Critical Mass

An MMO dies when its population no longer reaches critical mass.

There is a point in any multiplayer game where the world suddenly feels barren and empty. And then suddenly people start disappearing even more rapidly, and then the game boils down to the most dedicated of fans only… and then you’re stuck with just those people forever.

It’s often very sudden. Your game is just cruising along, losing a few hundred people per month, and then suddenly the number of people leaving your game goes through the roof! It doubles, triples, quadruples all of a sudden.

The first instinct is, “OH MY GOD THE LAST UPDATE RUINED THE GAME!” and then there’s panicking and freaking out. The level designers are saying “I told you we needed to add three new instances each month, they got bored and they’re quitting!” And the systems designer is thinking, “I must have done the math wrong when I redid the taunt aggro system! Where’s the error?! I have to find it so we can hotfix!” and the producer starts yelling at the marketing guys because obviously the ad campaigns are less effective this month…

Odds are everybody’s barking up the wrong tree. This is one of those places where being on a live team gives you tunnel vision — it’s nearly impossible to see the big picture when you spend your day creating the tiniest details. But odds are, you need to step back and fix a really big problem. If you’re losing critical mass, there’s only one fix. You need more players on each world, STAT. If you have an expansion coming out in a month, maybe you’re going to be okay. Otherwise, you have to bite the bullet and merge worlds.

For the record, EQ2 needs to merge worlds. I know what the ramifications are in terms of publicity. But the fact is that there are fewer and fewer players of the game every day. The expansions help certain level ranges (either the <40 range or the > 70 range) but there are virtually NO people playing the game between 40 and 70. It’s a black hole where people disappear forever, and it’s not about lack of content. It’s about lack of critical mass.

There are plenty of other games that need to merge worlds, too. But EQ2 is the one that is closest to me, since I like EQ2. I would love to be playing it nightly, but it’s too dispiriting to live in a world where there are only 20 other people within 10 levels of you. Especially given that my character class, like over half the others, is only really effective in groups.

Don’t let a game die because you can’t see the big picture. If you don’t have critical mass, nothing else matters until you fix that.

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8 Responses to Critical Mass

  1. Wayne Riddle says:

    As a semi-player of AC, it too needs to merge worlds, as soon as they can figure out what to do with names, housing, unique items, etc. That is probably the biggest challenge facing companies, how to handle those type of issues.

  2. Mallika says:

    Which server are you playing on? It seems that there are some servers that are complete ghost towns while others (Antonia Bayle) are bustling with activity at most hours of the day.

  3. Note says:

    I agree with you about EQ2 needing server merges. It doesn’t help that the newer, EoF 1-70 content spreads out the player base beyond the original design. I would play on Antonia Bayle myself if I were American, but being a Euro I would love to see our two servers (Runnyeye and Splitpaw) making nice.

    I imagine freedom of movement between servers would alleviate part of the problem here. Allowing players to self regulate population levels would avoid the issue on a game-wide scale. You would see servers falling below critical mass and eventually being shut down as appropriate, but with the option to move to greener pastures it would be a positive for the player base as a whole. There are a number of downsides including (possibly) weaker community ties and a more easily gaugeable subscription number size, but there are many advantages to this idea that are probably worth of their own blog post. In fact I’ve deliberately cut this comment short to leave myself something to write about =)

  4. Babs says:

    If only it were as easy as it looks on paper =P

  5. Letrange says:

    Makes me glad I play EvE, there is only one shard (well technically 3, if you count the Chinese and the test server – in eve we really can’t complain too much about Chinese isk farmers). Incidentally this can also be caused by expansions. One thing about all this increasing content a lot of MMOs do, is that they tend to increase the acreage of the game. Thereby diluting the population and making it appear much more sparsely populated. There is also the fact that the longer the stretch between the low levels and the end game, the more stretched out it gets, and again the less populated it appears.

    This very effect is what eventually killed FFXI for me. Don’t get me wrong I still love that and have fond memories of it. It did some things very well and others rather poorly in retrospect. But once past a certain point the world kept getting bigger and bigger, and the population stayed about the same which had the effect of making it seem less and less populated. With attendant problems in finding parties – and the cookie cutter parties that resulted (less parties mean that less people were willing to experiment with different party setups or play styles). Then I discovered EvE. Took 8 months but eventually I canceled my FFXI account, thereby killing my 3 year old level 73 red mage (unlike other mmo’s after 3 months away they erase your char info).

  6. Django says:

    I think you’re hitting on another cause in here also. Your population level range is very important, in the case of EQII and just about any other MMO I’ve seen the basic push is to push towards the maximum level. As levels expand the number of people in a certain area of the game decreases (generally the tough spot is the middle ranges as many re-rolls/alts/noobies don’t make it into this range and long term players have already powered through it) causing issues with grouping/questing/player to player interaction as a whole.

    I really find that these are the spots where I start thinking about trying something else because it’s grown kind of stale. It’s not exactly easy to push yourself through stale gameplay (more for the lack of other players generally than the game itself being worse) with little to no outside interaction and leveling at a slower pace than you have been just for the hope that it’ll be better on the other side.

    Expansions that increase the maximum level and focus on that level range only go to increase this gap. I’m not a WoW player myself but from what it seems as expansions come out the goal is to get people more powerful gear quicker so they can more easily make it through these soft spots and get to the “real game” after you’ve stopped “leveling up” (real game and leveling up simply meaning get to the part of the game where you level up your gear instead of your character ;)).

  7. Evahu says:

    I am an avid Player / Raider in EQ2. While I agree with some points I disagree with the fact that servers need to be merged. Honestly I have levelled many toons to max level solo and while grouping, what I find to be the largest challenge is to get into groups that all want to do the same or similar things (grinding, questing, instances,whatever) IMO what SOE needs to do is actually remove some of the content at the middle levels so that it makes it easier to find a group for those that want one while leaving in the solo quests for those that dont in some of the “middle zones”. Now I know for those that like tons and tons of content this will sound like a horrible idea however the massive content makes questing very difficult when everyone is on different areas of the same quest. Sure we can share quests and all do them together but honestly I havent seen that much of that going on in the middle zones, Sharing seems to be a largely higher zone activity. Soloing is Fun, Grouping is Fun. Lets just make it easier to get a group for those that need/want one and at the same time lets also make it alittle more straightforward then having 200+ quests (just picked a number) in one zone to finish before moving on. Lets narrow down the quests increase the EXP off of those quests and get people to the “End Game” Faster….

    Just my 2cp

  8. Vontre says:

    Smart, you are.

    I noticed this somewhat intuitively when patch 2.4 of WoW rolled out and everybody and their mother went up to the Isle of Quel’danas to do the new dailies. All I was doing was running around doing quests but I was having more FUN than I had in quite a while, just because there were people of both factions everywhere. The world just felt more alive. It then occurred to me that everything in the game hinges around streaming players into small sets of content so that they can experience a live world and find groups for group content. That’s why badge epics were brought out, leveling sped up from 1-60, etc.