Community, Content, and Alternate Rulesets

  • A post I inserted into a great thread about Alternate Ruleset Realms


    Great thread, great ideas!   I really think the idea of alternate rule-set servers/realms, while dabbled with, have never (yet) reached their true potential.  I think the idea that you make a core game that appeals to a significant audience, make it as great as possible for that audience, all the while not allowing yourself to be seduced by the idea that dumbing down the game somehow yields more players, is a critical concept.  So much so that I decided to interrupt your brainstorming and discussions to dig a little deeper into MMO world building, world size, content creation, etc.  

    First we must realize that while the core game is appealing to many, there are also groups within our target audience who prefer rules and systems that differ just a bit from other people in the larger group.  Not so much that we’re not all equally excited, but enough to pay attention to, and how important it is to craft a world that supports ‘games within games.’

    The trick is to hold onto the core game and what really makes it tick.  Do not be tempted to change what really makes your game, what gives it an identify, why there is a demand for it.  But then also look at your core game and realize there are many 'variations on the theme' that, if implemented, do not threaten or violate that core, that magic, that x-factor.   

    It's a fine line, sure, but I honestly haven't found it truly that hard to delineate between the two.   That's why it was so important for us to get the core tenets of the game up onto our webpage.  To have a detailed FAQ (that is due for another update, btw).   To list the differentiators -- what makes the game unique, what approaches to MMO design make Pantheon stand out.  And then, of course, to also list ideas and mechanics that are new, or at least the approach to implementing them new and with a different spin and approach.   

    But once you've established that there's just an incredible opportunity to even further dial your game to support multiple 'sub audiences', groups within your target audience who, while they're all super excited about Pantheon, definitely prefer certain mechanics over others (PvP being an obvious but great example).   

    This is why I cringe a bit when someone posts or asks me why Pantheon is zone and realm/server based.   Some people are very excited about how technology has advanced to the point that you could build an MMO that is one, huge singular entity, community, set of servers, etc.   I mean, I do understand the excitement to some degree -- anytime something that wasn't possible in the past has become doable due to advances in technology is always exciting to at least think about.   

    I often (as recently as TwitchCon in fact) get asked how many people we will be allowing into one server/shard/realm (btw, we are trying to more consistently use the word Realm here, but I include the other words that have been used since MMO’s inception just to make sure you guys know precisely what I am talking about).  And it's true, that in the past there were some serious performance issues that led us to make Realm based MMOs.  Location was also an issue due to latency -- servers/Realms/shards had to be set up around the world so everyone could hopefully play without having to deal with lag or ping times between them (perhaps they are in Australia) and the machines themselves (perhaps they were in San Diego).   Now everything is on the cloud -- we can put up a Realm anywhere in literally a matter of minutes (and have done so for some demos).  And I'm also not saying there won't be Realms for different parts of the real world.  But I can say the issue of latency/lag/ping times has become far, far less of an issue over the last 18+ years.   Now, mainly, it comes down to when people can play, and people, for example, in Europe wanting to make sure that when they log in there are others to play with, that the majority are not on the west coast of the USA.

    But I honestly, outside of 'now it's possible', don't get the fascination with having fewer Realms, or even one mega-Realm.   Sure, it's cool that it's possible now.  Yes, I can envision some MMO or other online game genre or design trying to use the 'everyone is truly in one shared world' as a feature or an enhancement or that it somehow makes things possible in terms of gameplay that wasn't possible in the past.

    But for Pantheon it really comes down to Community, Content, and Alternate Rulesets, and all three work better with more Realms, not fewer. 

    First comes human nature and sociology.  There's a reason that large cities exist, one of which is that people figured out some time ago that being in a more densely populated area makes communication easier, finding a job easier, finding friends easier, etc.   This is why you have large cities scattered around the world and then more rural areas separating them, often by long distances.   But the downside, of course, is while at first people coming together and living closer to each other has obvious advantages, when too many people come together you start feeling like you're just one cog amidst thousands of other cogs.  On your way to work you start recognizing other people less and less.  The feeling of community, of having a role, of people recognizing who you are and what you do and why you do it becomes more and more diminished.  

