Thursday, June 23, 2005

SWG: Population Density

Let's consider one of the most obvious approaches to increasing population density: Merging the servers to generate an increased sense of activity within the game world.

There are two issues here that could generate forum discussion for years:

1. The galaxies (in particular, NPC cities) don't feel as "alive" as they did when SWG launched.

This is just simple truth. Those of us fortunate enough to have been around for the first few weeks after SWG launched remember what it was like: every NPC town, no matter how small, was a buzzing beehive of activity. Even the outposts on the "adventure planets" had plenty of explorers, while every town on Naboo, Corellia, and Tatooine was full of players seeing the sights, learning the systems, and interacting with each other (and with NPCs).

If anything, many places felt too crowded!

This is no longer the case. For many months now, and despite the addition of various combat-only dungeons, Jump to Lightspeed, the Combat Upgrade, and Rage of the Wookiees, the number of players to be seen has dropped precipitously. In many places, it's possible to go for weeks without ever seeing a blue dot on your radar.

This isn't necessarily due to anything SOE did "wrong." SWG attracted a lot of people when it launched simply because it was an online Star Wars game; there was no way it (or any other game) could have retained all those players no matter how great it was. (Could it have been better? I think so, but that's debatable.) The numbers when SWG launched were not sustainable; some reduction in the number of players wandering around was inevitable.

And yet... many places have felt awfully empty for a long time now. And that just doesn't seem right.

2. Although "server consolidation" is a fairly popular idea for restoring that feeling of activity, it has some serious issues that would have to be addressed, and there are other alternatives that could be considered.

The main problem with consolidation is fairness to those on the servers that get closed down and whose characters are moved to another server. (There's also a question of fairness to those players on the server that suddenly gets a whole bunch of new players -- Merchants might not be happy about the additional competition for sales, for example. But these problems are, I think it's fair to say, relatively minor compared to those of the folks who get displaced.)

Let me mention a few examples. (I'll use myself in some of these examples, but that's only because I'm familiar with these issues -- they're not just about me; they're intended to be representative of what would happen to numerous people.)

a. Because I've had the Merchant Advertising 3 skill for a while, as well as a shop and vendors, I happen to have the two top slots for Equipment vendors on the Planetary Map listing of vendors for Radiant/Naboo. I don't get many sales because of this, but I do get some, and I'd suffer financially if I didn't get those sales.

What happens if Radiant gets shut down and all its characters have to move elsewhere? Suppose I move to Kettemoor/Naboo -- do I get the top two Equipment vendor slots on Naboo's planetary map? If so, how is that fair to the person who held those two slots on Kettemoor before I showed up? If not, how is that fair to me?

In general, what happens to the people who've maintained vendors and Advertising 3 long enough to gain those high-level Planetary Map slots in other sales categories on the various planets? How do you divide an indivisible asset in a way that's fair to everyone?

b. Many months ago (before vehicles/mounts) I picked out a nice place for a house and set up shop. It was on a long spit of land between two bodies of water so that players running between Theed and Keren would be likely to pass by my shop. The location isn't as meaningful as a sales tool now that players don't have to run everywhere, but it's still got a very nice view.

If I'm forced to move to another server, what happens if there's already a house on the new server where mine was on my old server? What about the players who jumped on prime spots near Theed and Coronet, and who rely on those locations for business?

How is it right for a player to be "penalized" for having the bad luck to choose a server that gets marked for closure? (And to anyone who shrugs and says "Why should I care what happens to merchants?": when the crafters and merchants quit playing because they lose the perks they worked to gain, who's going to make and sell you that 133t gear you had your eye on at a price you can afford?)

c. I'm not a Tailor, but suppose I were. Tailors depend on being able to customize colors of clothing. So they often need to create each type of clothing in multiple color styles to increase their chances of making a sale. This can result in Tailors having several thousands of units of product on their vendors at a time.

Question: How do you move thousands of items to another server? If players must have all their possessions in their inventory in order to to be transferred, there's no way many players will be able to retain all their existing stock. If, on the other hand, the transfer system allows players to move entire houses full of vendors stuffed with items, how does the system know where to place those houses on the new server? Even if it's possible to develop code to handle this situation, is designing and writing that code really what SWG's programmers should be doing with their time?

This is just a small peek at the kinds of questions that would need to have answers before a server consolidation could happen. In fact, I'll bet I'm not even mentioning the hardest questions.

Which leads me to wonder: although we agree that the galaxies were more fun when they were more crowded, is there some way other than server consolidation that we could make our existing galaxies seem more active? Are there any other ways to reach that goal?

Well, the best way is easy to say: attract and retain more players! No doubt SOE itself would prefer this solution. :smileyvery-happy: But it's probably not something we should count on being able to achieve, even if we knew exactly how to do it.

So what are some other possibilities?

