Massively Overthinking: The ideal MMO server setup


Over the last year, we’ve seen multiple major MMO and expansion launches, and most of them went awry in some way or another. Final Fantasy XIV had to shut down Endwalker sales briefly because it couldn’t handle all the new players. New World and Lost Ark both struggled with overloaded servers and belated merges and transfers, compounded by blockades between regions. Elder Scrolls Online had days of hardware struggles after its last DLC, and Mortal Online’s launch was so rocky that the famously one-shard MMO had to open multiple instances.

But Guild Wars 2’s End of Dragons rollout was technically flawless. In fact, most of Guild Wars 2’s rollouts are pretty clean, to the point that when they’re not, it’s a startling anomaly, and so most folks never really think about how unusual the game’s uptime actually is.

I’d like to talk about MMO server setups in this week’s Massively Overthinking because each of these games is doing something a little differently. We’ve got everything from Elder Scrolls Online megaservers and one-shard games like EVE Online to discrete sharded setups common in classic MMOs and even hybrid server pools like World of Warcraft’s. What’s the best MMO server setup out there, and why?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Ideally, especially for an MMO, single server. I try to meet other gamers in real life, and nothing kills the mood more than finding out you play the same MMO as someone – but on a different server. Few people want to transfer, and if they do, it feels like you owe that person something. Ugh.

It was nice when Darkfall was single server as the few times I met other people who played, we could at least talk about our local politics, if not potentially meet up. I still get that with Orna now and Pokemon Go to an extent. Yes, it does suck if the server falls or something, but it’s much more sociable and makes the game feel bigger. I get why a gameworld might be smaller, especially these days with all the custom quests/encounters to design, cutscenes, etc., but man, just give me a big world, tons of people, and a way to meet friends easily if need be and I’m set. MMOs are worlds for me, and if I need a tight, video-gamey feel, there’s plenty of lobby shooters, MOBAs, the Monster Hunter series, and just general online games. If you’re gonna be an MMO these days, ya gotta go big in my opinion.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I really like the mega server model. It’s hassle-free. There’s no need to make a decision on where to roll a character. In fact, I was shocked that Amazon, the biggest cloud provider in the world, chose to implement New World on shards. It seemed like such an old school idea for a company that prides itself on being forward-thinking.

Having said all that, I do admit there is some fun in belonging to a smaller server community and watching a culture develop. I remember the Windfola server in LOTRO developed a strange affinity for goat mounts. I don’t know why or where it started, but it was specific to that small server and became kind of an inside joke among Windfola players. I kind of miss that.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I like the concept of megaservers, with caveats. First, when megaservers are divided up by region anyway, that just tends to split international guilds more, not less, than smaller-server titles. If you have multiple “megaservers,” you don’t have a megaserver; you just have big regional shards. This is not functionally different from the old shard system, just bigger. And second, megaserver games tend to struggle just as much as small servers when it comes to actually putting very large groups on-screen in anything resembling a meaningful and engaging way. No live game has cracked that problem yet. No, not even that one you’re thinking of.

If I could pick one way to do it, it’d actually be Classic Guild Wars. It was easy to move back and forth between different instances of the hub map using a basic interface tools, meaning I could easily meet up with friends all over the world – but none of us had to play on a server with terrible ping all the time. It also had the stellar uptime of GW2. Sure, combat zones were more limited in terms of player count, but overall it still felt much more like playing a huge globe-spanning MMO than most parochial-server setups where you never meet anyone outside the relatively small group on your single shard.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I contend that server tech is freaking hard to create and maintain, but honestly the single shard or megaserver infrastructure ends up being one of the best solutions, in my opinion, especially in a game that has a lot of cooperation inherent in its design.

Initially I wasn’t sure a megaserver would be as liked by me as it is owing to the assumption that merging that many playstyles into one space was a powder keg in the making, but my fears have this far been generally unfounded. This is probably helped by the fact that I disengage global chats as a rule, admittedly.

There is still value in separate servers, mind you, especially in flagging a server as RP-specific or PvE focused when a game has both PvP and PvE at once, but for my money the megaserver is where it’s at. Assuming the spit, gum, tape, twine, and hopes that apparently makes server tech work holds together, anyway.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): It’s weird to me that this is still a question because it seems like a solved problem. I’ve never seen a good argument for why you wouldn’t just go with one big server with multiple instances/phases of each zone. You can scale that up almost infinitely and never have to worry about merges. I know there’s the argument of small, discrete servers forming distinct communities, but that’s what guilds are for. Maybe for economic or PvP reasons in games where that’s a focus, but even that seems like a stretch to me.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think there are some negatives that come with Guild Wars 2’s server system, but the advantage of never having a queue and downtime being essentially non-existent is just too fantastic. It’s been my long term go-to-game for so long that I’d actually forgotten just how bad and annoying login queues were until New World launched. It’d been years since I had to login to a game three hours before I could actually play. It was blowing my mind that people still go through this stuff.

Of course, the downside is a sense of server community, but even that is over-exaggerated and just dumb in most games. It made some sense with the original release of GW2 since WvW used to provide server benefits to the winning server, but once that was killed, so did the point of server community.

So for me it’s an easy choice. Which game lets me play when I want to play anytime I want to play? Guild Wars 2 is the winner hands down.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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