MMObility: The argument for a time-limited server

Travian banner
If there is one thing we MMO gamers love about our favorite games, it's the fact that they go on almost forever. Even when we log off, the virtual worlds we inhabit exist without us. Players continue to adventure, craft and explore the game world as we sleep. It's exciting, and it separates MMOs from the rest of the gaming flock. But what if the world ended? What if the ending of the world was part of the gameplay, an understood happening that marked not only the end of one chapter but the fresh beginning of another?

Time-limited servers end, just as I described. While I have not seen the mechanic much in "standard" MMOs, only appearing really in a handful of titles like A Tale in the Desert, there are quite a few MMORTS titles that use it. In fact, some of the most popular MMORTS games out there use time limits in their games. It would seem that many players enjoy the occasional destruction or closing of their worlds.

Would the mechanic work for other games? How can mobile gaming benefit from the short-term servers?

A Tale in the Desert screenshot
Let's look at Travian, a very popular MMORTS by German publisher Travian Games. The developers boast thousands of players and host contests to see who can come out on top at the end of a certain amount of time. I've had my fun with the game, mainly from a period of over a year ago when I joined up with several of my friends to play. We all started in random areas of the map, but we had a blast trying to figure out how to move next to each other and grow our cities. Unfortunately I haven't played much since then, but the game seems to have grown. The developers have added new NPC factions, servers, and tournaments that boast cash prizes. I'd like to also note that the art style on the website is one of my all-time favorites.


"Many gamers might think that a time limit or a single, achievable goal goes against everything that MMOs are about. MMOs are defined by their permanent nature."

One of the main goals of the game is to build a world wonder. The players who build one "win" the round and the server restarts. Of course I am simplifying, but it's a neat idea: give the players a goal and watch as they beat each other up to achieve it.

Many MMO gamers might think that a time limit or a single, achievable goal goes against everything that MMOs are about. MMOs are defined by their permanent nature. We play them because they are permanent, at least until they close the doors forever. Giving players one main goal pigeonholes the game a bit too much. MMOs are about freedom of choice.

While all of that sounds good, I think the truth of the matter is that many, if not most, MMO players do pursue one or two main goals during their time. Look at how fast max-level characters appear in brand-new titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic or RIFT. Players want glory, and they will grind through every bit of wonderfully voice-acted material to get to it. Forget immersion... they want to raid.

So would it be much of a stretch to imagine a game that had a definite cut-off date, or a singular goal for everyone to go after? What if the goal was to raise a guild, conquer a dungeon, and truly kill the last boss in the game?

Aloriah screenshot
The mobile market could definitely work with such a time-limited game. If the end goal is simplified, then the gameplay could possibly be as simplified. MMORTS titles are wonderful for their ability to offer great depth while allowing players to join the game for sometimes only minutes a day. It seems that as the size of the armies grow, the decisions controlling those armies can be made in shorter amounts of time. Attack, defend, or gather might only take a few seconds to command but have all of the possible strategic outcomes that a move on a chessboard does. That means that a lot of gameplay can be packed into a shorter game or in a game that does not require a beefy gaming PC. I've enjoyed the ability to amass my tiny armies on a mobile device more than once. I was waiting at the airport for my return home from E3 last year and was able to log in, chat, and command a few soldiers in one of my favorite MMORTS games.


"The excitement that I felt, the electricity in the virtual air, was so much more thrilling than the feeling you get from attacking a mob that respawns endlessly or defeating a boss monster that's been killed a thousand times before."

Limiting the time on a server gives the game a real sense of urgency, as well. I've joined time-limited games late before and found myself in what turned out to be the last days of the server. Players were basically going nuts, attacking and conquering at an accelerated rate. The key is to join a good guild or clan and to hope that there truly is safety in numbers. Even though I knew I would never "win" the game, I enjoyed the sense of impending doom and loved watching the chaos. The excitement that I felt, the electricity in the virtual air, was so much more thrilling than the feeling you get from attacking a mob that respawns endlessly or defeating a boss monster that's been killed a thousand times before.

But is it also possible that defining a game's goal so precisely just leads to more of the same min-maxing and stat-crunching that dilutes MMO gameplay in the first place? It's very possible. I have found that some of the best players in time-limited games know exactly what to do and how to start out. To them, the game is more about knowing precisely how to get ahead at the fastest rate than it is about discovering new tactics. Reading about their work reminds me of watching one of those StarCraft 2 matches. In my limited viewing, they both appear to be run by robots, and the matches are rarely surprising. When you have opponents that are so versed in perfecting the quickest route from beginning to the end goal, competition is more about chance than skill or knowledge.

So there is some good and bad about timed servers. I would love to see standard MMOs experiment with specific, game-ending goals. Those goals seem to work well with the mobile market because they allow for a light at the end of the gaming tunnel, and mobile players are often strapped for time. However you feel about it, it is important to note that timed servers are not for everyone. Though the servers do offer a real sense of adventure and teeth-gritting excitement (and frustration), the finite goals do not allow for the open worlds that we MMO gamers love to explore.

What do you think? Would you play your normal game on a time-limited server?

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
This article was originally published on Massively.