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.
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?