Why Scaling Challenge Should Be the Future of MMO Content

Last week in the wee hours of a starlit Azeroth morning the Dark Iron Dwarves attacked the Brewfest revelry outside of Ironforge. Since there were only a few half-awake adventurers slinging mugs of ale at the endless waves of preordained interlopers, all of the precious brew was eventually stolen and we were defeated.

A similar thing happened last year during a visit from the fiendish Headless Horseman during Hallow’s End; not enough people showed up in Goldshire to put out the fires and all was lost.

In both cases the players who were there performed their tasks perfectly but were defeated. Why? It was because the developers failed to scale the encounter to the number of people that were engaged in the event.  The players who participated were doomed from the outset because not enough of their fellow players showed up.

Instead of giving players a chance to demonstrate skill and bravery the designers at Blizzard took the easy way out and turned the event into an crude numbers game. So what is Blizzard’s magic scripting formula for such an event?

Enough people = success

Not enough people = failure

Surely the most successful MMO company in history can do better than this?  Is is not patently unfair to penalize players who play a MMO in off-peak times with primitive scripting that doesn’t take into account the number of players involved in the event?

The solution is simple: it’s time to start scaling encounters in MMOs.


Let me start my proposal by posing a question: what are the most important numbers in the cosmos of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft? The answer is: 1, 5, 10 and 25. These are the de facto pseudo prime numbers by which players are allowed to congregate. The number 1 represents the solo player, 5 the group, and 10 and 25 are the size of raids which are multiples of 5.

Everything in WoW is designed around these arbitrary numbers. Millions of dollars of development resources go into designing, creating and testing content for these 4 special player denominations.

Given the tremendous popularity of WoW, doesn’t it seem overly restrictive that a massively multi-player RPG should be forcing players to assemble in such arbitrary and regimented groupings?

The fact is that people in the real world do not willingly assemble in preordained groupings — it’s unnatural and contrary to the human yearning for freedom and self-determination. Why then must people who inhabit virtual worlds be subject to the whim of some developer’s notion of a “group”? What of those unlucky players who can’t assemble in those numbers?

The Root of the Problem: Attendance Caps and Instancing

The current MMO design mindset is one of complete control over the player’s gaming experience. MMO designers masquerading as Hollywood directors have created encounters that are so tightly scripted that they end up making Riverdance’s Michael Flatley look like a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest. Unfortunately this mentality has metastasized to all areas of MMO scripting — even the innocuous holiday events like Brewfest and others.

As MMOs and virtual worlds have evolved we’ve seen an incremental loss of player freedom in exchange for the security of polished content courtesy of the developer. This has been achieved by the well-intentioned technology called instancing.

Once hailed as an innovation solution to “camping” and shortage of content, instancing has brought with it many problems. The biggest problem is that it’s a stealth tool of social engineering where the devs have removed the ability of players to freely assemble by controlling who can enter by virtue of artificial attendance caps. Once you are in the instance and under their control, content must be experience as intended.

In outdoor non-instanced spaces in a MMO like WoW players enjoy partial freedom to assemble. However, in indoor spaces players must enter instanced dungeons where no such freedom exists and a sort of soft totalitarianism prevails. The hapless player has entered the domain of the game designer — the true dungeon boss — as players are told how many people they can group with.

First let’s look directly into the face of the problem: artificial attendance caps.

Here’s a brief graphical look at the pros and cons of this system:

Next, let’s take a closer more detailed look at some of the problems that is caused by the typical MMO that requires the players form fixed size groups and raids.

The Grouping Problem

One of the biggest problems in MMOs today that keeps rearing its ugly head invariably occurs when the devs require people to muster a group in order to defeat monsters for experience, loot and quests.

The fact is that a significant percentage of the player base has trouble finding people to fill their groups. This happens for various reasons. According to Damion Schubert some players are loners and are shy. Some may be afraid of failure. Some may be playing a class that is too popular (hunters in WoW) and are not needed in a group. It may just be as simple as it’s late and not many people are online. Or it could be that the people online have already completed the quest or don’t need the rewards.

Regardless, the failure to provide scalable challenge has had the effect of locking out players with reasonable from the opportunity to complete content that they have paid to be able to experience.

How Guilds Are Impacted

Consider the small guild that doesn’t have enough players to fill up a 1o or 25 person raid. What chance do they have to succeed at content and encounters that were tuned with a full complement of 10 or 25 players if they bring fewer players with them?

Then consider the opposite problem: what if a guild has filled a 10 or 25 person raid but has extra members that would like to attend and help out? Why should guild members be forced to sit out and keep the bench warm while only a select few are able to attend? What kind of MMO segregates guild members and prohibits them from fully participating together by vanquishing foes in dungeons? The kind that Blizzard produces apparently.

Some questions need to be asked:

  • Why do MMO players continue to accept this sacred cow of artificial attendance caps?
  • Why have developers failed to properly scale encounters so that everyone can participate?
  • Why has the player community just accepted this form of control and coercion without even a whimper?

