Mega Servers Continued
A few days ago I made a post on about launch issues and game servers, and the problems and solutions that come from various server scenarios. In my post I presented some discussion about the various styles of servers and the weaknesses that each have. Mega Servers are an awesome technology but there are problems with it, namely that it reduces the casual proximity of players. In my post Doone made a comment, and while I normally would have simply posted it as a reply… I am thinking that maybe I need more space to go into my thoughts. For sake of not having to make you jump through a bunch of hoops I am going to repose his comment here.
Im not sure why anyone thinks Megaservers make it difficult to build community? Do you mean that it’s too many people to build intimate connections? Because if thats the case, then we’re just talking about social tools, not megaserver tech. Players just need a reason to interact and that doesnt change because of megaservers.
AA’s current situation is embarrassing. Theres not any good excuses for their current situation. This isn’t the first MMO launch, not even the first MMO with land and other features that complicate server flexibility. Theyre simply unprepared for deliberate reasons. There’s just no way they didn’t know what they needed for a smooth launch.
It’s worse that people who shelled out hundreds of dollars to support development are reporting not getting that 4 day advantage they were promised. That’s a serious charge.
Should AA have gone Megaserver? I don’t see how this wasn’t mandatory given the kind of features it has. You need a vast server community that’s STABLE. And you can’t have that when your system is as inflexible as the one they’ve adopted. I think they’re sinking their own ship right now. — Doone
While I agree with the bulk of what he said, I thought I should maybe clarify my points about mega servers. At first glance they look like a magic bullet for the problem. At the very least I thought they were a magic bullet for launch day woes, however they have their own problems that do not always show up early on.
There is a certain kind of community that happens spontaneously by just being around the same players each and every day. For example the above picture is that of one of the late game hubs in Final Fantasy XIV Revenants Toll in Mor Dhona. Upon arriving at the Aetheryte crystal I am immediately seeing some familiar places that tend to frequent it. You can see a name marked in orange as someone I have already friended. However more than that I recognize if not the names, but the guild tags of many of the players surrounding me. There is a sense of familiarity in seeing the same players day in and out, and when one of them is in need you are more likely to step in and help out. This is the way friendships in MMOs used to be formed through shared activity, not just shared guild tag.
In Final Fantasy XIV it has instanced housing wards, where you purchase a house and in theory become neighbors with lots of other players. Our house is across the street from a Market Board which is the way that you access the auction house economy. Over the course of weeks of being in close proximity with several other players, we have struck up a bit of a friendship. One of which is the name in orange in the above Mor Dhona photo. There is lots of spontaneous interaction that happens just by being around other players and gaining that sense of common goals. This picture is when we just spontaneously put on our brand new Dragon Warrior inspired Blue Slime King hats and started dancing together. But the interaction has spread much further than that, and I’ve helped these players out in the world beyond our neighborhood, as well as had my heart warm each time I happened to see one of them out in the wild.
A Server of Strangers
I’ve played many games so far that have some form of a blended server environment. World of Warcraft for the last several years has blended the leveling zones for the entire battlegroup to make each server feel more populated. The most recent poster child for Mega Servers however was the Elder Scrolls Online. Before launch they made several promises about creating a situation that grouped like minded players together into virtual servers, while still all being part of a much larger farm. While we had one of the smoothest launches since they could easily scale up the hardware temporarily, and reduce it later as needed… there are a lot of problems that came from not being with a fixed set of players. Admittedly some of the issues are due to the poor decisions made with the user interface.
In the above image, can you easily tell where my group mates are? Can you tell the names of players surrounding me? In both cases the answer is a huge nope, and this poor design choice of obfuscating information about other players only served to make the mega server concept feel that more alienating. Everyone that was not you became another nameless faceless person taking up room and competing for your resources. While this is the extreme, I’ve had the same thing happen in World of Warcraft when I encountered players from other servers. It was like that they were somehow less important to me, since they didn’t share the same server lineage. I knew that I would likely never see them again, so why even bother trying to be friendly?
Familiarity in Proximity
In a traditional server structure there is familiarity in your actions. You end up noticing players that do the same things as you do. It might be farming a specific location on the map because you like the look of it, or crafting at a specific machine. In hub based MMOs like World of Warcraft, you spend inordinate amounts of time milling around whatever your faction end game city tends to be. I would spend hours running circles around Dalaran while dealing with raid and guild business over text. While doing this I used to favor certain areas of the town and vendors, and I started taking note of who else seemed to like milling around these same places. Over time I would start up conversations and get used to seeing the same people. If they were gone, I would wonder what they were up to and hope that they were okay. Over the years there are so many contacts that I have made… that ultimately turned into later guild members that I made only because I noticed they were in the same place as me and decided to strike up a conversation.
The problem with the mega server is that it destroys this kind of familiarity through proximity. I feel like Elder Scrolls Online was the absolute worst case of this, because not only did it rob you of being around the same people all the time… it also took their names and guild tags from you. One of the important aspects of a guild is it becomes far easier to recognize than individual player names. Over time you start to associate a certain kind of behavior with a certain guild tag, and then when you see one of those people leading an event you have an informed decision as to whether or not this is going to be a good thing. As a guild leader, my people were amazing and the absolute best advertising I could ever have created. I would get random messages from players who ended up running a dungeon with one of my people, and they wanted to take time to compliment me as guild leader on how nice they were. It is this kind of interaction with others that I hope to preserve with whatever ends up being the next server model.
The Happy Medium
As I said in my first post, I think there is a happy medium somewhere. I think the ultimate version of mega servers, allows you to checkmark certain characteristics that you favor and then creates essentially a virtual server populated with the same players every time. Similarly I think there are ways for games to maybe more easily identify players that you have interacted with in the past. The biggest problem with Elder Scrolls Online is that every player felt anonymous. Even my own guild members, I struggled to locate them in a mob. This should never be the case, you should always be able to pick your friends and guild members out of the biggest sea of names and faces. Similarly I think it is important to be able to identify players, because it allows you to form those connections in your mind that if I saw this player in my crafting hub and they are out here doing the same action… I am invested in maybe going that next step and inviting them to a group. I want us to keep the best aspects of the traditional server structure, and find new ways to scale them as we go forward.
I want to leave with an excellent post from Sig of Crucible Gaming called “How WoW Ruined MMO Gaming”. While the title is hyperbole, there are some really good thoughts contained within, and it seems like Sig mourns the interconnectivity of the previous era of gaming. Once upon a time we needed players, and as such generally treated them better. As games have removed the need for having other players we have eroded that base of civility. While in many cases I think that World of Warcraft has poisoned the well in doing away with some things that were absolutely normal previously, I don’t think we are in an unredeemable state. Final Fantasy XIV has proven to me that there can exist a game that is both social and modern at the same time… and that has a thriving and cohesive community. I think the ultimate trick will be finding ways to take what they have done there and scale it to other games.