As fun as I had last time around in my guild’s massive Gloamwood event, I noticed a flaw. Or rather, I saw the flaw in another form. It’s a unique flaw that has been appearing more in the age of public grouping. Let us call it “the zerg.” The zerg is a group of overwhelming force of otherwise unimpressive individuals, and a zerg in an event usually emits a strong gravitational pull entrapping other players. It’s not a unique thing, as its been for as long as there has been open world PvP (if not longer). Yet, it comes across as something different, possibly fouler, when the zerg’s opponent is the system.
Near the end of the Gloamwood crusade, I was starting to get bored. I was thoroughly enjoying all the camaraderie, but the game was being distilled down to merely following the herd and firing off as many spam skills as I could before whatever was targeted inevitably popped. The system was stretching to the outer limits of its “balancing.” Yet, there were far too many players for it to respond in a useful way. This is when the system needs for players to scatter.
The simplest solution is also the most un-fun. Simply stop the activity. When players get bored, they will disperse back to the capital city, or quests, or crafting, or slightly active zones. There will be an exponential bleed off rate, and the trick for the developer should be finding that sweet spot between downtime duration and zerg weakening.
Having other activities helps. For example, in Rift there are always quests. Most of them are fairly standard and/or boring, but it passes the time between events. With enough downtime, a player will begin to think of the wealth and experience she could be amassing being active. These other activities lower the pain threshold to bleed because there are other carrots to chase after.
Yet, other carrots are hard to design. In Warhammer Online’s early age, a zerg in an RvR lake became an unstoppable force as it rampaged across the tier. As long as the opponents continued to poke and prod in defiance, the zerg would stay on the move as one. The other carrots were bland in comparison to the ongoing RvR event even in the RvR lakes. So what if the piddly opposition took a few small RvR objectives when we were about to fell a keep. There was simply no reason for a task force to peel off. The rewards gained by zerg action far outweighed nearly every other activity.
Another way is to be heavy-handed with event completion. Tell the zerg they have won in a super-significant manner. The more pronounced the reward, the more people are likely to call the zerg quits because “they done good.” With the final mega-event in Gloamwood the other night, getting a purple token was a great time for me to call it a night. It was unlikely I would get a better reward that night, and it caused me recollect on the fact that I had fun.
The hardest solution is to split or kill the zerg. Sure, it is the easiest solution to implement. Just create an unbeatable opponent that one-shots every player or endless mobs until everybody hits the inevitable out of energy. Yet, it’s hardest to handle elegantly. Designers want their game to be fun, and “rocks fall, everybody dies” is not fun. It’s also pretty hard to get individual groups to peel off. Many players are incommunicado and will simply follow the herd. In the Gloamwood mega-event, the final stage is eruption of mobs surrounding the central city, Gloamwood Pines. Theoretically, this was designed to split the zerg, yet I saw it was much easier just to trample each node in turn. If one node fell, it actually became easier for us to defend as we only had to keep up one defense point.
In review, I think Warhammer Online did a fairly poor job. The motivation to keep the zerg rolling overcame everything except non-action. That’s the way I remember nearly every zerg dying, there was simply nothing to do. Rift is doing a fairly good job at using win-points and other activities as ways to disperse at least parts of a zerg. I am interested to see how things progress further as the events become more complicated and more opposed by the enemy faction. Finally, Guild Wars 2 is going to be an interesting data point. On one hand, everything in the open world is an event. Can a zerg just faceroll a zone, or are the zones designs clever enough to continually eat away at the zerg from behind? The biggest unknown in Guild Wars 2 is how map warping will affect event zergs. Will it increase the growth rate of a zerg to a ridiculous degree as news spreads, or will it cause players a very low-pain means to jump out of the zerg for a break. I’m not even sure ArenaNet can know that answer until some sort of large beta.