    Now, of course, the opposite has its downsides as well.  While there are many people who prefer to live in very rural areas and seek to escape the hustle and bustle of densely populated areas, who value anonymity, all of this this seems to work much better in RL than in a virtual world.  In an MMO if people are too spread out you again run into issues and the community suffers.   Bottom line:  both over population and under population are bad.  In RL you can to some degree choose where you live and how densely or sparse you want things to be.   But in an MMO it's much harder to overcome these downsides.  Especially with a game like Pantheon which is all about making real friends, being involved in a real community, being recognized, seeing the same people as you adventure around the world, etc.  So yes, we do have the tech now to make one mega-Realm, but just doing so because you can and ignoring how it affects the social glue that is Pantheon's foundation is simply not good game design.

    After Community comes Content.   Another technology you hear talked about frequently is that of procedurally generating content -- basically using an algorithm to create the vast amounts of content an MMO requires.  I'll simply say this:  perhaps one day such tech will really exist, that procedurally generated content will be created without the world feeling repetitive and full of recognizable patterns.   Honestly, though, I think we’re farther away from that being true, if it ever does truly happen, than many think.   I really wanted to like No Man's Sky, I really did.   

    So when we think about ideal Realm populations it comes down to 'is the world the right size, not too small and not too big, such that the kind of community we want to create develops?  Looking at when Realm population peaks and then at times when fewer players are on.... have we created a virtual world that feels more like a village and less like a metropolis?  Do we have approximately the right number of people on for a player driven economy to exist and thrive?  Do you feel like you're truly part of something, that people recognize you, that you have an opportunity to become known (or reviled, or whatever floats your boat)?

    And then is there enough Content -- mobs to kill, quests to take part in, items to craft.  And very importantly a large enough world that allows us to make adventuring really matter and even to reward players for doing so but again not too large?  Does our target audience run into the right amount of people outside of their group or guild that it feels like a real world (remember, no instancing)?  But when they do, do we have that sweet spot that exists between underpopulation (a very real danger when creating a group focused game) and over population (where people are fighting over camping spots, drops, rares, named, etc.)?  How often should we refresh and revamp content vs. adding new content (a new continent, a new race, etc.)?   

    Once that is figured out, and believe me, there's no way other than to have enough world builders and designers, sufficiently good tools so they can be productive, etc.  This is why we build in blocks, putting together a zone first, then a group of related zones (say a starting city, a noobie zone for that city, then an intermediate zone, dungeons to augment that region), and then continents (which are really multiple groups of related zones).   Making sure then that travel means something, that it's fun, but that people aren't divided by such large distances that Community and Grouping are harmed.  

    Then, as you start pre-alpha, then move to alpha and beta, you find out how well your planning panned out.  It is so important to have a long testing period, not just to address the obvious (find and fix bugs, test mechanics and systems to make sure they're fun, tweak mob difficulty, adjust how long it takes to level, mana and health regeneration rates, etc.) but to make sure you did scale things correctly, that a community starts coming together right away, that people can find others to group with, that the world feels full and alive but not overly so.   It's around this time that you start to get a real idea as to how many people should be in a Realm.   Yes, in the past, as mentioned, there were other key components to the formula -- technology, latency, location, bandwidth -- and they still exist and are important to test and get a feel for early on... but they're not as key anymore and we can focus more on the user experience, sizing zones based on content more so than server performance issues.

    Then comes later phases of beta, where you invite many more people into the game and really push the limits.  And then, of course, release.   How popular is the game at launch?  How quickly is it growing?  Based on metrics gathered in beta, how many Realms should be available at commercial release?

    I would rather have more Realms than less.   I would rather have smaller worlds at launch.  I would rather err on the side of there being too many people to ensure a community forms and that finding groups is not a problem.   If this means releasing expansions more often, revamping zones more frequently, etc. then so be it.  Not to mention one of our important goals of making sure that high level players naturally run across mid and lower level players.   That dynamic and how it can inspire new players, encourage vertical interdependence, etc. is really important to us.   We've had enough of MMO worlds where all of the high level players are in one region, all the newbies in another region, and then vast empty areas full of amazing content and ghost cities and dungeons between these regions.

