Time for Scalable Encounters

21 Nov

Been reading lots of stuff this week on WoW’s 2.3 patch, aka the Azerothian Nerf Patch(tm). Seems that much of the discussion that the patch has sparked has erupted into the perennial casual/hardcore and solo/group debates and the accessibility of end game content. To me, most of these issues revolve around cracking the barriers to group play nut. Most MMOs do a great job of putting up barriers between players succesfully limiting a player’s avenues for the fundamental genre-defining experience– collaborative group play.

Experience distribution disparity creates disincentives for players of different levels to group. “Standard” group size is limited. Beyond some number (5 or 6) certain goals are not attainable when grouped (i.e., you can’t complete a group quest as part of a raid) ostensibly not to trivialize the goal. Static encounters (instanced or otherwise) are tuned for a particular size group and often with a particular party makeup.

I can respect that there should be some raid-only experiences. I can also respect that there should effectively be some group-only content. But what really galls me is that most MMOs jam us into optimized content boxes.  Your choices:

  • play solo in the non-instanced world;
  • group with any number of players (each at approximately the same level) up to the group max in the non-instanced world,
  • group with the maximum number allowed (again, all at approximately the same level) for instanced group content, or
  • group with the maximum number allowed (realistically, all at the level cap) for raid content (mostly instanced) with appropriate party makeup.

Deviate from these modes of play and suffer the penalty: less experience, inability to complete quests, inability to complete encounters, or absolutely trivialized content.

In the open non-instanced world, some of these problems are intractable. Kill stealing, tagging, experience leaching, twinking etc. are not likely to go away and are particularly hard to control for because of the infinite variability of the environment and the players in it.

In instanced encounters however, its a closed universe and the game gods are in control. At the point a group enters an instance, the game gods know whether you have 3 or 10 players in a group and whether they are 4 level 20s with a level 70 or 5 level 15s.

One of the things the 2.3 patch did with old instances was to narrow the level range which is not necessarily a bad thing in context. But instead of requiring 5 people within a relatively narrow range of experience, why not make the instance encounter scalable over a larger range? Maybe 2 or 3 players is the minimum number to start the instance but it could scale up to 10 players as well. Why not dynamically adjust the difficulty of the instance in response to group size? Fewer mobs or more mobs, fewer hit points or more so the mobs are easier/tougher… scalable damage… scalable rewards how hard would this be?

Wouldn’t it be a no brainer to encourage group play if the addition of a sixth random player to a group had no net downside to the group? Same relative experience, same chances at loot, etc.? Likewise, when we lost our 5th in WoW a long time ago, our four remaining members didn’t want to recruit someone who would remain dedicated to staying at level and on track with our group… Carrying on as a foursome would have been entirely viable and, because the difficulty of encounters scale, wouldn’t make the rewards any less meaningful if you did them at a group of 10 or only 3.

Isn’t it time we saw this in a game?


Posted by on November 21, 2007 in World of Warcraft


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4 responses to “Time for Scalable Encounters

  1. zosommog

    November 21, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    We’ve had it since 2004! City of Heroes scales enemy spawns for groups from one to eight players, and further than that you’ve got five selectable levels of difficulty to take account of ideal/non-ideal team composition. Not to mention Sidekicking/Mentoring, allowing characters to act at a higher/lower level to fit in with teams, and great flexibility in what class combinations work together. After starting out there, WoW was a horrible let down with its instances of “five shall you have, and the number you shall have is five; six shall you not have, nor four, lest it be on the way to recruiting five. Oh and one needs to be a warrior and another one a priest.”

  2. p@tsh@t

    November 21, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Fair point. CoH was definitely on the right track with scaling the mobs in missions based on the number in a group. I thought the mission difficulty slider wasn’t so much to rebalance the encounter but rather a way to extend the life and replayabilty of the content since you could adjust “up” but not “down” always starting at the default level.

    Again, my opinion, but if class balance and the combat system was true rock paper scissors, then tactics should suffice. 5 protection warriors, 5 holy priests or 5 “balance” druids should be able to conquer an encounter, granted it may take different tactics.

    Mentoring/Sidekicking still doesn’t quite solve the xp equity situation. The mentor doesn’t really have incentive to do so independently of wanting to help out the lower level character or the sidekick is getting to play higher level content albeit earning lowbie xp–that’s the design problem, but that’s another post…

    Imagine my horror when LotRO upped the ante to six in a fellowship!

  3. Zoso

    November 21, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Yeah, difficulty adjustments don’t tackle the central problem of role requirements. At least you don’t *need* a Class X or Y in CoH, but some team compositions are much, much more powerful than others, hence needing a way to increase the challenge for them (they even managed to make it worse in CoV, where the ideal team becomes one Stone Brute and seven Corruptors…) And mentoring/sidekicking only goes so far in helping out with level disparity. I just can’t believe that nothing’s built on those foundations… Guild Wars made a bit of a stab at it, still needing fixed team sizes but at least giving you bots to pad out the team if needs be, other than that, everything seems to be more than happy to dictate that there’ll be precisely 5/6/10/25/40 of you, and that’s that.

  4. tenfoldhate

    November 23, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    Hmmm. Not sure how I feel about scalable encounters throughout the course of an entire game, but I do think making certain instances scalable is a good way to keep old content relevant. I really think this is the approach Blizzard should take with great instances like ZG, Scholo, and Strat that were pretty much rendered irrelevant to all but the most exploration-oriented players post-BC.


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