlVeS aNd ShEeP” nonsense has gotten tired at this point when it’s taken as unarguable fact by people who have virtually zero experience with the topic.

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Bruno Brito

Sure, but what i mean is: It’s a bit of a stretch to split gamers by their tidy little corners, when most of them overlap. I for instance, love WvW and messy PvP fights. What i DON’T like is FFA gankboxes. If i can CHOOSE the time to get ganged on and murdered, i’m gucci. And i’m mainly a solo player. I’m sure there are others like me.

I’m also extremely annoyed by how dark CF looks and the lack of a skybox made me feel like i either was on a true alpha game or playing Dota 2. I’m also sure i’m not the only one bothered by that.

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Arktouros

Oh for sure, that’s why the whole WoLvEs AnD sHeEp” is such bullshit nonsense. Many of the people I play with on PvP servers love doing things like roleplaying D&D or playing PvE games. I don’t like all forms of PvP, I hate battlegrounds and MOBAs and all those smaller scale competitive games. There’s always tons of overlap.

People play the games they want to play. The entire premise that anyone is designing a game for millions and millions of dollars trying to lure in an audience who is vehemently opposed to anything to do with the game concept is just dumb. There’s no nice or alternative way to put that. It is just stupid.

I…honestly didn’t notice there was no skybox till you mentioned it. I always buy VA panel monitors so my darks are always super dark and assumed night time on this game was no different.

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Bruno Brito

Dude, the lack of a skybox messed with me so much. For some reason, i keep relating it with a lack of permanence, it makes the game world feel terribly amateurish and unimportant.

As for people chosing the games they play, i agree to an extent. I think a lot of the times, people play the games they want, but they have to bite the bullet with features they don’t want. WoW players know that better than anyone else.

I for instance loved CF’s artstyle, and if it was brighter and had a better UI and open world pve, i would loved it. But the game itself doesn’t cater to me and it doesn’t have to. IF it did, i would try to criticize some of the shortcomings, because thats what feedback is.

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Vincent Clark

“your own timid play style preferences”

that was hilarious. thanks for that.

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Arktouros

I’ve spent the last 3 days with no dark mode, bright-as-the-sun google doc spreadsheets searing white light into my retinas as I coordinate and look over crafting as some dude who literally opened with having never played the game goes on about janitor problems and how no one is going to craft. It’s so mind mindbogglingly ignorant.

Tizmah
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Tizmah

With the rise of survival games that have lots of crafting and pvp, it is quite the odd argument to make for sure.

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Arktouros

It’s because of the absurd supposition that the only reason these PvP games add crafting at all is to lure hapless “sheep” to their doom.

The reality is that most of these games, including survival gankboxes, often times have some form of gear loss or decay. This means you’re constantly be going through multiple sets of gear and will need some method to replace it. A robust crafting system is almost always the answer because it creates a renewable source of new equipment.

What really grinds my gear about this is it honestly is one of the most social experiences to be part of in the entire MMORPG genre. There’s alliances of hundreds of people all working tirelessly gathering materials, farming out and donating gold, just pouring hundreds/thousands of man hours towards one collective group objective of the war effort against other groups doing the exact same thing. The sheer scope of team work is downright Corporation level and it’s criminal how often that gets overlooked or unmentioned because “Oh, well, I got ganked in the noob area.”

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Ardra Diva

I prefer the Uncle Owen analogy.

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styopa

Wasn’t there a WH40K game where free to play players could play zerglings and paying players got to play super powerful heroes that could mow down zerglings like 20:1?

I can’t recall that they had a ton of people saying “let me please play your game as an irrelevant kill count statistic” did they?

EDIT: Warhammer Eternal Crusade.

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Bruno Brito

Did EC ever get to that point even?

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

Do casual raids that are easy with no gear checks. Which games have done that so far?

The last game I liked raids in and I’m being liberal with my use of “like” was SW:ToR in early 2012. LOTRO 2010/2011 were the last real raids I did regularly.

I always thought GW2 when they got raids would be casual like the Fractals and dungeons were when they first came out. I WAS the target audience for raids in GW2 and had ZERO desire to ever do them. Group requirements makes for testy players and elitism that I have no time for in my entertainment.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

While Carbine did themselves no favors assuming that a 40-man was viable they doubled down on the dumb by making the per-requisite raid, Genetic Archives, a 20-man. So now you need to merge two teams and oh, by the way, some of your tanks will now need to DPS.

