Friday, January 9, 2009

Can Keep Warfare Overpopulation Be Fixed?

This week has seen both Mythic and Blizzard hard at work to deal with a fundamental problem with the design of keep seige warfare in MMORPG's - the seiges are TOO popular. This would seem to be a good problem to have, since it means that people are actually chosing to use the content. Unfortunately, MMORPG servers are built with the assumption that players are going to be spread out over the entire game world, and they tend to develop problems when hundreds of players are fighting it out for control of a single room. How can we deal with this?

Mythic: Throw the bums out (first)!
Mythic's approach is to add a new system that throws under-leveled players out of the keep to make room for max level players as the area becomes overcrowded. This isn't entirely without controversy on its own, as much of the draw of the Warhammer Public Quest approach is that anyone can come as they are, even under-leveled, and contribute to the battle, but I suppose most people will agree that max level characters will contribute the most.

Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to clear out server-crashing crowds, so the system will eventually lock down the entire area, punting even max level late-comers to the nearest warcamp. Players are concerned about what happens when you die and need to run back, amongst other details.

It'll be interesting to hear how this works in practice, but it does seem that "open world RVR" loses some of its lustre if it has to be partially locked down, even if this stops shy of actually instancing the keeps outright.

Blizzard: End the battle, end the lag: destroying Wintergrasp to save it
Blizzard is outright blaming Wintergrasp crowds for general server lag. As someone who is almost always actually in Wintergrasp when the battle is on, I think Wintergrasp may be falsely accused here - some of the worst outdoor lag I've seen has happened when Wintergrasp was NOT up and running. That said, it's certainly a problem when 300 people show up in peak hours and you can't actually see anything that's happening - I've been feared during the server lag and had the server freeze up for so long that my character physically ran clear through the keep wall before the server recovered.

In response, Blizzard added some balance tweaks in the January 7th PTR patch notes that appear to be aimed at ending the battle more quickly.

Without delving too deeply into the nitty gritty, there are three outer courtyards that the attacking team can go after, from which they attempt to break through to reach the one central courtyard. From the central courtyard, the attacking side has to batter down the final door to the keep, and one or more attackers has to go in and capture the orb, a 10 second channel that breaks on any damage. Under the new changes, the keep door will become much weaker and the orb will be captured instantly upon being clicked by an attacker.

I understand the problem that Blizzard is trying to address here - the initial stages of fighting spread out the battle across (or even outside) the keep, but the last stand against the door and in the orb room really force all the players to pack into a server-crippling mob. Once that happens, it may be in the server's best interest to end the battle quickly, and Blizzard has a clear preference for ending battles in favor of the offense so that the keep will change hands often.

The issue is that these changes, coupled with an increase in vehicle HP (which favors the attacking team, since they need vehicles to break through the walls), are going to vastly worsen a balance of power that already greatly favors the attacking team. Simply put, they may be destroying Wintergrasp to save it.

Can keep seiges work without crashing servers?
A large part of the problem may be due to the lack of options; WoW has only the single keep (and it is attackable on a fixed, if hard to keep track of, timer), while Warhammer's zone control system clearly indicates to players which fortresses are currently available for capture. If players COULD spread out to attack multiple fronts and still maintain some of the feel of the seige campaign, perhaps they would - I suggested incentives for just such an approach the last time I wrote on Wintergrasp crowding.

The other side of the problem, the technical one, though, may sadly be unsolvable. There is a lot of room for server optimization, perhaps including code that renders things at a lower resolution when the going gets rough, but the servers have a limited capacity. Eve recently asked players to schedule their invasions in advance, but Blizzard already knows when the Wintergrasp battles will occur, and that doesn't seem to be helping them fix the congestion. If two of the biggest guns in MMORPG's today can't fix this problem, perhaps MMORPG technology is still too new to fix this problem just yet. That's a real shame, because a good seige can be a lot of fun.


Klepsacovic said...

Server problems might even be the least of the problem, at least for players. My computer isn't awful, but it does not react well to 200 people all packed into the same place, most spamming AoEs.

One fix might be to split the keep in half, creating two place to capture. This would effectively split the attackers and defenders, using impenetrable walls in-between. If a side gets unbalanced, dead players will go to the GY for the other side. The paths of attack would be long enough that it would be a sufficiently significant annoyance to run back around to the other side.

As a terrible last resort: just add durability to deaths. Then you're forcing people away from the battle at least every ten deaths. Also it would almost destroy any willingness to die, or even go to the zone.

ThatsSkarWithAK said...

The containering of the Fortress/keep takes is hopefully an interim measure while Mythic further tune their code.

At the moment the capital cities are not really getting captured and so it's a lot of content that's being unused. Only so many times people will come to a fortress if it keeps crashing.

If they have to, they have indicated they will put the fortresses in their own instance, which I hope they don't have to.

Maybe the return of a 3 front war with 3 capital cities will spread the war out. However that does bring the problem of zergs choosing to ignore each other. Ho hum.

Fugazi said...

It simply should be instanced. Not with some funny 15 vs 15 but for example 200 vs 200 or whatever instance can handle.

Centuri said...

I think Blizz is taking the right steps with WG. If they can spread everyone out by forcing the defenders to go on the offensive to capture/destroy workshops and towers then it will cut down on the lag around the keep, where the main battle is taking place.

Tenacity really needs to be tweaked a little bit if they want to spread out the battle though. Having a 5v5 break out over a tower and having one side hitting twice as hard and with five times as much HP is extremely unbalanced and only encourages the more populated side to operate in a giant zerg.

My current strategy in WG is to get some rank quickly and take a demolisher/siege all the way down south, staying off of the roads. Then I get behind the two Southern workshops, where I am hard to be seen unless someone is looking for me. Then I can take them both out if I get left alone for a few minutes. Each workshop that you can take out removes 4 vehicles from the attacking side, which can be crippling in larger offensives.

Not really sure what WAR can do to spread people out in the keep sieges. Perhaps some secondary objectives within the tier 4 keeps and fortresses would at least siphon off a few groups of players.