Group Size, Group Flexibility

Getting ZMud running again put me back to thinking about MUDs and groups and how things evolved when MMOs came along, at least from my own limited perspective.

Origins in the MUD

Back in the day, back in Sojourn/TorilMUD a group was the only team unit, and it could contain up to 16 people.  There were no raid groups.  If you needed to do something and it seemed like it needed more than 16 people, you were probably doing it wrong.

All text, all the time

But the way the game was structured, there were pressures to keep group size small in the form of experience and loot.

Experience for each kill was divided up equally among the group.  The less people in the group, the more experience for everybody.  Likewise, fewer individuals in the group meant bigger shares when the coins were split at the end of the day and less competition for valued drops.

So for some things, like experience groups, you wanted to keep the team small.  But there is always a balance.

The pirate ship, as an example, used to be a key experience zone.  It had a variety of tough mobs that gave good experience.  Granted, beyond level 40 or so, there were relatively few mobs that one could safely solo with all classes, though some classes could manage better than others.  But the fat experience mobs on the pirate ship were not soloable.  (Hush you rogues, your assassinate skill wasn’t all that reliable and had a long cool down.)

I have been in two person pirate ship groups.  There were some mobs that a healer and a tank could do, if they expended everything they had and rested between fights.  But while the experience from each kill was good, kills were very slow.

At the other end, the right six person group, or even the sloppiest seven or eight person group, could slaughter the whole ship and be sitting around waiting for the zone to repop for five to ten minutes.  Experience wasn’t as good, but downtime was very low.  The zone itself was the restriction.

Somewhere in between was an optimum group, but you had to figure that out.  And the optimum group would change depending on who was at the keys and what classes they were playing.

A three player group had to have an enchanter with the spell dragon scales, a damage reducing spell that would keep the tank from losing too much health for the healer to heal.  A well equipped tank and a good healer were also required.

That group got great experience per kill and wasn’t slowed down too much between fights.  But if you added the right fourth player, some massive damage dealer for example, then you could clear most of the ship before repop.  Experience was still good and downtime was low.

And even when you hit an optimum group size and were racking up experience, there was always room for a friend if they logged on.  Or if you knew somebody had to leave in a bit you would try to get a replacement there, and if they arrived early, you could just carry the whole group around for a bit until the other person left.

Anyway, this is a long series of examples that really just wanted to show that there was a degree of flexibility in groups back in the day.  You could optimize for what you wanted.  For experience in a known area, you solved for a good balance between exp and down time.  If you were going to explore some brand new zone that the devs put in, you might drag along a full group of 16 people just to ensure that things didn’t go awry, death having consequences and all that.

Dawn of the MMO Age

Then there was EverQuest, which was in many ways, as I have often said, influenced by TorilMUD.  Like TorilMUD, there were quests, but they were about getting equipment, not about earning experience.  You did experience the old fashioned way, you went out with a group, camped out an area, then proceeded to slay.

Group size was reduced to six players, but for grinding mobs there was usually a happy optimum group size of three or four players, with the usual trade offs in downtime versus experience per kill.

Yes, raiding also came on the scene, and raid groups grew way beyond the 16 player limit that TorilMUD imposed.  But a group was still a pretty flexible unit in EverQuest.  I don’t recall ever feeling we couldn’t go do something because we didn’t have a full group of six players.

WoW and the Perfect Ratio

Time passed.

EverQuest II and World of Warcraft arrived on the scene.  The cult of the quest was born.

Both games used quests as the main method of experience gain.

EverQuest II had (back at launch) a good portion of quests that required a group, and a group was still six players.  There was still, however, flexibility in group size.  In our guild we ran off to do group quests, especially writs for guild progress, with three or four people.  We delved into the Qeynos sewers, Stormhold, and the Ruins of Varsoon in like sized groups, optimizing for downtime versus experience.  It was probably out of habit, since quest rewards were not affected by group size.

