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Chaos Theory: The Secret World's single-server tech

Jef Reahard

Something went missing during this month's launch of The Secret World. Do you know what it was? No, snarkonauts, it wasn't "fun." The game is certainly an acquired taste, but it's nonetheless doing pretty well for itself in terms of word-of-mouth and happy early adopters.

No, what was missing was a parade of lengthy launch-week queues (and QQs for that matter). I've been present for every AAA MMO kickoff since Star Wars Galaxies in 2003, and The Secret World marks the first time I've been able to log in when (and where) I wanted to log in on day one.

RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Aion, Lord of the Rings Online -- all of these were "polished" launches by most accounts, and yet all of them featured horrendous launch queues that often stretched from minutes to hours. Why was The Secret World so different?

Chaos Theory The Secret World's single-server tech
The Failcom troll answer to that question is "because no one's playing!" but I seriously doubt that's the case because I'm constantly tripping over gamers in and around Kingsmouth and The Savage Coast. Oh, and there's that whole additional server dimension Funcom added last week to manage new player load.

The real answer is something called single-server tech, and it's tech that's worth watching as it makes its way from TSW to Age of Conan and hopefully on to other companies and games across the industry.

So what exactly is single-server tech?

For starters, it's the end of region-locked servers and the nonsensical restrictions that keep gamers from playing with their mates in other countries. I'm hard-pressed to think of another AAA title aside from EVE Online that features a truly global population, or at least, a global population that can all actually interact with one another on a single "server." I put server in quotes there because while both EVE and TSW use that antiquated word, the reality is actually a cluster of servers, ancillary hardware, and gee-whiz networking code that makes it possible to throw everyone together.

Chaos Theory The Secret World's single-server tech
That's neither here nor there unless you're a computer geek, though, so let's move on. The Secret World does have something called dimensions, and in fact this is one of the first choices you'll make when creating a character. Wait, didn't I just say there's only one server? Why, then, do you have to choose between Grim, Arcadia, Leviathan, and others? It's because each of these dimensions is a clone inside the single server, and each one serves as a default login point for your characters. Think of dimensions as instancing on a server-wide scale instead of a zone instance or a single dungeon instance.

Chaos Theory The Secret World's single-server techI rolled on Arcadia, but I can easily chat, group, or form a cabal with someone on Cerberus, for example, because both of us are on the same server. My buddy might be in the Cerberus copy of Blue Mountain, and when I log in, I'm on Arcadia. All I have to do to hang with him is group up, click his name, and then click "meet up" in the drop-down menu, and off I go to Cerberus or wherever he happens to be.

Because we're still on the same server, things like the market, the upcoming auction house, and most of the other game mechanics are all cross-dimensional. This is good news for fans of economic gameplay, as it means that Funcom has to worry about balancing the economy on only a single shard going forward (and boy, do the devs have their work cut out for them here... but that's another article).

One notable exception to the cross-dimensional setup is The Secret World's warzone PvP. The game features three PvP variants, two of which (fight clubs and battlefields) allow you to join with friends from other dimensions. Warzone PvP, on the other hand, is currently restricted to players who rolled on your home dimension.

Funcom lead designer Martin Bruusgaard explained the reasoning behind this choice in a pre-launch blog entry:
First of all, in order to ensure that players have a good time and aren't locked down by lag, we have a player cap in these zones. The cap is currently set to 225, reserving 75 slots for each secret society. If we only had one warzone for all the dimensions, very few would be able to enjoy this form of PvP. Keep in mind that this is not an instanced minigame, but a persistent area. There is only one of these per dimension.

Secondly, we want to create a really good PvP community in each dimension, and we believe the meta-game around PvP is more interesting if you get to know the other players around you.
Note that he says "in these zones." Currently it's just the Fusang zone, but Funcom has indicated that it's looking at additional persistent PvP areas for future updates. The entire blog entry is quite a lengthy read, but I recommend it if I've piqued your curiosity about TSW's single-server tech and the reasons Funcom chose to implement it.

Chaos Theory The Secret World's single-server tech
This isn't the first time the company has mentioned the technology, either. I've asked Age of Conan game director Craig Morrison about it on a couple of occasions, and he's hinted at some nifty implementations including exclusive in-server communities (i.e., an entire dimensional community made up of roleplayers, PvPers, or any number of other self-selecting player groups). Morrison outlined potential uses for the technology over a year ago on AoC's forums.
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 [you'd] play with everyone for certain group-oriented content.

So this means your regular gameplay could be within a certain community but you still benefited from the ability to play with everyone in the long term.
Age of Conan still features traditional stand-alone server communities, of course, so Morrison was leading up to the reasons those communities were being merged. Now that the single-server tech has been successfully deployed in a live MMO like The Secret World, though, you can expect it to show up in AoC as well. The technical benefits are considerable, particularly for small studios like Funcom and niche games like The Secret World. Players also stand to reap substantial benefits, particularly certain playstyle groups that have been marginalized as MMOs have gone mainstream.

For more on Funcom's single-server tech, check out Bruusgaard's dev blog as well as this helpful FAQ thread on the official Secret World forums.

Chaos Theory - The Secret World's single-server tech
Yes, Jef Reahard is paid to play The Secret World. But he's not paid by Funcom; Massively leaves the bribes and the bad grammar to its imitators (it's a conspiracy!). Chaos Theory comes your way every Thursday, bringing you Gaia's latest news, guides, and commentary.

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