by Scott Holliday
Watching trends in online games, it is becoming obvious that the bar of success is changing. The first top-notch graphical games to hit the market captured huge numbers of players and are still going strong. This causes a problem for future releases in that many of the players are already invested in one game or another. Though there are always new players entering the market, the open customer base has become much smaller. Furthermore, there are a hundred other online games about to release and join the competition for their piece of the pie. In order to get a population level equivalent to those first releases, you need to have some hook. Most of the excitement today seems to be centered around games that either explore a new genre or have established setting recognition.
Most developers that I see are reacting very quickly. Games are being aimed at a smaller population base. What is the difference between a game with a hundred players and a million? Although a million players can possibly make for a deeper market system and large quest/war mechanics, the advantage to a smaller player base is the close-knit community that can be established. Every player can identify each of the other players by name and sometimes even by appearance or behavior. On the other hand, a larger game has more total income and is more likely to have paid staff preparing patches, upgrades, and events.
In any case, speaking to the developers out there, you already probably have some idea what size community to expect. The question then is whether or not you are planning for it. Just this year, I saw a game released that was bragging about how huge their world was. Checking the math, I see that they were absolutely right. They have more than a million times the size of any game world I've ever seen. Literally millions of huge locations and hundreds of cities. Unfortunately, their total player base is less than one thousand. Meaning player density is less than 0.01 per location. Even in a city, chances are that you are the only player there at that time! What is the point of an online game in which you almost never meet another player? At best, you could arrange to get a small group together, but you still have a very empty world.
If you know what size community to expect, game design should follow suit. For an online game, there should be at least a little bumping of elbows. On the other hand, if the game is too crowded, this is also bad. The best way to plan for this is to figure out how many elbows you expect and make sure you have the right amount of room for them all. In some ways, this is simple, since you can plan certain high-use areas. A good example of this would be the central safe-area in Grendel's Revenge. Players congregate there, but if it gets too crowded, they still have room to spread out.
As far as more exact planning, my recommendation is to simply use mathematics. Count the number of "areas" you have. For a text-based game, this is simple. For a graphical game, you can divide your total area by the distance that a character can see. This is a good basis to determine your population density, although you must also realize that some areas will be used more than others. In most games I've seen, shops and banks are high traffic areas. If you have a thousand players who each spend 10% of their time in a space station, you better have more than one station or it's going to be crowded! Likewise, there will be low-traffic areas, such as spots where players might go to have a private conversation. Obviously, these areas should count less toward your total figure.
Perhaps the biggest question is what population density is desired. Do you want 100 people in the space station at once? How many players do you want at each asteroid? Assuming the number is fractional, what fraction? Always remember that it is an online game. If there is so much room that your chance of meeting someone out there is next to nil, you've defeated the advantages of the media.