15 Jul 2010

The Growing Yet Shrinking World

One of the signs a game is on the decline is when servers are switched off. It doesn’t matter if they’re called realms, shards or any one of a number of different descriptions – mergers and closures are a sure-fire sign that a MMO’s playerbase is shrinking.

No game is immune to the effects of a variable playerbase. Subscriber numbers can fluctuate dramatically from when a game is launched to when it’s finally mothballed. The reasons for mergers can vary: a server with only a handful of players on it can feel empty and desolate, while an under-utilised server may be closed to reduce costs. They’re a staple part of every MMO game’s lifecycle once the post-launch rush has died down and the number of people logging in starts to dwindle.

So how has Warcraft managed to survive without a single server merger since launch while every other game since has been forced to go through it? What makes this game so unique? Arguably it’s the most successful, but that doesn’t make it immune to the changing habits of fickle consumers.

The mysterious thing is servers have merged. Just not in the way you’d normally expect.

Out With The Old

If we timewarp back to early 2005, Warcraft was a very different landscape. We had no dungeon finder, no cross-realm dungeons or battlegrounds. Each realm was its own isolated world, unconnected to any others in its battlegroup. This doesn’t mean that our little realm was a single computer running all by itself – by contrast, there were a whole collection of servers powering our experience.

While there was a Realm Server and database to house all our characters, hold all the Auctionhouse data and manage all the chat channels, there’s also a whole bunch of other boxes as well. The ones we’ve all experienced are the continent servers – these track our movements as well as the monsters and NPCs, govern the loot that we gain and a host of other things. There were times when a continent and everyone on it would vanish into the ocean – that’s when this little box fell over. If you remember early Burning Crusade you’ll remember how many times Outland used to disappear completely.

Of course, the diagram above is heavily simplified, but you get the idea. There’s much more going on behind the scenes. Unless you’re a networking fanatic though, that level of detail would probably bore you to tears.

In With the New

This is all well and good, but how have things changed? And how has it allowed Blizzard to reduce their number of servers? The trick lies in new features that have proven to be incredibly popular.

When cross-realm battlegrounds were introduced they were a godsend. Players were quickly and easily able to find others to fight against, meaning that it didn’t matter if your server had low population as long as your battlegroup had enough players. Arenas were an extension of this, matching groups of players across servers in order to do battle.

The new Looking-For-Dungeon tool moves even further in this direction. Instead of waiting around in a city to try and form a group, players are collected together from across the battlegroup and formed into automatically balanced groups. There are a few hiccups but by and large the system works.

What does this mean? Well, firstly there’s the practical aspects – for almost everything that relies on other people there’s the option of cross-server play.This provides the illusion of a server being busier than it actually is – if you’re able to carry out basic PvP and PvE experiences, you’ll be relatively content with the game.

It also benefits from a technical point of view. By moving the instance and battleground servers into their own discrete clusters, Blizzard can get away with having fewer servers and just balancing the load between them. It’s a clever design – not only do you deliver in-game benefits, but you reduce your server footprint as well.

Virtual Shrink-Rays

Once Cataclysm launches and dies down it’s likely that Blizzard will look for further experience improvements rather than merge servers. There are a couple of obvious things that they could do almost immediately, and I’m almost certain they’re considering them:

  • Cross-realm Raids – tired of getting groups for the weekly raid or the loot piñata? Chances are that some time in the future we’ll be able to queue for a 10-man in the same way we do 5-mans now.
  • Battlegroup Auction houses – I often hear about how this realm or that one has a terrible economy because of it’s low population. By opening the markets up, prices should normalise and people shouldn’t feel the need to transfer just to get reasonable prices.
  • Virtual Northrend and Outland – instead of running continents on two separate servers, place them on the same physical box but as virtual entities. It’s commonly done and would be a way to make low-population continents more efficient to support.

It means that the only thing left untouched is the questing and levelling experience. While refer-a-friend will help pull people together, it’s not necessary in order to quest. There’s the odd group quest thrown in here and there, but they’re mostly inside instances these days. The elite creature wandering outside is now more of an oddity than a regular occurrence.

I think that Blizzard understands how much we attach to our server identity, and how hard we work to find a good home for our characters. As a result of their efforts to improve the ways in which we can play together, they’ve managed to hold off carrying out server mergers for much longer than most.

One day it’s inevitable. Realms will merge, servers will get powered down. For now though, their work seems to be holding that threat at bay.

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