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Thoughts on a Sharded Existence September 17, 2008

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, MMO Design, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft.
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Warhammer Online is live, the head start has commenced for all eligible parties now, and by Friday night the full weight of the popularity of the title will be brought to bear on Mythics server farm plan.  The Monday morning blog titles will no doubt tell the tale of how well that comes off.

But I am sure there are some lingering doubts after the Sunday Collectors Edition head start kick off.

Genda, rightfully grumpy after the server chosen by Casualties of War backed up with queues almost immediately, wanted to know why there were not more servers available for the head start.  Certainly it affected the guild turnout on the destruction side.  Personally, I gave up on Volkmar after a crash left me in a long queue Sunday afternoon.

Even the Warhammer Herald now has Volkmar listed as one of the servers at “maximum capacity.”

Mark Jacobs says that everything went about as well as they could have hoped on Sunday, that queues were expected but that more servers would have diluted the population.  He has a valid point in that.  It is no fun playing an PvP oriented game on an under populated server.  And not all the servers had queues.

Yet some people were unhappy, upset, or angry about the situation.

Of course, the of root problem here isn’t the number of servers, or bad server choices, or head starts, or any other odd notion.  The problem is that when you make a character on a server, or when your friends form a guild on a server, you are stuck with that server unless you want to start anew.

It is the server model that we have had to accept since MMORPGs crawled out of the MUDs and became booming financial successes, since the word “massive” became affixed to them.

It is the seeming necessity of running multiple version of the same world in parallel to accommodate all the people who want to play MMORPGs that causes the problem.

Multiple servers, or shards, have been with us at least since Ultima Online.

New servers, server splits, and the friction those situations brought showed up with EverQuest in a big way.  I was sundered from a number of regular group members due to server splits.

And then there was World of Warcraft.  The pain of server queues and sever splits was joined by the simple pain of having a game with so many damn servers.  I know a couple of dozen people who play WoW, but they all play on different servers.

Even the instance group we run every week formed as a result of people leaving one server to start fresh on another.

What is the solution?  If there is a clear answer here, I don’t know what it is.

A single server for everybody? It works for EVE Online, but I have contended in the past that EVE is a special case.  And even EVE suffers from the single server situation at times.  Just fly into Jita on a Saturday night for a start, or try to fly in a region where a major alliance like BOB has decided to take up residence on short notice.

Easy, fast, and cheap character transfers? WoW has the easy and fast part down, but cheap is tough even to define.  WoW is cheap compared to EQ or EQ2, but still too expensive.  Even getting the price down to the five dollar range still means too much cash for those who need to move multiple characters or want to move often.  And there is still the problem of coordinating moves with friends and guilds to overcome.

A central character server? You can’t store characters locally on end user computers, that is just begging people to hack their data, so maybe you can store all the characters in a central “library” and have the owners check them out to play on any server that is currently up and running.  Of course, that is another complicated mechanism up front and another point of failure in the system.  Plus, what does that do to the perception of persistence in an MMORPG?  What about things like housing, auction houses, and stored items and cash? How would they be affected?  Do you abandon some of those concepts, or do you let your game turn into a gold farmers dream situation?

What else can be done?

And who is going to do it?  I am going to guess that BioWare, 38 Studios, or other companies that are licensing foundation technology for their planned games are probably going to be stuck with the same server model.

How about CCP?  Will they come through on this front with their next game, assuming that it is a more traditional avatar based game?

Comments»

1. Winterblink - September 17, 2008

I always hated that about sharded games. Having to coordinate with friends who are on certain servers because their guild from another game picked that one, and having that end up keeping you from playing with other friends established on other servers, etc. Very annoying.

Practical issues aside, sharding has other effects. One of the cool things about EVE is the ability for a single player, through deeds, to achieve a form of status within the game in a manner which everyone can appreciate.

A griefer on a sharded game for instance only affects that server, whereas in EVE that griefer could easily become legendary. Ginger Magician, for example.

The same goes for deeds of excellence.

Your name just has more meaning in a single shard game, for better or for worse, than a sharded one.

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2. syncaine - September 17, 2008

The problem with ‘non EVE’ games is unique content. There is only one Ironforge, one Aldorf. In EVE, all of the systems are similar enough that you don’t HAVE to go to one location. Yes Jita is the trading center, but there are PLENTY of other very busy trade systems, and you can do everything you want market wise without setting foot in Jita.

I’ll gladly take more generic lands on one server, even in a fantasy game, over unique content sharded over and over. Hell, the land in UO was randomly generated for the most part.

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3. Letrange - September 17, 2008

Actually the central character server sound like an interesting idea – kind of like guild wars does it but on a grander scale (allow more people into an “instance”). They would need to have a centralized economy though, otherwise the inter server trade and RMT stuff would drive them insane.

I think a more generic lands system as syncaine points out would be better. The real thing one would need to do is have a solid trade system in place so that people aren’t given the incentive to form trade hubs.

