Small world vs Big world

In MMORPGS we always want things bigger.  We want bigger worlds, bigger cities, and of course we want a bigger server population.  We reason that if there’s several thousand players on a server, there’s sure to be people online in every area of the game at all times.  No one wants to live in a world which feels empty.

But there are certain design decisions which work well for a server population of a few hundread that doesn’t work for a server population in the thousands.  When I used to play MUDs in the 90’s, I would normally expect a grand total of 5 to 30 people online at any given time.  Everyone knew everyone.  Everyone knew everyone’s alts.  You hung out with the same people every day and you complained about the same people every day.  It was like living in a small village.

MMOs on the other hand, are cities.  They wouldn’t be “massively multiplayer” without being massive.  You have to make an effort to group with friends.  Unlike a MUD, an MMO character you meet is entirely forgettable.  This causes certain gameplay mechanics which work really well in MUDs to break in MMOs.

In the MUD I played longest, there was full player vs player combat, with corpse-looting.  Players who stole items after a battle were shunned and players who honorably let their victim reclaim their corpse were known praised.  Someone who picked on newbie characters or new players was held in especially low regard.  It was possible to round up a gang to chase a newbie-killer around the MUD and make the game practically unplayable for them.

I thought I’d have a similar experience when I started playing the Ultima Online beta.  But there were too many people.  Someone could kill you the day the servers went live, and never be seen again.  Someone who helped you defend your honor could also disappear into the crowd.  Perhaps it was a factor of the newness of the server that kept a set of norms from developing.  But ever since the dawn of the MMO, I’ve never known the name of every character on a server, as I once did.

If MMOs want to have servers where players form  meaningful friendships, alliances, hatreds, and enemies, then they may need to design their MMOs to function with smaller servers.

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Suzina is a 27 year old who usally plays the same MMOs as her husband. Games played: UO, EQ2, FFXI, SWG, LOTRO.

7 thoughts on “Small world vs Big world”

  1. I understand what you are saying. I complained about my low pop server in WAR that there was nothing to do except 5pm-10pm. I re-rolled on Dark Crag with the highest population. You never got to know anyone in your guilds, or see the same enemies most of the time. I went back to my low pop server because I know alot of people, and it has the community feel except it does suck that nothing really happens 18 of the 24 hours in a day. The good part is I actually do RL stuff now. The game has made it so I am not sitting at my computer 24 hours straight like I did in WoW before they changed the PvP High Warlord because I literally lived at my computer for about 3-5 months to achieve that title.

  2. I have already witnessed people forming meaningful relationships, whether friendly, hostile, or competitive, and it had nothing to do with server population. Guilds, friend lists and common activities all help with finding people you have met and, like real life, it is up to you to maintain the relationships.

    If you run lots of instances or raids, you get to know others who do the same and can either end up sharing information or becoming competitive towards progression. There are well-known or notorious guilds and groups and you get to recognise the members on sight.

    Those who indulge in PvP form small groups to be more efficient and certainly recognise their better opponents. Groups form for the larger skirmishes and alliances can be made, and their is some respect grudgingly shown towards the opposition.

    It all comes down to what you want from the game. If you stick in small circles and don’t venture in to different groups you will not meet anyone. If you take the risk of being a little fish in the sea you have much more chance of seeing the fantastic world that is made by the players and their interactions.

    Making everything bigger has the possibility of making the content richer. MMOs don’t need to function with smaller server sizes, they simply need tools to be able to manage larger social circles.

  3. Even with large server populations you can still have small tight knit communities if you design it that way.

    Problem is the siren call of swift travel to anywhere in the world is often irresistible, and usually justified by needing to travel to new zones as you level up. If everyone is constantly moving on then you can’t build strong ties.

  4. Central to your point, whether it be a big or small environment, is accountability. The emergent society of your small mud relied on the fact that you knew who everyone was. There was no hiding from you past deeds, honorable or despicable. I suspect the mud’s designers didn’t build in game mechanics (“alignment”, “honor”, etc) as a way of giving players a transparent history; it was rather an artifact of the size of the population. If a larger game could make one responsible for their actions, and communicate those actions to others in interesting ways, then I think you have the potential for the best of both worlds, big and small.

  5. That’s some good points. Maybe I have given up on some things in large population games a bit too easily.

  6. In WoW on our server (Silvermoon) there was a strong community presence, at least for the first two years. It dissolved a bit with Burning Crusade, partly because Shattrath just didn’t have the same hangout vibe that IronForge or Orgrimmar did. Or maybe that fell apart when they opened auction houses in other cities. Either way, you used to see the same people quite often as the regulars.

    Coming from a MUD background myself, I understand the desire for smaller server communities. Even with Ultima Online, servers were a lot more local than the current trend of one cluster of servers.

    I miss the cultural similarities of local servers. Being Canadian, I sometimes feel starkly out of place when OOC topics lead to sports, politics, etc..

    I miss the primetime / offtime contrast of local servers, you often had a “late night crowd”. It’s still there, but stretched across timezones plus oceanic players, there’s a constant stream of sameness in activity that feels a bit like living in Vegas. You know, where the smell of beer and cigs never clears from the air because even at 3am there’s still a bit of a crowd.

    I miss the feeling of adventure that comes with being the only person / group in shouting distance. I don’t want that all of the time, but on a smaller server players still crowd together in social areas. Lately in MMOs, there’s constant chatter on the channels and the crowded places are the questing and mob-farming locations.

    I feel a bit like I’m wandering through a crowded amusement park when what I’d really like is to be lost in a dense forest.

  7. I don’t think it’s as much a factor of server-size as it is the design-style that purposefully sends players travelling all over the world at the whims of quest givers and in search of the next shiny thing. If players have a ‘home area’ that they stay in or near a lot of the time, then people start to develop stronger bonds, form communities and get to recognize their neighbors on sight.

    If MMO developers really want to encourage that sort of tight-knit community system, they need to

    * make traveling more difficult (which encourages people to find an area they live and stay there),

    * provide more options for social interactions via a robust crafting system, varied, animated emotes, and larger projects that require more than one person,

    * stop trying to shuffle players all-around the map and,

    * do away with the zone-progression leveling system that constantly pushes players into new zones and away from their lower-level friends and companions.

    You don’t have to know everyone on the server to have a tight-knit community, but there does need to be a strong sense of a local ‘home’ for players (and no, the one big city where everyone goes to bank and visit the auctioneer doesn’t count).

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