On the Drawing Board #11: Maximum Party Size


Last year’s announcement that no more than 4 or 5 players would be allowed in the same game of Diablo 3 was a surprising design decision. Why would they allow less than the 8 permitted in Diablo 2? Aren’t players used to the huge parties in MMORPGs going to find such small groups boring?  Players might have been asking the wrong question, though. The issue isn’t “What’s the maximum party size?”  The issue is, “What’s the ideal party size?” After all, we’re playing the game for fun. We’re not the fire marshal setting a maximum occupant limit on a dive bar.

Click through to read complete coverage of this issue, including blue quotes explaining Blizzard’s reasoning, and a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of limiting the game size in Diablo 3.

No one has compiled a list of the top ten projected Diablo 3 features that fans don’t like (now there’s an idea), but if there were such a list, the fact that the maximum number of players in a game is projected to be fewer than the 8 allowed in Diablo 2, would definitely be on it. This change is not yet set in stone, and will surely be a setting Blizzard tests out during the beta test, but for now the D3 Team seems to be leaning towards limiting the total players in a game to 4 or 5.

This “feature” was a surprise to most fans when announced, since 8 players in a game has become something of the industry standard. Furthermore, game sequels tend to be bigger and (hopefully) better. They usually offer more features, larger game sizes, most monsters, and more everything. MOAR!  There’s a pretty clear progression on this issue: Diablo I allowed 4 players in a game. Diablo II allowed 8 players in a game. Diablo 3 allows… 4 or 5? When asked about the limit back in October at Blizzcon, Jay Wilson said:

“It grows more and more set all the time. In Diablo 2, eight player games are very uncommon, and they wouldn?t be in the same party or the like and we have just found that it?s not as fun as with four people. We have the ability to set any number we want, but four seems to work out very well.”

Blizzard’s Rob Pardo mentioned the same issue in his own Blizzcon interview:

Rob Pardo: “We’re a little bit worried that if you go up to too many players that you’re not really going to be playing together anymore. We want to make sure it’s a great co-op experience where you really play with the people you’re with, so we’ve just got to experiment and figure out what the optimal number is.”

As both Jay and Rob stress, the number isn’t locked in, and it’s not a number arrived at by some technical process or limitation. It’s based on what’s fun and playable and enjoyable, as determined through play testing, which means it’s very subject to change. When pressed on this issue in an interview late last year, DiabloWikiJay Wilson explained that they could let 8 or 12 or 16 or more in a game without having to clear any major technical hurdles. In fact, bigger games are better, from a technical standpoint—it’s less load on DiabloWikiBattle.net to have more players in fewer games than vice versa.  And as Jay went on to explain, multiplayer games are a relative scarcity on Battle.net even in these Diablo 2 days.

Jay Wilson: They [the D2 designers] liked the idea that players can compete against one another while being co-operative. But I think – while a noble experiment – it mostly proved to make players not like each other and not want to play together. The average game size on battle.net in Diablo 2 games is 1.2 players – which basically means almost everyone is playing games by themselves. One of the main reasons is ?why would you want to play with someone else?? They can go hostile at any time and kill you, mostly in an exploitive way and it?s not like it?s a fair fight – you?d probably be dead before you even noticed they went hostile; there?s a good chance they?ll steal all your loot so you won?t get anything good and it just makes the game a little bit harder so why would you want to play that way?

Jay’s explanation can be debated: in my experience most players do solo games not because of PKs, but since they’re item-hunting while kited out in DiabloWikimagic find equipment, and it’s much more efficient (and rewarding) to do DiabloWikiPindleskin or DiabloWikiMephisto or the Pit or DiabloWikiThe Countess runs in a solo game. But Jay’s info about Battle.net game sizes is interesting, and it leads nicely into our pros and cons discussion.

Arguments about this issue require some conjecture, since no one outside of Blizzard has played enough D3 to say what size party works or doesn?t work. However, since the D3 team has constantly compared the D3 play experience to D2, especially in regards to this party-size issue, it seems fair to speculate and extrapolate from D2 experience.  Here’s the argument in support of Jay’s D3 design theory. It’s followed by a rebuttal.

(Many of these points were first made in this thread.)

Eight player Diablo 2 games are uncommon and unbalanced

The vast majority of D2 games are solo games. Many other games hold 2-4 characters, and would be unchanged in D3. Why do people play in larger games in D2? Quite often the 8 player games on Battle.net are made to support PvP dueling, trading, or guild activity. All three of those activities will be even more popular in D3, but there are supposed to be special game types to support them, so players won’t be doing that in normal games, as they do in D2 (lacking any other option).

Of the remaining games that hold up to 8 players, what’s going on in them? Some amount are for new characters to party in and level up, and of those Jay has a point when he says that Pking is a problem. An aggressive PK can ruin the play experience for half a dozen other players, but for most players the solution to that problem isn’t to play solo, it’s to wish for better PK controls. Leveling up and new/mid level character games are fairly common, but they’re not in the majority. Most large games on Battle.net can be described in one word.