One has to recognize that the “regionalization” of the markets in eve is a big reason for the formation of Jita. if there was a remote way of accessing the Jita market without having to actually go there people would use it. Since not, we get Jita (I tend to avoid the place unless I need to pickup the stuff from a contract based in Jita – Rens is fine for 99% of my needs).

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4. Talyn - September 17, 2008

Considering AoC used population-controlled public instance zones, I honestly don’t see why that game couldn’t have used a GW-like system where we all appear to play on the same “server” and can all chat and group with everyone else in the game. When too many people get into one area, it creates a new version to start filling up, so… what’s the problem? Under the hood, it’s run by multiple server clusters anyway, but the player experience would be better and have way more opportunities to interact and play together.

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5. Rkik - September 17, 2008

It’s not a huge game, but Dungeon Runners did something with the Central Character server. You had your characters, and you could play on any server that was available. It was kind of neat.

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6. rulez - September 17, 2008

What Talyn said! :)

But I would not favor the exact same design as Guild Wars where only cities are non private instances (shudder).

Imagine a design like EQ2 with a good mix of public and private zones and dungeons, but only one single server. As soon as the population in one zone grows too big the game would automatically create another instance of the same zone (EQ2 does that already for a lot if not all zones). You would be able to travel instantly between the different instances of the same zone so grouping would not be a problem.

“But zones suck! WoW has no zonez!!1!”

The so called zone less design of WoW is meaningless fluff in the long term. Every griffon flight was like zoning for me, just longer (!) after the first time I had seen the route. It is totally irrelevant at/near the level cap anyways as you spend so much time zoning to instances, sunwell, getting teleported / using Mage portals, afk’ing while on a taxi aka griffon, etc. as you zone in EQ2.
The “zones” in WoW especially on Outland are so tiny compared to other games (at least most feel that way) that you need the seamless transition between them to not take away the awesome long distance travel fun you get with epic flying mounts. But with larger zone design and a reasonably short loading/zoning time, those flying mounts would still provide the same fun and use.

I say kill shard design and use whatever necessary to achieve the goal of one world.

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7. mbp - September 17, 2008

Guild Wars has got to have the most user friendly server change model. A little drop down menu you can access from any town to select any server you like. Not only does it allow you to quickly change server it is also self regulating. If Lion’s Arch is a bit crowded on English Server 1 just switch to English Server 2 or 3 or …..

To make it work you probably have to centralise banking and the auction house too if there is one.

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8. Saylah - September 18, 2008

As wonderful and convenient a shared server experience might be performance is more important to me as a gamer. I’m among those that need a good looking environment in a massive gaming experience. I’m not sure you can fit both of those in the same sentence using the current technologies. I don’t want hellalag just to be around millions of other people I will never actually interact with while playing. There’s little value for the risks of poor performance, instability, reduced resolution, texture and visualization of that virtual world and when that one shard goes BOOM.

No thanks, I’ll take smaller slices of MMO life until they can do something like mbp is suggesting without the heavy instancing of GW.

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9. LtWarhound - September 18, 2008

Instanced on-demand zones triggered by overpopulation is something that City of Heroes does. Works well, minor annoyances when someone doesn’t go to instance #2 with the rest of the group. But that’s user error. Worked better than how Age of Conan does it.

So, its possible.

I do admit I find WAR’s server clone solution particularly elegant.

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10. Wilhelm2451 - September 18, 2008

Yes, they have that multiple versions of an instance plan going on in EverQuest 2 as well.

As for WAR’s server clone solution, I have not seen anything on that as yet. However, if it is what I think it is, where you dupe a server and now you have two full pop servers and people have to then organize and figure out which way to go, I would put that more in the category of “brute force” rather than “elegant.”

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11. Centuri - September 18, 2008

Mark Jacobs posted that they are going to allow character cloning off of the high pop realms onto new ones.

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12. Wilhelm2451 - September 18, 2008

Looking at The Herald, it is not “character cloning,” which would be sort of “free character transfers with benefits,” but duping the server and then you have characters on both and you have to pick which way you’re going to jump to carry on.

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13. Pumping Irony » It’s 2008, Do You Know Where Your Phrases Are? - September 18, 2008

[...] we’ve had John the Ancient Gaming Noob and Van Hemlock’s episode #17 discuss “shards” referring to servers, not to [...]

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14. Loredena - September 19, 2008

The server cloning is intriguing though, because it solves the guildmove problem. With character transfers, even free ones, someone always gets left behind, and the guild has to coordinate reforming (potentially finding their name taken!). With this method, the coordination is simply ‘which of the two servers becomes our primary home’, with the guild still intact. Nifty!

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15. yunk - September 19, 2008

They WERE going to allow “free character transfers” but I think that plan is gone, they just cloned the whole darn thing. Cloning the whole server was probably less work for them than trying to administer all those transfers.

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