Numbers themselves do not matter

Random thought for this morning: The number of people playing a MMO does not in itself really matter.  It doesn’t matter that one game has 11 million subscribers and another has 150k.  What matters is whether or not those numbers sustain the quality of gameplay that the developers intended the game to have when they designed the game.  Some games need more players than others.   There are free DAOC shards out there holding around 900 players online at a time and it feels perfectly populated with plenty of action — the quality of play is sustainable.   WoW actually needs more numbers and this showed when they added the dungeon finder.  They had millions and millions more than anyone else playing but it still was not enough since the game was designed to need more people to be played the way it was intended.

When numbers do start to matter is when they dip below that threshold and quality of play is no longer sustainable.  If you can’t find a group because there is no one to play with, can’t find a city to attack, have no one attacking you, can’t find people to buy your wears, or can’t play the game the way it was meant to be enjoyed then this is when it becomes an actual problem.  This is when server tranfers happen for free.  Take Rift for example.  Trion will offer free transfers in patch 1.3.  I’m hoping for them that players choose to all migrate onto fewer servers, which is likely going to be the case, so that the quality of play increases for everyone.  Rift doesn’t need 11 million — it needs exactly enough to maintain its own quality of play.  I think this is why there are still people playing Warhammer Online.  The people who do actually enjoy the game are now on one or two servers (?) and I’m sure the numbers are just fine for them.  That’s probably not ideal for the business side of the game but for the game side (what I care about) it’s probably great.

To reiterate, numbers only really matter (to the player) in the context of how they affect the game’s playability.

  • This is really the only advantage of the “sharding” model; you can ensure that there are enough players around, even when your overall subscriber numbers are abysmal.

    The problem is, it seems like developers are incredibly reluctant to merge shards to keep population in line. You use WAR as an example of a game that still works after the eventual mergers, and that’s true, but during a critical time frame (about 3-4 months after launch) there was the typical MMO mass exodus and most of the servers were ghost towns. For a while this made the game painful to play, and any new player would’ve immediately been turned off wandering the empty world, finding only empty RvR lakes and idle PQs.

    Now’s really the time for Trion to get ahead of this problem in RIFT, IMO. Character transfers are good. Mergers are better. Any perceived publicity hit from merging servers is nothing compared to how an underpopulated server will destroy the user experience for new players and existing players alike.

  • @Jeremy: While I do agree that Mergers are good, Mergers accompany a stigma with a lot of gamers these days. The stigma that the game is dying. A stigma that is so absurd it doesn’t make sense to me. Mergers are inevitable. They happen. It’s impossible for them not to happen. Most games initally overshoot their server numbers because they have to account for all of the free months. Then those end, and a lot of people leave, and servers size down. That doesn’t mean a game is dying. It simply means what it always does. There will ALWAYS be a decent number of players who will hop from one game to the next.

    @Keen: Further from that. I completely agree about Rift. I think these transfers are the way to go right now. But to be honest, the population in Rift is still pretty large. There will always be some underpopulated servers until those servers are shut off. WAR suffers the same problem. There are 6 servers right now, iirc. Two of those servers still have a small population. It’s not a bad thing, but it can be frustrating.

    In Rift’s case, each server has at least 2000 players. Which is typically where the “Medium” line draws. The bigger problem with Rift is the dungeon finder. People expected it to turn into the “be all end all” to pop problems. I think what they’re not still realizing is that it’s a server only thing. So smaller servers are still going to suffer. I think a lot of that feeling would go away if they opened the gate to battlegroups. Much like they do with WFs. Which, I’m sure will happen eventually.

    It’s tough for a fresh game to come forth with server mergers. It doesn’t mean the game is hurting. In fact, it almost always strengthen the play for the people left. More people always = more fun, in my opinion. I imagine we’ll see merges in the next few months, but for now I think the transfers will be sufficient. A lot of the problem I see right now, are not small servers, but imbalances to population. There are some servers that weigh in at around 3:1. Hopefully this will help with some of that problem.

