World of Warcraft has five, so of course Rift does too. Everquest had six. Dark Age of Camelot and City of Heroes both bigged it up with eight, whilst Star Wars Galaxies broke the record with up to twenty. Lord of the Rings Online, inexplicably, doesn’t have nine. I’m talking, of course, about group size.
I find the different group sizes in games fascinating – it’s something that makes a real difference to how the game plays if you do anything other than purely solo, and the fact that games haven’t all converged on one standard size suggests that it’s not a question with a single correct answer. I’m not even going to talk about raid sizes, that’s a whole different debate. Just the ordinary, “let’s go and run a standard dungeon or mash faces in PvP” single group.
Too big can be bad if you’re struggling to fill a group. The more players you need, the longer it takes to fill up a PuG or them or awkward it is to coordinate all of your regular group being online together. Too small though, and maybe you have friends or guildies left out. This is where SW:G’s twenty man groups came in – nobody felt they HAD to fill up a group of twenty to go and do stuff, but you could have as many people as you reasonably wanted together and then go and take on stuff appropriate to the strength of the group. That was in the old days, before instanced dungeons became de rigeur as the go-to content for groups. Instances are built around an expected group size and strength. You can’t take a sixth person into Deadmines, that would be CHEATING.
So, instances need fixed sized groups. They’re also easier to design and balance if the group composition is pretty predictable too, which means smaller groups. If you have a game with a ‘holy trinity’ style of play then a five man group pretty much HAS to be one tank, one healer and three DPS. More than one tank is wasteful. More than one healer might be useful, but you’re giving up 33% of your DPS for the extra heals. You can flex how much healing vs DPS you have by taking hybrids who can do both, but everyone knows hybrids are sub-optimal gimps that are only played by mouthbreathing casuals If you have an eight person group though… it might have one tank, one healer and six DPS and rely on burning stuff down before the healer gets too stressed, Or maybe they have three healers and only four DPS. Maybe they’ve found room for one or two oddball support specs. At this point the theme park MMO designer throws his hands in the air because he can’t possible come up with interesting encounters that are equally challenging to all possible group compositions. You can balance abilities to make tank and spank encounters roughly equally challenging to a variety of group sizes, but players expect more than the straightforward tank and spank (or CC and spank) that kept us amused in the good old days of DAoC.
Another point to consider is the number of classes in the game. If you only have a few, or if most of the classes are reskinned versions of a few basic role archetypes (i.e. a game with fifteen classes which boil down to three types of healer, four types of tank, two melee DPS classes, five different ‘colours’ of DPS mage and that one class that’s great at soloing but nobody wants in a group, ever) then there can be a spot for anyone in a relatively small group (apart from that one class). If your game has a load of classes that don’t really do a holy trinity job but instead are buffers, debuffers, crowd controllers or (whisper it) hybrids the a larger group size can accommodate a couple of them without unduly diluting the tanking, healing or DPSing.
So, it really comes down to what sort of game the designers and the players want. Me, I like hybrids and off-trinity roles and I adore the idea of flexibility, so a game with bigger groups is ideal. WoW’s group size is the ideal one for the 1-1-3 formation, with encounters that are interesting little challenges… as long as the challenge lies in executing the pre-set solution perfectly, it doesn’t really allow for the “how about if we took two fewer DPS, one more healer and a crowd control specialist” approach of trying to come up with your own solution. I think that’s a shame, personally, and I also think that it’s interesting how the game has evolved more towards it’s current state precisely because of the constraints of having five man groups.