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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