1. Make the planets smaller.

This would work in the same way that decreasing the volume of a gas (while holding its temperature constant) increases its pressure. But it's probably not a realistic option, as it runs into the same kind of "where would stuff go?" questions that server consolidation generates. Plus it's nice occasionally to be able to go where there's not a crush of people; it would be best if we could retain that.

2. Allow players to "rent apartments" in NPC cities.

This has been a very popular suggestion virtually since SWG launched. It would almost certainly increase player activity in NPC cities, which is what we want. On the other hand, unless these "apartments" had to be crafted by Architects, the market for houses would be severely damaged. And if it were possible to have vendors inside an NPC city apartment, the Architects might never sell another house at all.

There's also the point that this system wouldn't do anything to promote living in the smaller NPC cities -- there'd probably be massive lag due to every player not currently in a player city trying to move into Theed, Coronet, or Anchorhead/Mos Eisley.

And then there's that issue of player cities -- what happens to them if NPC apartments become available? If you think there are too many player cities, then you might like the idea of NPC apartments... but what if being part of a player city is important to you? (And I don't just mean those who enjoy the Politician profession.)

Finally, there's the bottom line: is an NPC city "apartment" even possible technically? The occasional comments from various developers over the past couple of years suggest that it's not. For whatever reason, this idea seems to be a non-starter with the developers.

3. Add content to NPC cities that makes it attractive to spend long amounts of time there.

I personally like this approach -- it's more of a carrot than a stick, and it offers the opportunity to the developers to add new content that would directly increase the amount of socialization and community in the game. That would be a Good Thing.

a. One possibility that you and I have both suggested is Player Arenas. Everybody wins with this one: combat players get to bash each others' brains out in a socially sanctioned way (as opposed to randomly dueling in the street); enterprising players could run betting parlors; and everybody else gets to enjoy a spectacle (and maybe make a little money in the process). If we wanted to get silly we could even establish a "circuit" system on each planet that has arenas: In order to be allowed to compete in the Mos Eisley arena, say, you'd first have to win 50% of your matches (minimum of 25 matches) in the Bestine arena, and to compete there you'd have to win 33% of your matches (minimum of 10 matches) in any other arena on Tatooine. You could even have different rules per each arena, or per planet -- maybe gentle Naboo only allows arena fights to incapacitation, while savage Tatooine permits deathblows (and bigger stakes! /evilgrin).

b. Another possibility for increasing player presence in NPC cities would be to offer special benefits to using city facilities. Maybe public crafting stations give a bonus to assembly or experimentation that you can't get using a private crafting station -- how fast would the crafters run to the NPC cities for every item that didn't require a private crafting station or benefit from being cranked out in a factory? You could even give different cities different specialties -- maybe Kor Vella is a great place to make ranged weapon powerups; maybe Moenia is the place to be if you want to make musical instruments; maybe the galaxy's best medicines are crafted in Anchorhead.

c. What about making NPCs themselves more interesting? Currently they either stand around by themselves waiting to give a mission, or stand "talking" with another NPC (and are thus just scenery), or walk randomly about (like RSF troops or droids). This isn't wrong, exactly... but it does seem like a waste of good NPC code. Heck, they don't even run to or away from a gunfight that erupts just around the corner! Why don't NPCs "hear" better?

One of the more entertaining NPC things I've seen recently was a Corellian CorSec operative attacking a police officer. Every time the officer respawned, the CorSec operative would return to attack again. I figured this was a bug... but what an interesting bug! "Why," I wondered, "would these officials be attacking each other? What's the story here?" Why doesn't general faction (i.e., not Rebel/Imperial faction) play as much of a role between NPCs as it does between players and NPCs? Why aren't NPCs doing more interesting things to and with each other, just like PCs do? Aren't there supposed to be a million stories in the naked city? Where are those stories? Why aren't they happening all the time, and just begging players to get involved in those local affairs? Why don't NPCs seem to have goals that they actively pursue and that players could become a part of, rather than being isolated mission-givers? The Combat Upgrade is said to have improved combat AI... what about AI improvements for non-combatant NPCs?

d. As a final suggestion along those lines, I like the idea of there being "bad parts of town," but let's be fair to players -- always give them a way to go around such places, and give them tools for seeing where these places are. In addition to not instaspawning aggro'ing NPCs on top of CL1 players, how about this: Rather than coloring everything green on the overhead map, mark the "bad" parts of town in red. So, you're new to town and you want to know where the "no-go" zones are? Simple: Bring up your overhead map with "M" or "Ctrl-M" -- if you're in a red-colored area, turn around and start running because you're about to get jumped. (On the other hand, if you're looking for a little combat action, the nearest red area may be exactly where you want to go!) And we can improve on this idea even further: maybe the bad part of town is where the less savory mission-giving NPCs live -- if your tastes run to smuggling, spying, theft, skullduggery and mayhem of various types, this is where you'd need to go to find the NPCs who give those kinds of missions.