31 August, 2016
This is a special blog post done in conjunction with the MMOBro for the end of Blaugust 2016. We had a pleasant email discussion on a variety of topics, and we decided to do a point/counter-point type post on an MMO topic.
I’m going to write about how multiple servers are generally better for MMOs than single, monolithic servers. MMOBro will attempt to advocate for the single server games. Read both blogs, then join in the conversation!
When I write about servers here, I’m talking about the game servers players see. This is different than server machines, which are technology details that only a few people reading this would really care about. Usually a cluster of server machines make up a single game server.
“Multiple servers” are how most MMOs are set up. In Meridian 59 you would join server 101 or 105 or whatever. In FFXIV, you might play on the Midgardsormr server to play with me, or maybe Cactuar because that’s where all the other bloggers play. (*weep*)
Single server, also called “monolithic server” is how EVE Online is organized. When you play EVE, you play on a single “server” with everyone else in your same region (Chinese or the rest of the world). Everyone who plays in a region can potentially meet with everyone else.
So, let’s see why I view the former as superior.
The first major advantage is the ability to have varying rulesets on individual servers. The classic example of this is PvP vs. normal servers. (Or in the case of Meridian 59, non-PvP vs. normal servers.) People who want more PvP can go play on the PvP servers, and people who don’t want to worry about being ganked in order to most efficiently achieve maximum level can play on the non-PvP servers.
But, there is a lot more that can be done with this. The original EQ had the “Stormhammer” Legends server that charged a premium subscription for much more attentive customer service. While this didn’t last, it did show one option. Related to billing models, Puzzle Pirates also had subscription servers (called “oceans”) and free-to-play oceans. They separated the two so that one side didn’t feel like they had an advantage over the other.
I’d love to see more gameplay options. For example, in FFXIV it might be interesting to have some servers where each character could only have one class, but you have more characters per server. Or a server where the main story quest was optional, for people who don’t care for story or those who want to play a new character without trudging through the story again. What is interesting is that you could also have specific communities on each server, assuming that the variant rulesets were sustainable.
Whereas rulesets are interesting to me as a developer, communities are the most interesting aspect to me as a player. I love it when different servers have a different feel from each community.
For example, in Dungeons & Dragons Online each server had it’s own community. One server might have a lot more PUGs available, another server might have more raids going on, and yet another server might have a strong perma-death guild, yet another server might have an economy where different items have dramatically different values due to the way that server’s players interact with each other. I can roll an alt on another server and get an entirely new experience in the game. In a monolithic server environment, these options and variations may be a lot harder to find or may not even be possible given how far like-minded people may be required to scatter.
Servers also allow people to select for their own preferences. After all, not all playstyles are entirely compatible, so it’s nice to find people who share your interests. Servers might cater to a specific language, officially or unofficially. One DDO server had a higher population of Chinese language speakers, for example. These players could play on a specific server without worrying about potentially every other player accusing them of being a Chinese gold farmer. It’s also common for people to designate an “official RP server” in many popular games. This can help people who like RP find other like-minded individuals in a more tightly-knit community. It can also help people who can’t stand RP to avoid it. (Sadly, it also lets trolls know where to go to hear the loudest screams from RPers.)
And, let’s face it, sometimes you run into people you just don’t like. Or some group just doesn’t like you for some reason. In these cases, it’s nice to be able to leave the server behind and find new people to talk to and never have to worry about that other group again.
Multiple servers are also a bit easier to develop for. EVE Online‘s setting, deep space, makes it much easier to have a monolithic server. Adding new locations is easy enough as space is mostly big and empty, and more space exists just beyond the known boundaries.
But, there are some tremendous downsides. It’s harder to constrain player population and groups. Even on multiple servers, having too many players in one place can be bad. When each server is only a part of the total population the size of a single congregation of players is limited. When literally all the players in the game could potentially converge on one location, well, any problems with a high density of players is exacerbated. EVE handles this with their “time dilation” game mechanic, which is hardly beloved by most players.
And, let’s be honest here, a monolithic server has much higher technical requirements. Scalability is an issue, and scaling for tens of thousands of players is different than scaling for thousands of players. EVE is notorious for needing some pretty heavy tech to run that single server. The were one of the first games to talk about needing a serious SAN for their storage. Compare this to Meridian 59 where world state was entirely stored in memory and written to disk. But, to be fair, a lot of modern games require a lot heavier tech solutions than M59 did. ;)
On the design side, a monolithic server can be more difficult to manage. Whereas traditional games can have servers dedicated to PvP and PvE, a monolithic server that wants to cater to both playstyles has to do so in the same environment. EVE Online handles this with the security ratings, but this causes a clash of expectations where someone who just wants to fly a spaceship finds themselves podded by someone who likes blowing other people up.
Segregated servers also means that individual problems can be isolated. A dupe bug discovered and abused on one server doesn’t mean that the economy of every server is hosed if you address the problem fast enough. The damage to the economy might be limited to one server. Likewise, a particularly obnoxious person’s behavior might be limited to one server, and any fallout related to that can be limited to a subset of people before the problem is addressed.
Of course, it would be dishonest to pretend that multiple servers don’t have any problems. There are some things that multiple servers don’t do well.
I think you can look at Guild Wars 2 as an interesting example of what works and what does not for multiple servers. They tried to have the best of both worlds. You had a server you logged on to which was primarily important for PvP teams. But, they made it so that you could interact with people online on any of the servers outside of PvP. The problem was that the implementation was very uneven. Originally, joining a guild on another server meant you had your own “instance” of that guild on your own server. Benefits accrued on the other server’s guild didn’t extend to yours. So, being the only person not on the same server kinda sucked; I believe they fixed this recently. But, the “servers don’t matter” philosophy also meant that servers didn’t have individual PvE community feelings, and elements like the economy ended up being the same, bland thing on every server.
The biggest problem is that multiple servers segregate people who don’t want to be segregated. This is the first advantage the MMOBro talks about in his piece, where you’ll never miss your friends. As a big believer in the social fabric of MMOs, it sucks when people are separated from their friends because they play on different servers. But, just like in the offline world, sometimes you have to make hard decisions about who you prefer to spend your time with. Most games get around this with server transfers, although these are general a premium (paid) service.
From a developer point of view, multiple servers also makes it harder to hide any population fluctuations. Small population drops on servers are much more obvious when the average player will run into a higher percentage of people in their server. On a monolithic server, a player might not see a drop in activity in their particular part of the game, even if players are leaving in large numbers somewhere else. The most visible sign of population drops in multiple server games, the dreaded server merges, are a universal sign to some players that a game is “omg dying!!1!1″ Whereas on a monolithic server, there’s no need to announce any changes to server structure if populations drop; but, bragging about needing server upgrades when populations grow helps emphasize the positive while downplaying the negative.
Although game developers do tend to follow trends rather than set them, I think there’s a good reason why multiple servers are the default, and why there’s basically only one primary game we can use to demonstrate single, monolithic server architecture. And although game developers don’t use multiple servers to their full capacity, they do have a lot of potential for more interesting games. And, as we see the same old thing not get people excited about MMOs anymore, a strong foundation to try new things might be precisely what we need.
If you haven’t done so, go read the MMOBro’s attempt to justify monolithic severs. He has some good points, even if he is wrong. ;) And make sure to add his blog to your feeds; he posts some quality stuff.
Now, what do you think? Leave a comment with your thoughts. Or write a post of your own and let me and the MMOBro know!