  • @Keen
    I agree. With regards to server mergers I think more and more companies need to consider it an option as quickly as Trion has. In the last 5 years every MMO that has launched has lost players in the first 3 months. I think not creating this server abundance at the launch of a game is the ideal situation but that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

    I’m on the boat of people that don’t want cross server LFG. No amount of arguing from anyone will ever change me of that. I think Rift has to much focus on instances though, the game is suppose to be about closing Rifts yet there is virtually zero point to closing them after 50 outside of major invasions. I’m not going to lie though, the instances are fun.

  • On your substantive point, I completely agree. As a player I don’t give a flying fig if an MMO has 50,000 or 5 million players, just so long as it has sufficient to remain profitable enough to keep one server up.

    On the ever-popular question of how well Rift is doing, I’m in the habit of looking at the N.A. shard list each evening when I log off. I play GMT hours on U.S. servers, so that’s usually around midnight GMT, which is 4pm PST. Hardly peak time.

    By my observations, Rift is getting busier. A couple fo weeks ago, pretty much only Briarcliff, Wolfsbane and sometimes Faeblight were “High”; everything else was “Medium”, nothing was “Full”. This last week, Briarcliff and Wolfsbane have been “Full” and several other servers have been “High”, including Alsbeth and another I forget the name of, which I’d never noticed showing “High” at that time before.

    In total, most recent evenings have shown a couple of servers at “Full”, half a dozen at “High” and all he rest at “Medium”. Presumably that only increases at the peak time I never see.

  • Unfortunately the High, Med, and Low server titles have been time and again been proven wrong from multiple causes. The devs could put the set points for those too low, one realm or the other could heavily outweigh the less pop, bots/spammers/afkers affecting true population values, and other factors could all affect the population flag of any given server.

    When the server transfers happen, Trion has to lock down servers not only through generic population, but also realm population. Eventually server merges will happen as the truly ghost town servers have little to no purpose down the line.

    Finding that perfect balance of population will always be an uphill battle for games the segment their core pops between two sides incapable of working together. At least with EQ2’s PvE servers the population wasn’t nearly as segmented from each other, and allows those servers to be more functional at lower populations then other games.

  • I’m not sure if you are including this in your definition of “sustain[ing] the quality of gameplay,” but the other thing that is nice about having a healthy/growing subscription base is insuring there is additional revenue/capital from which to develop new content, improve server performance, and design and implement new systems. There is a certain comfort level in knowing your game of choice is profitable/performing well in the sense of its longevity. After all, people are investing days and days of /played time into these games. It’s nice to know the game you have spent so much time in will still be around for a while.

    I also agree with you and Shadrah about the server merges. However, I would also point out though that they do start to become more of a concern when you see wave after wave of server mergers, notwithstanding the initial “free month” dip. I think that is when people start becoming concerned about the pace and quality of continued development slipping and promised features falling by the wayside in moving forward due to budget constraints.

  • @Epiny: While I understand your sentiment, I think it’s necessary in the long run. An LFD Tool is normally implemented to shorten queue times. However, on smaller servers, the only thing it truly stops is this:

    “/4 LFG Deepstrike Mines”

    On larger servers it can make a substantial change from spamming level chat/lfg to being in a group within minutes. Same server LFDs are great for the community, because you’re getting to know people you can play with on a daily basis. However, smaller battlegroups like in WFs isn’t always a bad thing either. Because you will almost always see people you’ve played with before.

    For instance, in my old group I regularly saw players I knew. People I actually saw often enough to grow a casual/friendly relatoinship with. That’s not to say it doesn’t bring it’s problems as well, though. So I DO completely understand your reasoning. There’s a lot of bad that can come with “anonymous dungeon surfing”.

  • @Bhagpuss Don’t forget Rift has a 7-day free trial going on right now so there’s plenty of ephemeral visitors.
    Some will stay of course but it’s likely the growth you are seeing is a temporary surge.

    Keen’s point is valid: Rift, like all non-WoW MMOs, had a high initial population with a rapid drop-off yet this played no part whatsoever in my decision to stop playing. In fact I did not decide to stop I just found I was no longer logging in. I’ll make sure I pay a few more visits to get the last 2 levels and see the last 1-2 Dungeons but the game for me will then be “complete”.

