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Don't Be Surprised If Raids Are Small

One of the recent videos released by BioWare was a demo of multiplayer combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic. In this video we see four player characters—one each of the Republic classes—fighting a typical scripted encounter including a mini-boss. After watching this video and trying to imagine the same raid—an instanced dungeon crawl—with 25 player characters and 25 companion characters, I couldn’t see it happening. I don’t think that such mega-raids are likely in TOR, and that most scripted events will be relatively small.

Small is an inexact term, so I’ll start by explaining my perspective of it. When I first played World of Warcraft, the primary dungeon in the game was Molten Core, an instance that required 40 players and two or three nights of play to clean out from the first boss to the last. This type of raid is long out-dated even in WoW. By the time I quit the game, just after the release of the Burning Crusade expansion, new instances topped out at 25 persons and smaller ones clocked in anywhere from 5 to 15 players, with “normal” and “heroic” versions. Since then, it’s become customary for all instances to have both 10-player and 25-player versions with a “heroic” option for each. I therefore propose the baseline that 10 players in a raid should be considered “small” and 25 players as “large”. So my actual claim is that the average raiding instance in TOR will be about 10 players give-or-take, with the cop-out caveat that it will at least be closer to 10 players than it is to 25 players.

And now the question that has long plagued mankind: does size matter? The answer is yes, but don’t worry, it’s a good size.

The size of a raid group matters for a few different reasons. Organizing a guild event is always problematic, but finding 40 people who are regularly available three nights in a row for three to four hours at a time was a nightmare. It’s this type of time requirement that led people to propose WoW as a method of birth control. By reducing the number of persons needed for a raid, planning the weekly event becomes more manageable in both preparation and execution. There’s less time waiting around for people to log on, less effort to keep everybody on task, less consumable items to collect before the raid, and less item repair costs to pay after the raid. Also, creating an environment that comfortably fits so many players can be hard to do. What’s the point of getting 40 people together if they’re all going to crowd over each other? There’s a point where the sheer amount of stuff going on in a fight makes it unwieldy. This problem can only get worse when every character is accompanied by an NPC companion. BioWare describes crowding—or more specifically outnumbering the enemy—as how raids have become non-heroic:

James Ohlen, lead designer: “One of the problems of other MMO combats is [um] that you often have scenarios where you have multiple heroes beating on a single enemy. And that just isn’t very heroic. What is heroic is a hero facing against [um] unbeatable odds, against multiple enemies, and fighting his way barely through the encounter.”

{SWTOR.com: “Video Documentary #4: Combat”, @1:16}

The downside to going with a small raid size is that you miss out on a truly guild-wide experience. It’s not unusual for hardcore endgame guilds in MMOs to have over 100 players. If even half of those players are active regularly, that’s two large sized raiding groups looking to get a spot on the regular rotation. Even when my old guild was doing the “divorce-imminent” runs every week on Molten Core, people were constantly left out because there weren’t enough spots. This problem was even worse for characters of the niche hybrid classes and popular classes. Thankfully TOR has something of an answer to this issue: their inclusion of companions and their limited class list. As each class is a hybrid and a unique role, there’s less likelihood for a “dead weight” class. And even if there is an overabundance of a particular class for some reason—like Smuggler because everybody wants to be Han Solo—each player can bring along a helper to cover missing roles. However, you still lose something valuable when you no longer have a regular PvE event that the whole guild can participate in. Running concurrent instances doesn’t have the same feel.

Smaller raiding groups also tends to mean that your guild develops “A-team” and “B-team” divisions, and nobody likes get picked last, especially for the B-team. It’s the A-team that gets all the loot.

With less players, there’s less room for error, and the ability to include somebody with a weaker character in the raid is reduced. In larger 25-player raids, there’s generally more leeway as the better players can make up the difference. As the A-team players find more success, they get better loot and the rift between the A and B-team increases, making it even harder to move up the ranks. In this sense, smaller raids are not necessarily better for casual players even though hardcore raiding guilds tend to be defined by their ability to complete the 25-player raids. There are benefits and hindrances for both large and small raiding instances, which is probably why WoW included both for everything.

However, I don’t believe that TOR has the luxury to include large versions of their raids. My biggest reason is, as mentioned, that companion characters will crowd the action. BioWare has already stated that they’re experimenting with smaller group sizes, in factors of 4 compared to WoW‘s base group size of 5, a decision I feel was made to combat this problem:

James Ohlen, lead designer: As to the scale of the battles [in PvP warzones], like, how many characters are going to be involved … we’re experimenting with different sizes. [um] We’re experimenting with four-versus-four, eight-versus-eight and what we end up with at the end is really going to depend upon, y’know, how playtesting goes and [um] how it goes isn’t set in stone.