Yes, yes, Everquest had 72 mans but raid mechanics have gotten quite a bit more complex since then. There’s a reason you don’t see modern raids aimed at anything much larger than 20.

Herding 20 cats is hard enough. Finding 40 reasonably competent warm bodies that can work together would make even legendary HR managers sweat.

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Tobasco da Gama

The open world PvP-specific version of the janitor problem, which is to say the wolves-and-sheep problem, is a huge hurdle, and I sounds like Crowfall in particular is going to run right into it. Pretty much every open world PvP game takes an “if you build it, they will come” approach to that problem, despite the fact that “they” never, ever do.

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Bryan Correll

It’s almost like sheep don’t want to be eaten.

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Tobasco da Gama

Seems obvious to me, but apparently a lot of people haven’t figured this out yet!

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Arktouros

If you can’t figure out why the premise doesn’t work out then have you ever considered your premise might be faulty?

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Tobasco da Gama

LOL. After watching game after game after game try the full PvP thing and fail miserably, I’m quite confident that my premise is just fine.

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Arktouros

Your confidence is actually arrogance and it’s why your premise is faulty to which is why you’re left with questions why game developers keep making these types of games when under your premise they obviously shouldn’t.

You’re arrogant because you seem to think that a business who’s designing a product for multiple millions of dollars somehow came up with a business strategy that requires people who will literally never their game under any circumstances for some reason will play their game. They just keep on doing it but none of them veteran game developers of decades can figure out what wise ol’ Tobasco Da Gama sees as plain as day itself. Could you imagine their investor meetings, “Oh yes please invest more millions into our company, our business strategy is to futilely lure in people who will hate the game and quit anyways in order for our product to work.”

The entire premise is ridiculous and only serves as a rationalization to feel like wise ol’ Tobasco figured it all out and they won’t get one by you.

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ishikawa ren

No one will ever agree the opinion of a nobody like you when all they can feel from your message are those egos of yours

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Kross Vilalobos

While we are on the subject of premises and egos and such can someone explain to me the wolves that love killing sheep, and those same wolves hate fighting other wolves because they fight back part? (probably cause they are actually bad at fighting)?
I remember text walls being made about flagging for PvP being bad for a couple Sandbox and PvP like environments. They seems to always be a staple on every PVP and or Sandbox game I ever play. I’m not saying its the most common complaint but it pops up every time it seems.

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EmberStar

No direct experience, because I don’t PVP. (Ever.) But my extremely limited understanding is as follows:

PVP flagging systems are bad, because it gives people the option to NOT PVP. PVE players will just choose to NOT allow themselves to be attacked, allowing them to do horrible things like “mind their own business” and “go around gathering things without allowing me to stab them in the eyes.” The worry (from a very small number of *exceptionally* loud players) is that a flagging system will deprive them of player fodder.

I can’t say how true it is, since I won’t even consider playing a full PVP game and personally won’t set foot in any zone where mixed PVP is even an option anymore. My direct experience is: if there is a way that the gankers can exploit the system and force/trick you into flagging so they can kill you, they absolutely will. Such as by placing an invisible pet/minion in a group of NPCs and waiting for someone to use an AoE attack. Oops, hit the pet you couldn’t see, now the two-to-five gankers you didn’t know were there are teabagging your steaming corpse.

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Arktouros

It’s almost like the game was never designed for sheep to even play and wolves have no problems eating each other and this has all been a terrible analogy.

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Bruno Brito

I mean, we’ll know in the future.

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Arktouros

Not really. Obviously any game would be happy and function better with more people, especially one so heavily focused on and around player interaction (be it crafting or killing each other). And yea, if you lose too many people, things just won’t work after a fashion that’s true of any kind of MMO. More people = Good. Pretty basic MMO 101.

However the implication that a game needs a particular type of player in order to be successful is an extremely weird one. It’s the inherent problem with these kind of ideas. People who make arguments like that have virtually zero experience with the environments they’re criticizing and draw conclusions from ignorance and prejudice.

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Bruno Brito

What i mean is that we will know if wolves eating each other is sufficient to keep this game afloat.

If it rests your worries, i hope it is. Of course i want CF to succeed.

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ishikawa ren

We all already know crowfall will never make a come back, the game just wasnt that good , and all those money and time they poured in enough to make 2 to 3 complex and high quality game like lost ark if they handed those money to the korean