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Scaling Difficulties and Party Size, Part 1

May 29, 2013

Dear Reader,

I’ve been playing a lot of different types of co-op games recently.  My life revolves around co-op games since my wife, my buddy, and I are so competitive that playing those types of games on a regular basis is simply not a good idea.  It’s gotten me thinking about the different ways in which games handle different party sizes, and as a result I’ve generated a list of what I’ve encountered with some thoughts about each, so over the next two correspondences, we’ll take a look at the four strategies I came up with: using different content, scaling mob hp and power, increasing the amount of mobs, and doing nothing.

The first I’d call the “Standard MMO” way of dealing with different party sizes: different content.  We see this in virtually every MMO out there; you have solo content (sometimes forcibly so, a la The Secret World), small group content (LotRO has 3 person dungeons, WoW has scenarios, and basically everything has 5 or 6 person dungeons), medium sized group content (like 10 man raids), and large group content (big battlegrounds, 25 or 40 man raids).  Some games try to incorporate every different step into their content, and other games build themselves around doing a single one of these very well, like Planetside 2.

There’s many benefits to this model, which is probably why it became standard.  Since each encounter is carefully mapped to a single party size, it can be carefully calibrated to provide the correct amount of challenge.  This is often the standard for pen and paper RPGs; the DM knows what size party he or she will be working with and designs an adventure around it.

The drawback, of course, is that not everyone will get to see all the content that way.  Plenty of people never see raids in various games due to this constraint; some might call it punishing players for not having friends.  My buddy used this phrase to describe a situation we ran in to with Neverwinter; a lot of the foundry quests are tailored only to a single person.  As a result, we have to do them parallel rather than together.  When we were discussing why a designer would do that, we realized it was so that everyone could give them a go, that the designers were not punishing people for not having friends, and we felt more understanding and appreciative of that design.

If different content is the MMO standard, then giving mobs more abilities or more hit points is the Action RPG/FPS standard.  In Torchlight 2, Diablo 3, and Borderlands 2, we’ve encountered this as the way to handle larger groups.  This seems to be a simple solution to a potentially complex problem, and often it works very well. However, as D3 taught us (among other things, like don’t buy D3), there can be problems with scaling a mob’s hit points without considering the unintended consequences.

One of my other buddies, Kaleedity (who’s often around here), is the best video game player I know.  I’m sure there are better, of course; I don’t know that many people, but among our small circle, he reigns king.  If we’re whining about how hard something is, he’s devised a strategy to overcome it.  That means when he runs into problems, then shit’s about to get real.  In D3, he described pulls that were literally impossible for him to beat, champions and elites whose powers were so synergistic as to render them unkillable.  He told us of having to simply reload the game when he ran into those kinds of pulls.  It was one of the many reasons that my group of 3 or 4 didn’t go on past the first playthrough; we were having problems with some of the champs already; why on Earth would we choose to face that frustration?

The drawback of this strategy, then, is obvious.  When you have “glass cannon” monsters whose hp has scaled with 4 players into huge health pools, then if everyone in the party isn’t outputting optimal dps, the mobs becomes more challenging than it should be, potentially even impossible.  On the other hand, if you have tanky mobs who’ve scaled into doing a lot of sustained damage, then one person is getting killed on each pull from unsustainably-high damage while the other members of the part slog through the grinding down of the monster’s huge hit points.

Next time, we’ll take a look at two (and a half) other common strategies for dealing with more players: adding more mobs and, of course, doing nothing.


Stubborn (and cooperative)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2013 7:56 am

    I never found mob health to be the root of the problem in D3 but rather, as your friend states, the synergies that champion packs developed as you went up in difficulty. There were some sets of affixes and suffixes that could only be defeated with a reload. That’s not so much a scaling issue as a “did anyone test this?” issue. Barring those packs things could be challenging, which was good, but it was possible to beat the packs and move on.

    More generally I think that MMO scaling comes back to discrete roles. I find soloing on the characters I usually run to go DK > Warlock >>> Shaman. A Blood DK has so much self healing and survivability that the loss of DPS is almost trivial. As you add more people individual durability starts to mean less but the correct application of role to situation matters more. Unfortunately the one current AAA attempt to get around the role problem (GW2) is a zergfest. Not very compelling if the only thing you are doing in an encounter is racing to spam the nuke key for a high contribution.

    • May 29, 2013 1:54 pm

      “Prefixes” and “suffixes” or “affixes”. That’s the price of indecision I suppose.

  2. Tellah permalink
    May 29, 2013 1:07 pm

    I’ve always thought that DIablo 2 did a very good job of giving various characters different ways to contribute to the well being of the party. Auras, traps, curses, shouts (off the top of my head) all let the party have some semblance of synergy when working together. One of my favorite builds in D2 was a necromancer (summoner) who had auras from items. Multiplayer synergies in singleplayer action!

  3. kaleedity permalink*
    May 29, 2013 1:21 pm

    oh man I’m blushing

    I can respect a designer’s choice in difficulty to throw a randomized impossible encounter at you if the penalties for avoiding the encounter are not harsh. It’s one of those things where, if you know for a fact that you’re going to run into feasibly impossible scenarios, it’s a lot easier to swallow. Traditional RPGs of all flavors have been abandoning that style for a long time, and there are a lot of good reasons why — mostly, there’s often no way to tell that an encounter is impossible until you die and that’s not fun. I went into inferno D3 expecting impossible encounters and I got them. Most Diablo players would not enjoy that possibility.

    It’s also something you can’t really have in a fast paced multiplayer game — If your group has time to discuss something it can work, but most games outside of MMOs are not set up in the “See idle enemies, walk near or shoot them to activate them” model.

    Closer on topic, I was preparing to write something on Co-op or local multiplayer gaming development — rather, the lack of it nowadays — after Pax but I haven’t gotten around to it. One of the biggest reasons why you don’t see more finely tuned multiplayer content is because the party size question is so difficult to take into consideration. Difficulty design itself is usually overlooked or poorly served even in single player games.

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