Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Perfect number of servers

Rift launches tomorrow, and has published a list of server names. Which promptly caused a discussion between some people preferring a single-server architecture like Guild Wars, EVE, or City of Heroes have, and others preferring strictly separate servers for a "better community".

I am torn on that issue. I never liked being in copy #57 of a city zone, and having to make sure that I'm in the same copy as the friend I want to meet. Single-server solutions without instances only work for space games with a huge universe, and even there you get some especially popular places with permanent lag problems. But the separate server model has problems as well: What if you find that you and a RL friend of yours are on different servers? But if you allow server transfers, many of the "better community" advantages go out of the window. And anything players queue up for, be it PvP instances or PvE dungeons, results in larget populations leading to lower queue times, which is why WoW has these set up for server clusters these days.

The worst disadvantage of having separate servers is that they don't deal well with shrinking populations. That used to be not an issue for the earlier games, where MMORPGs typically had a long growth period and a slow decline. But since WAR and AoC showed that the decline can be rapid and start as early as after the first free month, the multi-server model looks more and more like a risk. Shrinking populations mean either too many servers being underpopulated, or server mergers, which make for very bad press and suggest to the players that the game is dying.

Thus in the balance I think a single-server model with instances is probably the least bad solution. But I'm interested in hearing your opinion on that issue.
I think some sort of "friend density monitor" could help. Instead of having named separate servers, have several nameless ones that a player is randomly shunted off into at login, smoothing the population spikes of all servers. What would make this idea work would be a mechanism that checks your friend list and guild list and sees which nameless server has the highest concentration of your buddies at the moment, and sends you that way. Could result in a feeling of one huge world, but would have a major immersion-shattering feel if you were ever ventrilo-ing with a friend and realized you couldn't find them even though you're apparently standing in the exact same spot.

By no means a flawless solution, but something different!
I think you mean Champions Online. City of Heroes has separate servers, like most MMO's. But easy to mix the two up. :)
I really don't like single-server stuff, the only benefit is "everyone can play together," but that's about it.

On the other hand, all of the points you mentioned bar the real-life friend scenario are not, as you make it out to be, an inherent flaw in the system that cannot be solved. These queue time problems and the like can all be sorted out by having good server management by the game's devs; not by doing it the Blizzard laissez-faire way and just slapping over the cross-server bandage so they don't have to actually manage or merge the servers.
Wizard 101 has a great solution; multiple servers, but you literally have a "transfer me to a different server of my choice" button on a one minute cooldown, and can teleport to a friend immediately, which may include server hopping. It's an upgrade to the Guild Wars system which also allows players to hop around on servers to find friends. Those games make technical use of multiple servers to alleviate traffic congestion, but with very few barriers to getting together with friends. (And GW dynamically opens or closes more servers according to the live population. I suspect they have a target density they angle for, and the fluidity of the system makes fudging the numbers possible. You'd never see that in a rigid WoW-alike model.)

I've been a fan of that model for a while now. There are pros and cons of single server and multiple server designs, so I don't think there's any One True Path, but I love the middle ground of the W101 method. Yes, you lose "server identity", but then, I'd much rather focus on a few good friends in the first place.
After playing Champions Online, I must say, that having the ability to just go to server 2 to be with friends is nice. Also, Champions Online, also allows cross server chat, so being in Millennium City #1, you talk to every other Millennium City. This was a huge change that really helped the game.

After playing both, and seeing the advantages/disadvantages, I'd say any game coming in the future, would do better to use the single server setup.
One advantage of separate servers is that you can choose your preferred population density. Some people (such as myself) would rather have a low population server. This means less overcrowding, less spawn camping, less inane chatter on trade, etc. And with the dungeon finder and BGs working through the battlegroup, there are very few disadvantages to a low population server.

Of course, I recognize this is just my preference. I know that others prefer to have lots of people around.
I disagree with Drilski. I think the problem with fragmented realms is economy of scale. This applies to items (MC ingot, enchanting patterns) and people. ( It is much easier to schedule a 25 person raid if there are 2000 raiders on your realm rather than 30. ) I know a number of people on my realm who transferred to my med pop server talk about how much easier it is to acquire gear/items as well as groups. I think this is why companies have to consolidate realms.

Now I must flog my bette noir: phasing. Phasing provides a short term convenience to game designers at a cost to this idea. You can even be on the same realm out of hundreds as your friend, standing next to them, but if they are in phase 17 and you are in phase 23 then you can't interact.

I would prefer a single world over the current WoW hundreds of realms and $25 per alt to transfer design.
@Hagu: I don't see what your point is, other than having bigger servers increases the amount of materials on the AH and the potential available players.

But at what point does that mean nothing? The difference between, say, 30 and 2000 is indeed large and has severe consequences for the realm, but does having 50,000 potential raiders and 5,000 sulfuron ingots really add anything? All it means is more anonymity, more dickishness, and more lag when everyone decides they want to do their dailies.

And, as I said, in an ideal world the company would manage the servers such that every realm had a fairly even split down the faction line and every realm was well-populated.
Why worry about the number of servers? Why cant game companies just incorporate player-bound accounts and be done with it?

I'm a firm believer that players want stability, not just in content, but in the playerbase as well. It's up to the game developer to use pre/post sale stats to determine the types and/or number of servers to have when a game goes live to ensure that the playerbased is well served. Beyond that, simply allow players the freedom to migrate and communicate according to social bonds/ties. Instance content as needed and allow players to communicate freely. With technology being where it is now, and with the fact that several MMO's already incorporate different ways of allowing player interaction, there should be no reason that players arent given the freedom and tools to overcome any of the issues in your post.