But in World of Warcraft, a group was five players.  And not just any five players, but a tank, a healer, and three DPS players.  This was the optimum group and there was little room for flexibility when it came to group content in general, and instanced dungeon content in particular.

You could go after instances at level with four people, but the first boss would let you know exactly how much margin for error you really had, if you had any at all.

And the dungeon finder has cemented that 1/1/3 ratio.  You want to do an instance with dungeon finder, you have to get five people willing to fill each of those slots, no exceptions.  And no flexibility.

We have been very fortunate in our regular instance group to have exactly five regular members.  And despite wavering from the perfect ratio at times, there was a stretch when we were effectively 2/1/2, we were ultimately most successful when we adhered to the group dynamic for which the content was designed.

What Price Success?

And while we were successful, sometimes success isn’t everything.

The lack of flexibility, the lack of that extra slot in the group, meant that while we have a number of friends, relatives, and acquaintances who play WoW, nobody outside the group can really expect to come along with us on an instance run.

If we are all there, the group is full.  If one of us is missing, then the friend has to be the right class, the right level, and on the right server.  So in four years I think only two or three times has somebody outside of the regular group gone on an instance run with us in WoW.  And I think that person was Gaff each time.

So as much as I appreciate how well WoW instances are tuned for the 1/1/3 group, I do look back at the old days when groups were somewhat looser in scope and wonder if the group dynamic had to be set so firmly in stone.

In LOTRO, for example, you have some controls to play with, should you not have the right number of players to fill out a group.  The content is set for a group of six there, but you can reduce the level of the instance or skirmish to help compensate for coming up short.

But I wonder if LOTRO would be so accommodating if they were closer to WoW in subscriptions.  And they certainly do not have something like the dungeon finder to form up groups that meet a predetermined group dynamic.

And then there is EVE Online.  If you want to bring a fleet along with you to your solo mission, go right ahead.

EVE Mission line of battle

You guys work out how to split the drops and the salvage and the game will split up any faction points and cash rewards for finishing the mission.

EVE is very MUD-like in that regard.  However, EVE’s focus isn’t very PvE and if you want anything more challenging than a soloable level 4 mission for your fleet, you have to expose yourself to PvP.  And, as in most games, PvE does not train you for PvP in EVE.

So Where Is The Balance?

It is tough to say that WoW should change, because they tune their content so specifically to the 1/1/3 ratio.  Automatic scaling is a nice idea, but do you assume that you always have another DPS player along?  The odds are likely, but what if you end up with a protection pally instead?

On the other, it would be nice to have some flexibility in groups beyond which three of us are going to be DPS this time around.

14 thoughts on “Group Size, Group Flexibility

  1. SynCaine

    UO did not have groups coded into the game. You also did not gain XP, so anyone swinging at something was gaining weapon skill. The game was full loot on death, so ninja looting was risky business and everything revolved around gold anyway.

    EI: Basically like EVE, with the two major differences being that the entire world was PvP enabled (outside of NPC cities), and skills went up through use rather than time.

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  2. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Freddy – I didn’t play UO, which is why I included the phrase “from my own limited perspective.”

    Plus, while UO has influenced the genre, the evolution of the mainstream seems to me to be MUD->EQ->WoW, at least for the PvE world, which is what I was addressing.

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  3. Bhagpuss

    In a decade I haven’t found any format that just feels as “right” as the EQ group. There seemed to be so many roles to fill, something for everyone to do and several things for most, yet there was enormous flexibility in who could fit into what role.

    You generally needed tanking, healing, slowing, crowd control and you wanted mana regen, off-tanking, haste and a whole boatload of buffs/utilities if you could get them, but other than on real cutting-edge content you could make-do-and-mend with almost any combination of classes.

    Putting groups together was a creative act and a really good group was like performance art.