Runs.

Most public 8 player games are ?runs.” Games created and filled up very quickly, by players who are all there for a quick dash on the hamster wheel of experience. These games are filled by strangers playing together out of necessity, as they all charge through whatever game area is most profitable in that patch. Runs are usually named for their purpose, often with a number in the name, which is advanced one or two clicks by whoever creates the next one. “baalrunz14,” for instance. This style of play is exploited for fast and easy experience gain, and the players are only in a party since they must be to share experience. Players don’t actually work as a team, unless they just happen to be targeting the same monsters for one moment, and when that happens it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening.

The Diablo 2 screen size and isometric view don’t allow huge groups to work together. Diablo 2 doesn’t have vast levels with raid type content and a zoomable 3D PoV camera, as most MMORPGs do. There’s only so much “stuff” that can be displayed at once, and when you get more than 6 characters on the same screen, the game becomes a mad scramble.  The chaos and frenzy of it can be fun, but the frantic action and obscured visibility (example below) makes accurate targeting or controlled play an impossibility for any character without AoE attacks. And that will be even more true in Diablo 3, with its bigger graphics and more destruction from spells and skills. Large games are workable in D2, but they’re not the best type of gameplay, and it’s understandable why the D3 team wants to eliminate them.

Rebuttal

If players don’t play large games because of PKs, the solution is to fix the PK problem, not ban large games. And since D3 is not going to support non-consensual PvP… problem solved?

Also, while it’s arguably true that 8 player games of D2 (and D3) are chaos if all the players are in the same area, D2 (and D3) has large areas. And lots of areas. And multiple acts. There’s no reason that every character has to be in the same area in the same game. It can be fun to play with friends or even with strangers in the same large game, even if you’re not fighting the same monsters at the same time. Plus, it boosts the experience gain and item drops.

In most versions of D2, powerful characters have been so much stronger than the monsters that solo play becomes ridiculously easy. One of my favorite things to do in v1.09 was to join cow level run games, and go do Baal solo while everyone else hunted hamburger. It was more or less a way to emulate DiabloWikiplayers x on Battle.net, and the increased difficulty and item rewards were awesome. Try as the D3 Team will to properly scale up the game difficulty in D3, we all know some characters and builds will be powerful enough to make a mockery of the monsters. Why remove the ability of those players to join large games and go solo?

Besides, runs are fun. Rushes are fun. Twinking is fun. Boss farming is fun. Players always have and always will seek out the greatest reward for the least time/risk, and the game designer who works hard to remove all the ways players prefer to play is putting their game design goals above and ahead of player fun.  Why put in arbitrary limits and rules to force players to play how you want them to?

Compromise solution

Control party size with carrots, rather than sticks.

If 8 player Diablo 3 games are no fun or are unrewarding, players won’t play them.  Few players especially enjoy the mad rush of an 8 player game in D2, but the rewards are so great and so fast that it’s still worth it. It would be elementary to tweak that players/time/rewards dynamic.  In D3 if experience gains and item drops have harshly diminishing returns past 4 characters in the same game, players will figure that out quickly. Especially if the difficulty increases disproportionately. Lower the experience sharing, limit item drops, cut DiabloWikihealth globe sharing, etc.

This wouldn’t exactly be “fair” but is hard capping games at 4 or 5 any more fair? If players can play in larger games, but they are not as overly-rewarded for them as they are in D2, problem solved?

Other Issues

A few other issues also worthy of discussion.

The idea of nerfing exp/item gains in larger games is one approach, but that accepts the D3 Team’s basic argument that larger games aren’t fun or recommended.  You are free to challenge that assumption, to state your preference for huge, mad scramble games, and to argue that they should be the most rewarding in D3, as they are in D2.

Arena games. Guild games. Raid content. These topics have come up repeatedly, and while we hope some or all of them are implemented in D3, if they’re not then the ban on larger games becomes more objectionable.

Aside from the visual issues, it gets harder to balance and play test the game the more elements are added in. The D3 Team can probably make the game fairly well balanced and reasonable if they count on 3 or 4 or 5 characters in a game. When they get up to 6 or 8 or more, there are just too many variables, and as a result some monsters will be much too hard, or too easy, some skills will become useless or overpowered, etc. In all cases, the quality of the gameplay experience is diminished.

Lag and performance issues also come in. The more players and graphics, the more load on your machine. If they allow 8 players they might have to compress graphics, reduce objects thrown off by spells, and generally lower the visual quality of the game to keep the system requirements from scaring off some gamers.

Where do you stand on the issue? Do you agree with the D3 Team and their reasoning? Like the compromise solution? Disagree with everything? Hit the comments to make your voice heard.



On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.

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