“What Server Are You On?” Is A Question That Needs To Go Away

As my friends have gradually learned that I play FFXIV, the ones that also play have wanted to play with me. And that’s great! The whole point of a MMORPG as a genre is that you can play with loads of other people. Then we try to do it, and the same conversation plays out almost every time:

Them: “What server are you on?”

Me: “Cactaur.”

Them: “Oh. I’m on <someServer>.”

Me: “Drat. Well, maybe we’ll meet up some day.”

Now, I have a great Free Company and a lot of people I know on Cactaur, so I’m not unhappy with where I set up. But in this day and age, there is no reason for this conversation to have to exist anymore.

Individual Servers Are Outdated

Fundamentally, the problem is with the infrastructure. In the old days, games tried to have big worlds and few (or no) instances. In order to scale that up, you spun up another copy of the world and people could go there instead. That wasn’t a great model 20 years ago, but it was practical given the technology at the time. But it has numerous problems, the primary one being that you split your player base up on all those servers and they can’t really interact with each other.

It also scales badly. Consider a common MMO launch, where you have tons of players trying the game out and need lots of servers. A few months later, many of those players are gone, and you need fewer servers. You can’t just shut down the ones you don’t need anymore, as players are on them, even though some of them may not have enough population to make the game actually play well when it comes to group content. As a result, you now have cumbersome and difficult server merges to do.

If the population grows, servers get overloaded. You can spin up new ones, but people will want to play on the busy ones, so to stop that overload you have to close new character creation there. This happens in FFXIV a fair bit, and it can stop someone from recruiting a new person to the game. Do you want to join a game to play with me if you can’t get onto my server?

This was the best we could do 20 years ago.

Doing It Better

Today? There’s no particular reason for those limitations. Games are split up into smaller chunks, each of which can run on a piece of hardware in a data center. Instancing is plentiful. Some games have the ability to spin up multiple instances of a given area even on the same server, to control population. SWTOR did that last one – if Coruscant got too busy, Coruscant 2 would come into existence automatically to keep things flowing. Part of the reason that’s necessary is that the cost of communicating what players are doing to other nearby players increases exponentially as you add more players.

Consider:

  • If I move and there’s one other player around, the game has to tell one player. If the other player moves, it still has to tell one player.
  • If there’s five players and all five move, the game has to notify 20 people (four players per move, five moves).
  • If there’s 10 players and they all move, now it’s up to 90.
  • If there’s 50 players and they all move, now it’s up to 2450.
  • If there’s 100 players and they all move, now it’s up to 9900. That’s 10x the players and 1000x the work.

This gets unsustainable at very high numbers of people in a single area, but when players are spread out you can handle a lot of them. Thus if they get too concentrated in one area, adding another virtual area and splitting the players between the two will massively reduce load AND allow that load to be spread across two physical resources.

The net result is that if a game is designed with it in mind from the outset, a lot of scaling can be done by spawning copies of instanced areas on a server, allowing each “server” (which is actually a collection of physical and virtual servers) to handle far more players. If the population goes up, more hardware can be added to spin up new instances relatively easily. If the population goes down, resources can be taken away without having to shut the server down and merge it away.

Yes, I am aware that everything I’m saying is a simplification on the actual infrastructure.  🙂

End The Frustration

Games that weren’t designed this way because it wasn’t practical back when they were made are in a tougher spot. Blizzard has tried to get around it in WoW with things like cross server dungeons and chat. But for new games, they shouldn’t be using the same old tired model given all the problems that come with it.

I don’t know if Square is ever planning on doing anything about it in FFXIV given the cost and effort required, but it’s a pretty huge source of frustration when I have to choose which friends I want to be allowed to play with when choosing a server. It’s a serious weakness in an otherwise great game.

2 thoughts on ““What Server Are You On?” Is A Question That Needs To Go Away”

  1. Star Trek Online launched in 2010 with a single shard environment and has benefited ever since.

    The economy is vibrant and the PVE queues and grouping facilities work well.

    If any new MMO launches these days with region specific servers I consider it a major impediment. This dated notion needs to be laid to rest.

  2. I agree!

    Even if servers have to remain as a sort of location for people and guilds, at least allow us to meet up anyway or cross-server communicate. That last one is the biggest issue I have, especially since City of Heroes managed to have it ages and ages ago.

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