Single Server Theory

Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual has put up a post titled “Throwing down the gauntlet, the great MMO challenge!” that, if nothing else, shows that he too has succumbed to the peril that stalks bloggers: Delusions of relevance.

Ah, well, it isn’t like I do not get up on the soap box and make pronouncements now and again.

Still, I have some issues with his “EVE Solves Your MMO Problems” premise.  Syncaine lists four things that he feels make EVE Online the superior game and defeats the big issues that other MMOs face.  But each of those items has a reason and a price. 

I want to tackle just one of those today, the single server aspect.

Tranquility

One of the very cool things about EVE Online is that everybody plays on the same server.  

Well, unless you’re in Asia, but forget about that for now.

This is a great strength for EVE.  You never have to worry about being on the same server as your friend.  Compare that with the dozens and dozens of servers that World of Warcraft has up to accommodate all of the people who play the game.  I have reported on my own pain in the past when it comes to Blizzard, server splits, and character transfers.

While the single game server vision is appealing, getting there is another story.

EVE Online has some things going for it that allow it the luxury of a single production server.

First, with their peak concurrent users record somewhat below 40,000 players, EVE does not have to deal with the population pressure that a game like WoW does.  If Blizzard only had to worry about that population, they would be running 10 servers at most and have excess capacity as a buffer.

On the flip side of it is unclear, to me at least, if EVE suddenly had 60,000 players log on at once, that the tranquility cluster would stay up or fall over.  There have already been issues in the past with too many people straying into a given area.   CCP plans their load balance strategy based on how many people were in what places the week before.  If a previously sparsely populated area suddenly become the home to a lot of players you get queues to log in, problems at jump gates, and some serious lag issues.

So even with the lower population that comes with their “niche MMO status,” there are consequences to be dealt with.

Don’t Fence Me In

The other thing that works in EVE’s favor is the environment:  Space. 

Space is big. 

CCP rightfully claims to have the biggest MMO universe going. 

Having all that space helps you spread players out.  I have been in solar systems with 40+ people for hours at a stretch and only laid eyes on a few of them, and rarely ever more than one or two at a time.  And the drag on your system from in-game art assets is pretty low.  Space is a back drop.  A few planets, some very simple asteroids, a space station, and a ship or two is all your machine has to render much of the time.

Even in Jita, a system traditionally so crowded that it has spawned its own acronym (GTFOOJ), I have seen 400 people listed on the local channel yet have rarely seen more than a dozen other ships at a time. 

Compare that with Ironforge in WoW, even in post-Burning Crusade WoW, where that slab of pavement between the bank and the auction house rarely ever has less than two dozen people standing, chatting, trying to sell you gold, or just passing through.

Similarly, if you want to compare EVE with an MMO that has a lot of territory, you can try EverQuest.  Yes, there are lots of sparsely populated zones.  But imagine the Plane of Knowledge, a happening place in EQ 24 hours a day, if you rolled all 20+ servers together into a single world.  It would be completely unusable.

So the spread out nature of space works in favor of EVE Online in a way that Blizzard and SOE must surely envy.

But this aspect of space comes at a price.  Travel over any real distance takes a long time if you are there and driving your ship from gate to gate.  Put things on autopilot so you can step away from the computer for a minute (dangerous), or at least pay attention to something less tedious, and the trip triples in time as the autopilot drops your ship 15K or so from each gate and then has to boost to within jump range over and over again.

And while CCP could speed up travel time if they wanted to, I doubt they would.  Aside from the immersion factor, it would encourage people to cluster, as people always do in MMOs (think Commonlands marketplace back in early EQ).  CCP’s server management would become a nightmare, so keeping people apart across the EVE universe is definitely working in their favor.

But with everybody so spread out we find another cost; social interaction is cut down dramatically.  I am practically an MMO hermit, generally only grouping with people I know.  But in games such as EverQuest, EverQuest II, WoW, and Lord of the Rings Online, I still end up in pick-up groups.  People are all around you, you can tell when you’re on the same quest, it is just natural.  That is one of the upsides of an MMO, even for a dedicated solo-ist like me. 

In EVE though, chance encounters… at least the good kind… are very rare.

In fact, when it comes to EVE, my primary point of social interaction is this site.  I’ve chatted with Debes, Morphisat, and Alaph in space a few times, and I have even seen a couple of Debes’ ships (he has some stuff worth showing off) and ran a mission with him, but we’re usually many jumps distant and working on different things with different time constraints.  I’m more likely to get a comment here from them than chat with them in EVE.

In the end, you may never have to worry about a friend being on a different server, but if your friend is 25 jumps away, he might as well be.

A Sharded Existance

So EVE’s single instance and the way they manage it has its advantages, but it comes at a cost and does not translate easily to the more common high fantasy environment.

For high fantasy at least… or even for science fiction that involves people on the ground… multiple servers seems to be a reality we will have to live with.  Clumping everybody onto a single server will not be viable for some time. 