    The forums of course were full of people loudly announcing not just that they were leaving but that “you” should probably go with them. At the very least they were politely told to leave quietly.

    I just learned that 3 Million are playing World of Tanks: I’m actually amazed by this as like the devs (and borne out in the beta) I saw this as a <1 Million game. Once again the only way this affects me is that the devs are making money by the bucketload so hopefully will have more staff on board to actually release Version 1.0 of the game.
    It went Live at 0.6.3 and there's plenty more intervals planned before it reaches "Ready". Madness.

  • @Shadrah

    No I understand that. The cross server LFG thing is one of those situations where no one really wins.

    I have 4 friends I play with in Rift but someone is normally missing every night so we pug the 5th spot. I see the same people popping into our 5th spot off and on throughout the week. This had allowed me to make a decent amount of friends by using it on my server and when I have an empty spot in a group I invite one of those people now. With cross server LFGs that’s less likely to occur because those initial friendships wouldn’t have been made or sustained. That 5th person could have, and likely would have, been from another server.

    The problem is that during off hours, non peak, or on low population servers this simply doesn’t work. It’s completely possible to not have 4 other people wanting to group at the same time as you.

    I think a major misconception is that cross server LFGs drastically reduce the wait time. They would on low population servers without a doubt but in the end the bottle neck will still be a lack of Tanks.

  • Surprisingly, the number of people playing is related to the revenue the game brings in, and the revenue a game brings in is related to the amount of money available to develop it.

    In a subscription model, the revenue the game brings in relates directly to the investment in new content that can be made to maintain that subscriber base, or can be sold to that subscriber base as an price-gouging expansion in addition to their monthly fee.

    In a FTP model, the number of players will directly relate to the probable revenue of a new chunk of content that can be sold to those players.

    This is why popular games, like WoW or DDO, get regular lumps of new content, and unpopular games, like Asherons Call, have forum posts like this

  • To some extent this is true. I had a blast for almost a year in Allods even after most people had bailed on that game. But take this idea to really small, and The Realm apparently has enough subscribing members to support it after almost 15 years. Is that a Win? Is 237-300 people subscribing (ok I’m making up numbers here but would be shocked if it’s higher) enough? I guess it’s enough for the 237 to be having a good time but still…

  • @Sanz: Well, here’s the thing Sanz. It depends less on the numbers, and more whether those numbers can keep a game running. Much like Keen was getting at in this blog post. If those 200 or so people are enough to fun the game and keep it alive, it’s plenty. In a game like WoW 200 people just wouldn’t keep it going. It’s all about the type of game it is. The level of technology it uses and so forth. It’s all numbers, and as long as they’re right, a game will stay indefinitely.

  • “The number of people playing a MMO does not in itself really matter… When numbers do start to matter is when they dip below that threshold”

    I get your point, and agree, but it reads a bit odd. let me try and compare.

    Just saying I have a car doesnt really matter at all, but if someone or myself want to transport people or items from A to B it suddenly matters if I said I have that car or not.

    Why would I say I have a car if I didnt have some meaning to say it? Why would you talk about numbers if you don’t want to make a point about them? Doesnt really make sense.

    Actually, I hope I made some sense trying to make my point lol. Numbers alone do matter, because different things get implied by talking about them.

  • 11 million or 200, the numbers just by themselves do not mean much to the GAMEPLAY (they matter to the business, but that’s not what this is about). It doesn’t mean much that a game has 11 million vs. a game having 200 if the game with 200 plays better than the game with 11 million or vice versa.

  • Numbers also matter to developers and investors. While the lot of us don’t want to view that side of games, at the end of the day the majority of, including all mainstream, games are businesses. If they cannot earn a good return then unfortunately they will be closed or abandoned.

    The good thing is, smart investors realize the initial investments are sunken costs. So a game’s life must be viewed in a go forward spectrum. However, without quality numbers the resources will not be availible to add new content and further develop ideas.

  • Right, I know that numbers matter to the business side. I’m simply saying we can’t look at one game and say it is any better for having 11 million people or 150,000 people over a game that has 900 people if the game with 900 people plays perfectly fine, if not better.