I was born, I live.
I am writing a basic game design document for a game/mod idea that I first conceived while playing the Team Fortress 2 beta in 2007 or so. While going through the design document, I had to focus on player counts for this multi-player game. I settled on a 6 v 3 format, and I am looking to balance the game around that player count.
It dawned on me very quickly, I would need it make this scale as well as possible for the eventual servers running 19, 27, 36 & 45 player versions of the game. Experience has shown during my time in the Unknown Worlds community, playing their game Natural Selection 2, and the success of AAA games like the Battlefield series that players like playing a more casual game with more people.
As I am prone to do, I began thinking about this subject. It seems to me it is about relative sensations of success. While many games artificially induce this through rewards and achievements unlocked over time, players themselves prefer to do themselves by disappearing in a sea of numbers. What sensation of success is provided in games by having larger player numbers on a given server?
The first aspect is individual skill is less relevant to the final outcome of the game, rather it's the combined level of the team. While this may make games more balance, it doesn't contribute to the success sensation that would really drive casual players to want to interact with higher numbers.
Following on from this, if a players personal kill:death ration is largely unaffected by the player size, could it be that the frequency that they make a kill (or achieve an objective) induces that sense of success? So while a large game may not make you a better player on balance, the feeling of success is increased because an objective can be achieved more often.
Personally, this is what I am leaning towards in my thought process and I think it will shape a lot of the way I design games. If I am going for a more dedicated 'comp level' player base, I would go for a lower player count. If I was going for a more casual player base, I would aim for higher player numbers. In an ideal world, I would be able to create games that scale to both ends of the spectrum.
Titanfall for me is a game that has attempted to address this issue in a unique way. Time will tell how it stands up, but it seems to receive a generally favourable response. While they do have a rewards system, they supplement the lower player count feelings of success by adding AI players for you to kill. That way, even if you are not skilled enough to kill other players, you can still get the feeling of success from taking out AI. It is not a route I will be taking with my current idea, but it is something to keep an eye on for the future.
The main takeaway from this thought process for me is casual players need to feel success regularly for them to gain enjoyment from a game, higher level players can be more patient. I will try to think of new and innovative ways to encourage the sensations of success more often, without going down the route of rewards and unlocks, and without just increasing the player size.
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A collective of modders for the game Natural Selection 2.