Establishing Some Design Principles

Before I explore my solution which is to scale content, it may be useful to identify two applicable design principles that I believe make for a healthy MMO:

  1. Social Interaction – The ultimate play style destination of a MMO should be one that promotes and fosters social interaction. Social interaction is what differentiates a MMO from a single-player game. The highest form of social interaction is grouping and raiding. Other forms of social interaction like chat, trade and just plain being online are primitive compared to the depth of social communion that is possible via grouping and raiding. Ergo grouping and raiding should be incentivized.
  2. Players Have A Legitimate Expectation To Experience Content – As I touched on briefly earlier, it’s sound and just policy to try to empower and encourage reasonably skilled players to experience all of the appropriate content available in your MMO. After all players are paying the same monthly subscription fee to experience your content. I can’t think of any other form of entertainment that purposely segregates access to parts of content other then the MMO industry. It’s unacceptable to purposely leave players sitting on the sidelines because of artificial attendance caps.

Solution 1: Down Scaling Challenge

The first kind of scaling that could be implemented would benefit the examples I gave above where a group can’t get enough members or a guild or raid can’t field enough players to fill a 10 or 25 person raid. In each case the hit points and damage of the enemies could be scaled down to compensate using a simple formula.

For example, if the optimum group size is 5 members then the damage being done by NPCs and the NPC hit points could be reduced by 20% for each member in the group below the optimum size. To prevent players from abusing this system other reductions would be seen in the number of coin and loot dropped to compensate for the lower number of group members. The quality of the loot would also be reduced to compensate.

This kind of system would incentivize players to avoid such loot penalties by offering an alternative by giving them better quality loot if they find more group members which has the added benefit of encouraging socialization and group interaction.

Solution 2: Up Scaling Challenge

The second kind of scaling ramps up the challenge for every extra member added. For every group or raid member that you add to the optimum size (i.e. 5 member group, 10 and 25 member raid) you ramp up the challenge by increasing the hit points and damage of the NPC enemies. More NPC enemies could also be added to increase the challenge for crowd control classes.

Players who add more members to their group and raid are performing a beneficial function and would be rewarded with higher loot drop rates and better quality loot. No longer would players and guild members be forced to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the guild is having fun killing monsters in a dungeon.

Various Pitfalls

Of course this system would have some potential problems that need to be addressed. I realize that some players would try to “game” this system by trying to find the sweet spot and expend the least amount of effort for the maximum gain. As long as you put enough disincentives toward small groups and incentivize large groups then this problem would be solved. The problem with quest rewards would have to be addressed by again providing extra benefits for completing the quest with the optimum size or larger.

At some point the devs would have to ensure that the quality of loot would have to hit a threshold that does not intrude on the next level of loot in a high level dungeon; there could be a slight amount of overlap though.

Another issue is that the difficulty of encounters should increase slightly faster than combined strength of the bigger raid sizes. Combine this with the added difficulty in managing larger raid sizes it would have the effect of making the best loot drops rarer and creating more replayability of the dungeon.

The biggest problem is that having a system of scaled encounters would increase the design, programming and testing costs — at least during the initial development phase of this kind of system.

The Epic Villain Problem

Another potential pitfall is that raid encounters could lose their epic quality. Epic is a term that has lost all meaning in MMOs lately due to misguided designers trying to dole out undeserved “heroism” to the masses on the cheap. I would suggest that only bona fide epic raid encounters have a suggested minimum but be designed for optimum number of players with NPC powers that scale either up or down depending how many players show up.

To further illustrate the epic villain problem I present to you Arthas. When the dastardly Lich King is defeated by the first guild sometime in 2010, only 25 players will be required. Just think about how preposterous that reality will be: a mere 25 players will be able to vanquish the Lich King — up till now the most powerful being in the Warcraft universe.

If anything this is truly an encounter that would benefit from scaling up. Why shouldn’t 80 players or more be able to take down Arthas if they so wish?

The greatest and most memorable event in all of MMO history happened back in November of 2003 when 200 players vanquished Kerafyrm the Sleeper — a uber-dragon designed to be unkillable in EverQuest. There has been no achievement since that will ever come even close to equating what transpired that day. That was truly an epic event that the designers at Blizzard will always remain woefully incapable of allowing due to their insatiable need to play Hollywood director as they seek to control every aspect of an encounter.

Notwithstanding all of Blizzard’s typical bells & whistles, the upcoming preordained “defeat” of Arthas will seem like a cardboard tube sword fight in comparison.


It’s perplexing that ten years into the MMO revolution that most players must conform to arbitrary and inflexible attendance caps. The right to associate, play and dungeon crawl with as many of your fellow players that you wish is not something that should be restricted in a genre that proclaims itself as massively multi-player. True community is only developed, nurtured and realized when we play together not apart.

Strangely enough, one of the few MMOs that has embraced scaling is SOE’s Free Realms where mobs seem to always provide a fairly consistent level of challenge no matter what level you are. While Free Realms is not perfect I think at least it’s a good start.

Regrettably for most of the 11.5 million WoW players, the tyranny of artificial attendance caps is all they will ever know. Why? Because it’s a system that only benefits a handful of complacent developers bereft of vision, imagination and respect for the virtue of community.

No one should ever be left behind or forced to sit out all because the group or raid is full. No player should ever be prevented from completing a dungeon crawl because not enough players are online. Scalable content could be the solution that makes MMOs more accessible and keeps everyone happy.


This article has been created with a genuine desire to address a gaping deficiency in the big picture of current MMO design. I believe it’s a discussion that needs to be started. Often design ideas look good on paper but need to be changed or modified during actual testing. I welcome any comments, feedback, suggestions and links that would help further refine these ideas.

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