Just dont allow players the ability to hide behind anonymous account/name/server changes and the communities will flourish and social bonds will strengthen.
I think their approach works well in RIFT, purely because they have an audience who is clamouring for less-restrictive open PVP, and I don't want to play anywhere the hell near those freaks. With the announcement of the differences between PVP and PVE servers, both camps were equally pleased.

Additionally, whilst playing in beta, I played on a PVE-RP server, and by god, the zone-wide chat there was like MENSA compared to anywhere else I've played. I was actually to engage in word-play with people, with references to all kinds of pop-culture that most folks under thirty wouldn't get.

I'd suggest that based on these experiences, multiple servers (specifically different server TYPES - I don't know if it's necessary to have half a dozen RP servers) is an excellent way of fostering community: It's much easier to be nicer to your fellow man when they already share certain attitudes and philosophies with you.
Also, I'm not a huge fan of the way Cryptic handles their answer to the cross-realm issue.

It's a somewhat jarring thing to recognize someone from their highly-appropriately-themed character name, then try to friend them and have to go for some ridiculous account name, usually suffixed by numerals to make it unique.

When I'm flying around on my masterful supervillian, I want to be Adahn. Not Adahn@crypticaccount2456.

Additionally, zonal instance-hopping is annoying. "Hey, are you in Millenium City 27?" "No, I'm in 34. Holy crap you should see the shit that's going down!" "Dammit, I can't get in, it's full." "Sucks to be you."
Ok I'll try this one.

I have 2 opinions.

1) If Facebook like gaming takes over... then there will be only one community per game type. So, really technology is irrelevant and we all are looking at a future like EVE with a central dataserver holding all information. (juicy target for hacking anyone?)

2) If Facebook goes the way of Myspace... then there is hope for distributed worlds. PVP, PVE etc could all thrive.

Frankly I like having realms or server segregation. In Wow I have toons on 2-3 realms and it is fun to see the differences (minor but amusing).

Realms to me are like cites are in the US. Yes every city is unique but all cities seem to be the same in many many ways. And as much as the locals always say "our city is great because of X". They really don't have much to compare it to.

Trends being what they are I see that central user interaction will be pushed in the near term. So Realms will not be the "hot" way to deploy games.
1 server, multiple main hubs.

Not just one orgrimar, but like real world, you have paris, london, new york etc. just a couple of "main" cities.
I never understood why companies don't at least offer inter-realm chat so you can at least talk to friends on a different copy of the world.
On global SUN Online, the company ruined the game population when they created a new server with the intention to fix the lag issue.

The lag was due to servers being located in South Korea and since most of players were from America and Europe they were experiencing lag. The new server is located in Europe.

In my opinion, their mistake was to create a new server and to keep the old one active. Half of the players migrated to the new server and half of them stayed in the old one, which broken the game population.
After this, SUN became a very tedious game and there are no people to make party with, for dungeons and grinding.

They should create 1 single server, migrate everyone to the new one and delete the old server.
Single server architecture requires more specialized server software and generally much more work on how exactly the client deals with certain events to optimize performance. Single server architecture is better, but requires more resources from the developer.

Maybe I am blind, but I honestly can;t see the difference between a space game with a large universe and a game lacking these two which would make it impossible/harder for the latter to single sharded.
I would be grateful for an explanation of the above paradigm.
I think the RIFT launch also demonstrates very clearly why multiple servers is a good thing.

We've got how many... over two dozen servers up, all of which are full with thousands in their queues. More are opening up.

If that had been a single server... the start zones and following zones would all be packed to the point of idiocy.

Single server architecture only works for game types that support that kind of population density.
The main reason for Multi server models is to avoid overpopulating the world and stripping it bare.

If wow was on one single server, in order to maintain a decent gameplay experience the world would either have to be approx 500 times (I think there are in the region of 500 wow servers now) larger to keep the population density the same, or the resources (mobs, spawn rates, gathering nodes) would have to be 500 times more.

EvE manages a single server architechture by just having a HUGE world for everyone to spread out into and effectively instanced missions (quests). There is competition for some of the rarer resources, but even then, there is still more than enough to go around.
Also, due to the nature of EvE, it is easy to add new star systems as the old ones get crowded. In wow, creation of new landmasses is far more resource intensive as it requires a huge amount of new models, art, lore, storyline, quests etc.
If I remember correctly, the regeneration of the entire Eve universe between beta and live took a few hours, or a day at the most, mainly because most of it can be automated. You can't do that with a game like wow as the world creation is a lot more time consuming and resource intensive.

A perfect number of servers is the number that gives the optimum population density. Too high and the resources get too scarce, too low and the economy fails.

As a world becomes bigger and more complex, the optimum server size will increase in order to maintain a decent population density.
Population density is one thing, but a 'single' server can hold and process only so many sessions at once. That's why EVE got caronized and some of the task were moved out from the system nodes into their seperate processing nodes.

A game like WoW is not that different in handling from EVE. The only obstacle that prevents WoW from being single server is the fact that there is not enough contant. It's just easier to mirror the same content 500 times then to create 500 times more content.

the issue you addressed, related to models and object exists in EVE as well - the server only sends the location to the client, and the client draws all the stuff and makes it visible. If EVE can do it, WoW would also manage - but I think it;s simply too late for WoW to change the architecture now. If any Blizzard game will have a single server archtecture, it won't be WoW.
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