Making server transfers easy and affordable (I’m looking at you SOE) can make things a bit better, but they still keep us apart.

What other options do we have?

14 thoughts on “Single Server Theory

  1. Rick

    Good post. I’ve erased the beginning of a comment a few times now, because I feel like I’m arguing or disagreeing with something, and that’s not really my intention. Your point is more explanatory than taking a stand, and there’s really nothing for me to disagree with.

    What do you mean by “delusions of relevance” in the first paragraph?

    I think you’re correct that maybe the single biggest problem with porting the Eve-scale gameworld to a fantasy universe would be the amount of art assets necessary. You’re totally right that the Eve universe doesn’t require the massive resources that a similarly huge fantasy would would need. If you could make a fantasy world that was A) visually compelling and unique, and B) absolutely huge (i.e. as much space for players as there is in Eve, and C) didn’t run like dog poop, I think a smart developer could totally open up the world and spread out the players. The travel has to be presented in a way that makes sense, though. Space travel, while long, does make sense in Eve, and is therefore easier for me to deal with.

    (An aside, I find most complaints about travel in Eve curious, as I don’t think I spend a lot more time traveling in Eve than I do in most other mmorpg’s, including WoW. Planning out your mission stations and your jump clones can cut out a huge amount of travel, and a 10 system jump in Eve isn’t much longer than many griffon rides in WoW.)

    That said, I think there might be ways to make huge spaces work in a fantasy setting. Maybe some sort of fantasy Oklahoma land rush, where a mythical Wild West is opened to settlement, or a boat-based game set in a huge archipelago like Malaysia. If there’s magic, there’s always ways to include travel shortcuts. I just think that developers feel too much pressure to make a world like WoW…and they feel too much pressure to make a game that has 10 million subscribers. One of the things I like about CCP is that they made the world they wanted to make, and figured out how to be profitable on their own.

    Sorry, I’m way over my Comment limit here. I probably should have blogged it myself, but I’m getting called away to work. One of these days, I’ll find ya on Eve and say hi :)

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  2. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    “Delusions of relevance.” The idea that we can change the world, even a virtual world, from our blogs by discussing “big picture” ideas. That does not mean that we shouldn’t, but that we ought not to expect much as a result.

    And yes, my point wasn’t to say anything negative about EVE, at least in regards to the single server aspect, but was rather to point out that the single server works for EVE due to some characteristics that are unique to EVE.

    As for travel time in EVE versus WoW… well, maybe. But I don’t like those long flights in WoW either and I don’t have to drive the griffon from flight point to flight point along the route and I never have to worry that it is going to take a path through a pvp zone and get me ganked. And jump clones… still an EVE mystery to me. But I would bet that I am short on either cash or skills (or both) to use them!

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  3. Talyn

    Guild Wars has always been great with it’s population-controlled districts so players can always coordinate where to meet and anyone can play with anyone else from anywhere in the world, none of this “choose your server before anything else” nonsense.

    GW2 will be a true MMO and they said while it will have multiple servers, or “worlds” players will still be able to switch back and forth between worlds at will, so it will maintain one of the best features of GW1. They haven’t said yet if we have to choose a “home world” first or if the whole servers/worlds thing will be in the background. Either way it sounds like something I’d be in favor of and it helps bring the total community of players together rather than spreading them over multiple servers with no intermingling.

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  4. dmosbon

    “Delusions of relevance.”

    How I laughed at that…hits one big nail on the head with regards to blogging. Good tagline idea too!

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  5. Coherent

    I think all the points that you made are all correct IN ADDITION to the many other counts that EVE has against it, hence my stand (in a comment back on Syncaine’s blog) that EVE is actually total crap but it’s the least crappy thing in its genre so naturally everybody thinks it’s made of awesome and win.

    Although even in the crap there are a few things it does right. But I disagree with you that these ideas can’t be translated to other MMO genres other than space. You just have to jigger the world until you have a model that captures the essence of play that you’re interested in but without the crushing isolation (and incredible boredom) of EVE.

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  6. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Heh, yes, that is the trick, now isn’t it? You “just” have to “jigger” the world model.

    I think if it were as simple as you imply, it would be commonplace already. But even in EVE, where the game and its geography conspire to keep people apart, they still clump up in places like Jita.

    And in EQ, with more real estate than most games, with plenty of cities to live in, people still clump in the Plane of Knowledge.

    People come together in these sorts of games. It is both the joy and the curse of them. To reach that single server goal with anything beyond a modest population, you have to find a way to make people spread out,which means fighting human nature.

    To me that requires a bit more than “jiggering.”

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  7. Debes

    I’d just like to add that I haven’t been isolated except by choice in the nearly 2 years I’ve played Eve. :)

    As for the post, Eve’s population and setup is very, very much a part of how it is able to do these things no one else of its size can do (or anyone, re: quarterly economic newsletter).