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  4. NBarnes

    Bhagpuss: I think a big part of that was that class design and balance in EQ was more different from WoW’s paradigm than I think people appreciate. WoW’s multiple talent trees, including a DPS-oriented tree for each class, represents a massive shift away from EQ’s much more narrow class design. EQ classes, generally, did one, maybe two, things really well and did almost nothing else. Some classes, like druids, could solo acceptably, but were underpowered in groups in ways that WoW players, I think, would find startling. Rogues only DPS’d. They couldn’t heal, couldn’t tank, and couldn’t solo. Enchanters had CC capabilities that would make WoW mages and warlocks green with envy, but had almost no DPS capability; almost none, that is, unless they were in one of the semi-arbitrarily placed zones where they could find something to use a charm spell on, in which case they usually became the highest DPS class in the game, sometimes by, I do not kid, more than an order of magnitude. And EQ had, at the time I stopped playing, a full fourteen classes. WoW had, at launch, less than half of that, with a much greater emphasis on spreading important roles across multiple classes.

    EQ’s class balance was kinda weird and arbitrary. One of the things I think WoW really brought to the MMOG table was a very systematic view of what constitutes ‘balance’ and a great shift away from certain dogmas about fantasy CRPG design. One of the consequences of that shift has been, it seems to me, a certain standardization of group composition in WoW, in that the desired design goal is for any DPS class to be able to fill a ‘DPS’ slot in a group or raid. It’s been a boon for class balance, which is better in WoW than EQ ever managed, by a larger degree than can easily be expressed. But it does mean that the kind of group building exercises that can constitute a minigame in themselves don’t exist in WoW. On the other hand, that group building minigame can also turn into a reason to not play EQ anymore, if you just can’t find the right classes to play the game at all for a week straight.

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  5. mbp

    Have you tried any of the 3 man instances in Lotro? They are a lot of fun and they really force you to rethink the rules about groups. While you might be lucky and get tank heal dps it is also possible to run the instances with lots of other combinations. It keeps life interesting and in a 3 man everyone has to pull their weight.

    It helps of course that most Lotro classes have multiple roles but don’t most mmorpgs allow for that these days (I am sure I heard that WoW allows dual spec.)

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  6. *vlad*

    I used to play Phantasy Star Online a while back. In that game there were 4 players in a team, but no tanks per se. Instead we had melee dps, ranged dps, and magic(tech)dps.
    Challenge Mode was the hard-core version of the game, with people trying to beat their personal times for completing all the stages. You could easily see other people’s times, so it was very much about epeen when standing in the lobbies. My Episode 1 time approx 3 hours 28 minutes, if that means anything to anyone!

    There was no party healing per se. It was your job to avoid standing in the fire, and to avoid mob damage, too. You got a limited number of healing potions, and that was it. If you died it was likely your fault. If you died twice in one run, you were a noob.
    Having basically 4 dps made the game very simple, but because of that, success really did depend on the player and not on the character, and for that reason, it was very elitist.

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  7. Ponder

    TAGN, on a slightly tangential but relevant issue.

    My experience in D&D and MUDs was that classes were so unique in their abilities that group synergies were a fascinating puzzle.

    After playing WoW 4.0.3, it fills me with dread when I read classes are now so balanced that they all have similiar dps/cc/buffs/damage mitigation/cooldowns.

    It won’t be long till all classes can tank and heal, and class difference are cosmetic…

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  8. boatorious

    For maybe three to five months after launch WoW allowed up to 20 in a dungeon. I still remember a crazy 16-man Scholomance run. It was fun just for the experience.

    But I’m so glad that option is gone now. Giving players the ability to make dumb choices that affect an entire group (“I’m the tank and I’m not starting this 5-man until we have 4 DPS, 4 healers, and an off-tank”) rarely ends well.

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  9. Xyd

    LOL @Wilhelm regarding that other post. Finn’s rantings and the Juiblex shouts are still classic. And anyone who grouped with Mikar saw this message:

    You stop following Mikar.

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