Daily Archives: September 17, 2008

Thoughts on a Sharded Existence

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?