{@1:34" id="hmdd" href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1koDEPqJKas">DarthHater.com: “E3: Interview With James Ohlen”, @1:35}

Of course this doesn’t mean that the game only has 4-player content, but it does mean that if you consider the large raid size as five full groups, it brings the size from 25 players in WoW to only 20 in TOR. For small raids, from 10 in WoW to 8 in TOR. Knock even one “group” off of the large scale, and in TOR the raid size would be 16 players, which meets the cowardly “safe bet” caveat of my thesis: that the group size will at least be closer to 10 than to 25. 16 players in an instance still 32 humanoids filling the screen once you include companion characters. That’s 16 dedicated healbots, one for each player. That’s 16 dedicated tanks, one for every piece of trash mob. That’s 16 dedicated DPSers focus-firing one target at a time. For every player you add to the raid group, you grow your NPC army. When your companions seem less like your character’s buddy and more like a faceless peon

—it takes away from the heroic feel of the combat. This problem certainly doesn’t go away with smaller groups, but it is reduced.

Exacerbating the problem of crowding is BioWare’s take on enemies:

James Ohlen, lead designer: “We definitely want players to feel outnumbered. [coughs] Maybe not a hundred to one, but we do want players to feel outnumbered and we can do that in public areas and especially in instanced areas.”

{TenTonHammer.com: “SWTOR Design Q&A”}

If players are supposed to effectively take on a group of enemies by themselves—I’ll just keep using “4” as the official group size—and be constantly outnumbered, then with 16 players you have 16 friendly NPCs and 64 enemy NPCs on the screen at once. This is inflated a bit because there will be “elites” sprinkled in and the “mooks” will only live for 1 or 2 attacks, but generally the heroes will be constantly outnumbered and that encourages smaller player groups. Too much on the screen sucks. Look at the original trilogy battles compared to the prequels. How many members did the Endor strike team have? Compare that to how many Jedi show up at the battle of Geonosis. There’s so much going on in the prequel battles that it lacks meaning. They have to ignore everything and focus on the individual fights, like Mace Windu and Jango Fett. What’s the point of crowding the screen if it doesn’t matter? The Deceived and Hope trailers by Blur seem to present a better balance. There are still a lot of background players in those fights, but it’s not ridiculous. The minions still have a chance to challenge and be body-checked out of the way by the central protagonists (or antagonists depending on your faction choice) and are not simply a part of the scenery.

So raiding groups are going to be small, or at least “smaller”. I feel this will have a profound effect on raiding culture. Currently, the four raid types in WoW are distinguished by prestige and loot. Not every encounter is harder in the 25-player version than the 10-player version, so there is some higher prestige for 10-player versions of specific encounters. Yet the loot is unmistakably better in the 25-player raids. As loot in WoW determines character effectiveness, this distinguishes guilds by determining what they are capable of doing. The 10-player raids are therefore considered “minor leagues”, the 25-player raids are the “majors”, and only the l33test guilds pull off 25-player heroics. For better or worse, this progression is what drives the raiding endgame. It provides a clear path for a guilds to follow on their quest for improvement. How will that be different in a game where there are not “large” and “small” versions of everything? It’s a question that should be asked even in WoW, as the upcoming Cataclysm expansion makes loot quality uniform between the 10-player and 25-player versions.

There are a number of ways that I could be wrong about this. They might simply include companion-free raids. The PAX video and the multiplayer demo were both shown without companions. The live demos they’ve been hosting at conventions have also not featured companions. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they should drop companions entirely—that would be a terrible loss as it’s one of their key innovations—but it’s possible that they might make the decision that raiding should be companion-free. Essentially, that a character-slot should be a character-slot and companions can only be used to fill empty slots. Somehow I doubt that though:
Matt Jarbo, Ask A Jedi: “Can companions replace player characters 1-for-1 in a group situation?”

James Ohlen, lead designer: “No. If you’re in a four-man group, then each of those players has their own companion.”

MJ: “Will companions be limited to specific parts of the game such as the open world, instances, Warzones, or can they be used at any time?”

JO: “Currently we have them being able to be used at any time.”

{AskAJedi.com: “Exclusive: James Ohlen Q&A”}

Regardless, if they reverse that decision it would moot this article. Another item to consider is the possibility of split paths in raids, where a large group is doing the same instance but aren’t all together at once. Or open world “raids” where encounters are not instanced any number of players can participate. There’s also the classic “world boss” encounter. BioWare doesn’t seem to like that one very much but they could always throw one or two in the game, and who wouldn’t want to boast that they killed a krayt dragon? And of course I could be overstating the “crowding” issue and they’ll design around it or let the screen get a little busy.

Should my prediction be correct, it should be remembered that “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”. BioWare can still do large-scale encounters with open world events, PvP warzones, and Force knows what else, but the average experience might be better managed on a smaller scale. BioWare developed the combat of TOR with specific goals in mind, and in my opinion the realization of those goals entails smaller than average groups for instanced dungeon raiding.

Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have a preference between large and small raids? Let me know!

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