    Which then leads us to Alternate Ruleset Realms (forgive the long path I took, but I wanted to present the bigger picture and how Alternate Ruleset Realms while very important are only one piece of a more complicated puzzle).   The more Realms we have at launch and then continue to deploy as the game becomes more popular and the number of players grows, then the more variants we can have.   I'm sure you see the obvious pattern here:   the more people we try to cram into a Realm the worse.  Bragging about world size, or creating a truly seamless world, or using CPU and memory to create virtual mega-cities is all at odds with our objectives.  I haven't even talked about zones vs. a 'seamless world' yet, and how being able to expand an area that needs expanding by simply inserting additional zones is critical to having sufficient content, and content *where* you want and need it.   Is it less immersive?  To some, sure, and I understand the argument well (remember that one of our chief goals with VG was to make it zoneless).   But the negatives outweigh the positives in such a big way.   Having to work with an outdoor world whose size is determined prior to all of the metrics and information gathered even into late beta is extremely challenging and arguably dangerous -- playing with fire, so to speak.  How do you re-size an area dynamically like you can do with zones if the outside world has already, probably some time ago, been stitched together into a 'seamless' grid of 'chunks'?  

    Anyway, that’s a quick look into building handcrafted MMO virtual worlds… determining their size, their population, making sure we have the Content we need as well as the Community we want to foster and help grow, and why more, smaller Realms allows so much better control over determining these key points.  And then why this approach will also allow us to more fully realize the amazing freedom that having Alternate Rulesets and hopefully a lot of them gives us.   I thought it was worth sharing this level of detail with you all not only to provide a glimpse of what goes into building Terminus but also how it all fits together and should allow us to launch a game with a compelling world, plenty of content, people to group with and get to know, and then to experiment with 'variations on the theme', both at launch with the obvious themes (PvP, RP, etc.) and then post-launch to keep heading down that road, offering more and more variety and options.   Lastly, we hope that as the game evolves down this path that these Realm variations will not only help us dial in a game that feels more tailored for YOU but that it also brings in more people, new people, people who might not be looking as hard at Pantheon right now because we're focusing on PvE group content.  The goal is that after launch we offer both more variants as well as more horizontal advancement paths (do a search there if you're not familiar with what I'm referring to as I've posted about it and how important it is to the game's long-term future).

    Ok, enough rabbit holes jumped through, but I did want to take the opportunity to give you guys more insight into the planning it takes to build an MMO like this, why we actually want more Realms not less and why we don't jump on the 'my world supports X thousands of players all at once, how many does yours?' bandwagon.  All of this should create tremendous opportunities at launch and after launch.   The sheer length of this thread is very exciting and validating.   You guys are not only coming up with some great ideas, discussions, etc. but also making it loud and clear that you too see the incredible potential here, from Community, to Content, to Variations on the Theme!  I shall briefly retire and return the thread to you -- by all means, carry on!! :)

    -Brad "Aradune Mithara" McQuaid


    ps. found this on our Reddit (good stuff):

    Dunbar's number

    Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar".

  • CanadinaXegony
    CanadinaXegony Still like the idea of ruleset servers/shards/realms (pick a word ) The roleplayers can roleplay, the pvpers can pvp, the hardcore can hardcore. And what about all those server firsts that raiders love? With one huge Realm..there would probably be...  more
    November 15, 2017 - 2 like this
  • zendrel
    zendrel My fear isn't the number of mobs. You can always go overboard on mobs and it won't matter. I'm afraid of a year down the road I want to make a new toon and I can't find anyone to group with. At the start it's going to be magical. I have no doubt I'll be...  more
    January 8, 2018
  • Finbar
    Finbar Agreed! Anyone who played EQ in the early days (most of us around here) knows that there was a time when you kind of could recognize the names on your servers. You were at least peripherally aware of the other players, and guilds on your server, and...  more
    April 30, 2018
  • mpysys
    mpysys Thank you for this thorough explanation. The rational makes a lot of sense in terms of decision making. Feels like a degree in consumer behavior is also needed while doing game design! I personally am looking forward to zones as they do allow more...  more
    August 8, 2018