The Anvil of Crom: Server merges, separation, and why both are potentially swell

Last week I mentioned that the Age of Conan Unrated announcement has given us a lot to talk about. There's the 800-lb. free-to-try elephant in the room, there's a bunch of new content that's both coming soon and already here, and there's also an endlessly fascinating quote from Funcom game director Craig "Silirrion" Morrison that is, well, endlessly fascinating.

This last bit got lost in the big announcement blitzkrieg, and because it was buried in the depths of a thread about roleplay on the EU boards, it's safe to assume that 99.99% of Age of Conan players didn't read it. Regardless, it may well be one of the more interesting and exciting developments in Age of Conan's short history. What was it about? Well, it involves servers, server merges, and new technology that could change the way we think about MMORPGs and server populations.

The setup

Before we get any deeper into this week's column, let's look at exactly what was said and exactly what has my excitement level a few notches above mildly intrigued:
Ultimately we are moving towards the technology where the old concept of servers will be redundant to some extent. The new cross server or single server tech that our Dreamworld folk are working on will allow us to have that defined in any way we like.

So in the short term you may be merged in database terms, but the long term goal is that your community play can be done within a certain pre-defined grouping (which we haven't fully decided upon, it could be roleplaying or normal modes), but then play with everyone for certain group-oriented content.

So this means you regular gameplay could be within a certain community but you still benefited from the ability to play with everyone in the long term. For this technology to work we must first do merges to bring players together at a database level. That means that in the short term the existing physical servers will be merged to create a set of environments that we can manipulate and specialize in more interesting ways in the future.
This was Craig Morrison on May 25th, shortly after the big Unrated bomb blanketed the MMO corners of the internet. So while the dread phrase "server merges" is almost universally acknowledged as a sign of impending doom by fans and forumites (as we saw earlier this week), in this particular context, I'm not sure that alarm bells are warranted.

Tortage trioWhy this matters

On the contrary, my head is swimming with possibilities, and no doubt designers, producers, and industry folk who puzzle over this stuff for a living are thinking long and hard on it as well. At least I hope they are, because I've long held that the worst thing about MMORPGs -- aside from the wholesale simplification over the last half decade -- is the players.

Funnily enough, those two problems are related, and Funcom's new server tech could offer a possible solution for both irritations.

From my non-technical perspective, it sounds a lot like instancing, and you'll recall that Age of Conan was famously raked over the review coals for overusing instancing upon its 2008 release.

While the game is still heavily instance-based, the post-release content including Tarantia Commons, Ymir's Pass, and of course Khitai and Rise of the Godslayer added successively larger playfields that helped AoC overcome the perception of smallness that initially dogged it. Put another way, it's one of the larger game worlds at this point, instanced or not.

Despite being a proponent of sandbox play and old-school MMORPG sensibilities (that's a fancy phrase that basically boils down to "options other than combat"), I'm a fan of instancing, provided it exists to serve certain kinds of players. Open worlds are occasionally awesome, and I love me some Vanguard (and probably, some ArcheAge), but a customizable experience trumps an open world experience every time.

The beneficiaries

So what kinds of players could this new tech serve?

All kinds, and that's why I'm so excited over Morrison's response in that thread. So reread the block quote above and think of the possibilities. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Now, can you imagine a "server" set aside for PvEers? Roleplayers? PvPers? Can you imagine a meticulously detailed world like Funcom's Hyboria that caters to your particular group's every gameplay whim? That's stretching it, I know, as different rulesets still require manpower and administrative capabilities, but the possibility is there. Not only that, but offering players the chance to play exclusively with people who share their interests could be the start of a new way to enjoy MMORPGs.

Certainly nothing outside of an illegal private server, or perhaps a Neverwinter Nights persistent world setup, will give you the kind of custom-tailored massively multiplayer experience that this type of tech theoretically makes available. And before anyone berates me for advocating playerbase segregation, you're right -- I am advocating segregation as an option because the MMO space has grown so much that it's become almost impossible for certain groups of players to get the experience that initially drew them to MMOs in the first place.

And yes, I know, diversity, can't we all just get along, and other politically correct blah blah. Really, though, this is our entertainment and our free time, and forcing us to share it with folks who in some cases actively work to spoil said entertainment is archaic and more than a little daft.

PriestessThrow us a frickin' bone here

The immersion enthusiasts, world-builders, and roleplayers/storytellers in particular are at the mercy of the PvE progression-fiends and PvP folks who command the lion's share of today's development resources (to say nothing of the grief-tards who go out of their way to annoy people). Funcom's new server tech could cater to all of these players simultaneously. Well, all but the grief-tards, whose gameplay of course revolves around finding people to make miserable. If the PvEers, PvPers, and roleplayers were squirreled happily away in their own copies of the Wiccana or Crom servers, though, then everyone wins.

While I'm dreaming here, it might even be possible for Funcom or other MMO outfits to make server copies available to private groups. Want to set up an exclusive guild vs. guild battle royale that lasts for a week? Pool your resources, get together with your closest friends, and come up with the $300.00 fee (or whatever it might be), then feel free to stage your own epicness apart from the Bori rock-grinders or the everyday hustle and bustle of your home server.

Maybe you're a roleplayer and you've got the resources to pay a premium for invite-only access to The Serpent's Head Inn for a couple of hours. Fork over your fees to Funcom and enjoy interruption-free storytelling for as long as you and your friends desire.

The possibilities, as the cliche goes, are truly endless, both from a player creativity perspective and a game company's recurring revenue perspective. Yeah there are potential pitfalls as well, mainly relating to the segregation issue I mentioned earlier as well as to the fact that any kind of server merge always stirs the pot and manages to piss someone off. The potential positives far outweigh any negatives, though, and I'm excited to see Funcom run with the concept.


Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.