Do MMO Worlds Spread Players Out Too Much?

Have MMO worlds become so big that they've largely transformed our multi-player games into single-player experiences? Short of a smaller world, what can be done about this?

Have MMO worlds become so big that they've largely transformed our multi-player games into single-player experiences? Short of a smaller world, what can be done about this?

“It’s too big” sounds like more of a “That’s what she said” comment than an critique of MMOs.


But I can’t help but wonder as I cruise around another beautifully crafted – but near-empty landscape – how difficult it can be to find other players in the wild these days.


MMO developers have done more and more in recent years to get people out of the dungeons and into the bright sunshine, offering up dynamic events, daily quests, world bosses, and other kinds of activities meant to spontaneously bring people together. And we’ve always wanted – and received – vast swaths of land to explore and adventure in.



But are those two goals mutually exclusive? Do those huge, awe-inspiring worlds spread us out too much and diminish the multiplayer experience?


It’s simple math. If you have X players on a server and Y units of area – acres, square miles, whatever – your game will have X/Y players per area unit. If players are spread out too much, it’s because X is too low or Y is too high.


X is a function of server/world/map space – not to mention game popularity – and something that’s probably difficult to raise without significant expenditures. Reducing Y, on the other hand is theoretically easy – just make less stuff.


That carries with it its own hazards, naturally. When players have explored all there is to explore, the rumblings of “there’s nothing to do” begin. More space equals more to explore equals more time until the “endgame woes” set in.


But is this a fight developers can win? Players will consume content faster than it can be created, so what’s the difference if, in a game meant to last for years, it takes you six weeks to explore everything instead of eight?


And would we be better served by having slightly smaller worlds, where it’s easier to find people to adventure with, than it is to have a larger world with more to do but having it harder to find people to do it with?



Games have been making it easier to get to the multiplayer action – Guild Wars 2‘s waypoints being the most direct approach – but players will usually only go that far out of their way for “big” events. It’s when I’m randomly running around the landscape and might only want one or two other people around to help out – that’s when I most acutely feel the absence of other players.


All of this seems counter-intuitive to what we want – or at least say we want – in an MMO: a vast, open world to explore and lots to do. And I don’t disagree that that’s what I want, as well. But I also don’t want – outside of population centers and well-traveled avenues – to feel like I’m playing a single-player game. And that’s how I feel a lot of the time.


Short of having a smaller world – reducing Y – or jamming in more players – raising X – the solution would seemingly to be to make it so that players have more reason to spread out. And many modern games have tried this, with exploration goals, dynamic events all over the map, and so on.


But exploration can only get you so far. You tag a point once and it’s done, and you move on. Not to mention that, except for a few hard-to-reach spots that might be behind a large mob or group of mobs, it’s a completely solo activity.


And dynamic events are unreliable. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not, and, like exploration goals, they can often be done solo. People will rarely go out of their way for a one-off event, unless the rewards are especially meaningful.


So what would seem to be needed is some kind of permanent events located on the fringes of the map. The sort of things that could draw players in from afar on a regular basis. And there would be enough of them to prevent overpopulation at any one point.


Truthfully, I like the way Rift does zone invasions, when rifts open up all over the area and players have to ride hither and yon to get to them. The big disadvantage, in my mind, is that players don’t have to close specific rifts – just enough to fulfill the requirements of the zone quest. So you’ll still see the rifts nearest to population centers as the ones that get closed most often.



Compare this to Guild Wars 2‘s zone events, which typically advance in stages from one to the next, but all in a narrow, specific area. First it’s kill the centaurs, then kill the centaur bosses, then kill the centaur uber-boss. All very nice, but there’s still just the one event going on at a time, all in a fairly small area – but one that’s admittedly a little off the beaten path.


Could a combination of these approaches work? In the real world, invasions typically don’t happen near population centers – they tend to be on the fringes of the defenders’ territory, at least at first. And while an invading force may have a vanguard or main point of attack, truly epic invasions – e.g., Normandy – occur along multiple fronts.


As for the weirdness of having invasions occur all over the place, all the time, maybe between invasions, players would have to visit various points on the map – some near to well-traveled routes, some far from them – giving them reasons to travel throughout the zone, encountering other players and other content along the way.


You might even envision something like control points, as often found on PvP maps, which require players to stay in an area for a certain period of time, increasing the chance that something else interesting happens during their stay.


This combination of approaches would both be available essentially all the time and require visiting many far-flung areas and theoretically wouldn’t require developers to “shrink” zones to bring people together. You’d just need more invasions or more patrol points for bigger zones.


Sounds too easy – which is probably why it wouldn’t work. But you never know.

About the author

Jason Winter

Jason Winter is a riddle wrapped inside a burrito, smothered in hot sauce. Mmm... burrito...