    On the other hand, I’ve been able to play, say, TR and not interact with another person through the entire first continent except when I got bored soloing.

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  8. damianov

    An excellent post, building on an excellent post. (Obviously, I like the design-centric, thought-provoking posts, regardless of any delusions of relevance. :-) )

    Servers/sharding has always been primarily about mitigating the technical limitation of accommodating multiple players within LOS… essentially the n^2 nature of the data that likely needs to be transferred. i.e., If there are 5 people in an area, you’re sending at least 4 copies of each and every action, and 5 people to perform such acts (5×4); if there are 10 people, that quadruples to (10×9); if there are 100, potential data to be transferred starts to get truly significant (100×99); and so on…

    Does an implementation like CoH, where multiple instances of a single zone can be generated based on population/traffic, solve the underlying issues in a game where space is more restricted?

    Is the consequence of friends being on multiple servers the only problem solved by a single-server implementation?

    (Sorry about the “end-of-class question” format… my father was/is a teacher, it just kind of slips out at times…) :-)

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  9. michael, StE

    Jump clones – you need Infomorph Psychology (900K isk) trained to a level each time you want additional clone. Takes a few minutes for level one, but I can’t remember how much the clone itself cost when I bought mine – nothing outrageous, I think.

    The pain is the standing requirement if you’re not in a large corporation with access to a cloning vat. You need an effective standing of 8+ with an NPC corporation in highsec to be able to use their jump-clone facility, which can be a hard grind. Or so I’m told. I’m in a corporation where, thank to one member’s hard work, and a great deal of Thou Shalt Not… from the Directors, we can all have JCs via an NPC corp. There’s even a regular class when one of the teachers explains it all and takes new recruits through the process. :)

    Very handy when the corp gets wardecced, and you don’t want to lose a set of implants.

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  10. Rick

    Hey, this post made the front page on WordPress tonight, congrats.

    I think Coherent calling Eve crap is way overstated. It’s a matter of taste, in my opinion. I like WoW, I like Eve, but I like them for far different things. It’s a little like comparing apples and oranges, even though they’re in the same game “genre”, technically.

    I think we tend to say what’s wrong with mmorpg’s far too often, instead of acknowledging that there’s lots of room in the genre for experimentation and different styles of play. I don’t go to a restaurant that has good falafel and bitch that it doesn’t have a bar. I go there for the falafel. If I want booze, I’ll go to a place that has the selection I want. We should be able to do this in games too. There’s a lot available (and a lot that’s not crap) in Eve that you just can’t get in many other mmorpg’s. I’d rather enjoy that, and appreciate that, then dismiss it because it’s not like other games in the genre.

    Michael’s got the jump clone reqs correct, and it’s really not much training at all to get 3 or 4 clones for placing around the galaxy.

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  11. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Front Page? Cool!

    Yeah, I went back and read the wordpress news item about how to get on there, and you have to use one of their standard categories, so I flagged the post “Entertainment,” since that is about the only place it fit. It seems to have worked.

    On the jump clones, I have trained the skill already, so I was no doubt looking into it at some past time. My faction with the Caldari Navy is about 6.5 at the moment, so I ought to be able to make one at some point.

    Of course, then I will be limited to Caldari Navy installations, but they are spread around a bit.

    And yes, we all tend to gripe first. It is one of the reasons I avoid the official forums. They tend to be a magnet for people with problems looking for a place to shout about them. I try to stick to “I don’t like this for reasons X, Y, and Z,” but sometimes I slip and say something just sucks.

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  12. michael, StE

    It’s only the initial creation of the JC that has to take place in a specific corporation’s station. When you jump into a clone, you can move around to where you need it to be longer term
    – say, Amarr space for Kernite-mining sessions – and jump back to where you left your original medical clone as needed, leaving the jump clone in the new location for future use.

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  13. Blight

    One of the other benefits to a Single Server, and something I really like about EVE is the player news. When some player gets his 15 seconds of fame it might be someone you’ve seen in game, or at the very least, you know it’s relevant to the Server your on. If I see someone on the EVE-O forums, there’s a chance I’ll meet them in game.

    I’ve played WoW, and been on the forums, but most of the people I’ve discussed or read posts from, were never on my Server.

    There is a warm fuzzy in knowing that everything that happens on the EVE Live server(s) is a part of the world I play in.

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  14. Marius Deterium

    Why do you play MMO’s as a solo-ist? If you want to play by yourself why not just play Freelancer? Or Neverwinter Nights on singleplayer.

    Your approach to MMO’s is like playing Battleship with one person. You are totally missing the point, and more importantly you are missing the fun.

    Eve unlike many other MMOs is really more group oriented. What I mean is, you are not expected to meet up with some random people, and then venture off to fight some NPCs. Quite the opposite. You are expected to join a corp and make friends with the people, then as a group achieve goals. Many of the more exciting aspects of Eve are IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish by yourself. You are really limiting your experience with your approach.

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