11 Sep 2013

Powering a Million Idiot March

Raiding is serious business. For the hardcore guilds at the bleeding edge they’re an all-consuming endeavour. But what if, every month or so, they became a chaotic lemming-fest? That’s the thought behind WildStar’s Million Idiot March, a ‘special weekend’ idea currently being kicked around.

When I interviewed Carbine executive producer Jeremy Gaffney, the idea sounded simple enough. Lift the entry cap, let people zerg their way through, and maybe get their hands on some loot. There are no promises though, and the ‘tough as nails’ philosophy will probably mean more carnage than celebration.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever quite that simple. Although it sounds like a great idea (and there’s certainly a ton of support for it), there’re actually a fair few technical challenges to leap through. And that’s before anyone’s worked out if a mode that sounds fun on paper is actually great to play in practice. That said, if Carbine pull it off, it’ll be awesome.

My PC Has Become Sludge.

Arguably, Carbine’s biggest challenge is making sure that our gaming rigs don’t catch fire once the action kicks off. If you’ve ever joined a raid, only to see your framerate sink to single digits, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There’s a crunch that happens on two sides as soon as combat kicks off. Graphically, each character needs to be rendered, including customisations, unique armour sets, weaponry and so on. On top of that are animations and spell effects that need to be placed in-scene and pushed out in sync, frame by frame.

On the other side are the huge amounts of data flying back and forth between clients. It insures that that spells and abilities performed by other characters are displayed, that health and resource bars get updated, and that combat data is fed back. A raid UI needs to be constantly updated with data on so many variables, processing and presenting them in a way that the player can understand.

All that’s on top of the things the game normally does, like checking your location, waiting for input from the mice and keyboard, and ensuring the chatbox is filled with a healthy mix of puns and profanities. All this would be happening even if you were idling in a city somewhere, so it’s usually streamlined and efficient.

We already know that Carbine are building a game that can handle two teams of 40 players in active combat through PvP warplots. At the worst case those 80 characters, mounted, with assorted scanbots, probably even out to a rough 100 entities to track and render in one scene. In the Million Idiot March, our machines will need to handle double that.

If your PC is teetering on the brink of barely playing MMOs now, it’s time to upgrade.

Servers in Sync

Looking at the client is one side of the problem, the other being handling all the server signalling going back and forth. If you think of a typical PvP fight there might be a big clash at various points during the match, but it’s unlikely to affect all 80 participants.

With the Million Idiot March, raids will be stepping up from 40 to 200 participants. It basically means that every time the boss performs an area attack, it has to check against five times the number of participants, in an instant. Combine that with five times the background traffic from constant damage and healing and a significantly extended threat table, and it’s easy to see how server performance might be impacted.

There’s also an unknown element. Would the Million Idiot March weekender result in greater or fewer participants? Fewer raids or many more? Although Carbine have been running stress tests throughout the beta so far, pulling off a raid stresser is a much trickier affair. If they ever wanted to perform one, this would be a great way of organising it.

Networking is also an area that would get hit more by this approach. The difference between standing idle in a city and being in a raid, is that the server sends you information about all the other players battling alongside you. Five times the players means five times the amount of information, but it also needs to be sent to five times as many players. That’s potentially 25 times as much data heading out of Carbine’s datacentres.

It’s possible to trim back on this quite a bit to reduce the impact, and I daresay that the team has already crunched through a fair amount of it as part of their server-side optimisations. It might also be possible to reduce it further through WildStar’s addon system. I have no familiarity with Apollo, but it might be possible for an addon to subscribe to a feed (say all character health), and for the client to then pass that feed request on to the server. If the client doesn’t display it (say heavy DPS players that aren’t interested in raidmates) or have a need for it internally, then there’s no point the server sending it.

A Grip on Gameplay

Will it be fun? More than likely. After weeks or months of working through a raid, the Million Idiot March Weekender could be an excellent way of blowing off steam. Characters will die by the thousands, but that’s absolutely fine if it’s expected. Just as with the Tribulation Mode in Guild Wars 2’s Super Adventure Box, if you expect to die repeatedly it becomes part of the entertainment.

That said, there are questions around being able to display and process several different telegraphs – yours plus any situational stuff you need to be aware of – while the floor underneath you becomes a kaleidoscopic patchwork quilt of colour.

But to dig too far into the gameplay aspects moves away from the intention behind the Million Idiot March. It’s a celebration of Chua-inspired chaos, and should be treated as such. It’s a joke, a spark of random fun, an unpredictable frenzy where success only happens by the rarest of chances. It’s like rolling a die, expecting the critical failures because they’ll be so comedic when they happen.

There’s also the replay value. Watching the chaos of a recorded raid on Youtube could well be hysterical to watch, and it may even give rise to WildStar’s own ‘Leeeeeroy’ moments. On the flipside, a perfectly executed raid by the top guilds all grouped together – it might well be an example of beautiful precision. Either way, it’ll be a sight worth seeing.

While it’ll be challenging on several levels, I’m hoping that Carbine manage to pull it off. It definitely doesn’t need to be there for launch but, once everything is bedded in and stable, they could  introduce the Million Idiot March sometime post-launch when we’re all bouncing around level cap.

After all, it sounds like a crazy idea, but it might well end up being ludicrously entertaining.

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3 Responses to Powering a Million Idiot March

  1. Arawulf says:

    Great read. I found this concept very interesting. I keep imagining piles of player corpses stacked in the shapes of various boss telegraphs. Assuming chat doesn’t devolve into, “Laaaaaaag!” then it could be a hilarious time.
    Arawulf recently posted..WildStar Bucks: Basic MMO economy pieces that could fit into WildstarMy Profile

  2. Ico says:

    I’m interested as to how it will work, will there be a special raid group (so guilds COULD be cheeky and take 50 instead of 40 members to give them an edge) or will the portal just be unlocked and you and your raid group just get thrown into a raid with enough slots?

    So many variables, how to track, how to track???

  3. Beetle says:

    Awesome read Gaz, I think this should be quite the challenge for Carbine.