The Think Tank: The MMO server merge stigma

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The Think Tank: The MMO server merge stigma
LOTRO
Last week, Turbine announced that it plans to address Lord of the Rings Online's ongoing population problems. New executive producer Athena "Vyvyanne" Peters wrote, "We're taking measures to get everyone onto the more populous servers" and "working on [...] improved server transfer tools." And later, she clarified, "We are still working through the details, but part of our efforts here are to make the transition as seamless as possible for Kinship leaders to keep the players together. The idea is to bring you together, not spread further apart."

In our post, we called this process "server merges of a sort," but some loyal LotRO fans went ballistic at the idea that mass server transfers to, you know, merge players onto populous servers might be called "server merges." The term has such negative connotations and implications for a game's health that neither studios nor fans will dare use it even when it's a reasonable term to use and when it heralds good things for an aging game. The stigma might even make some studios leery of doing merges at all.

What do you think -- is there a better term for these sorts of faux-merges? Have you been through a merge and found it a worthwhile experience? Can we be done with the merge stigma already? We're talking server merges in today's Think Tank.

Brendan Drain, Columnist
@nyphur: Combining discrete server populations is the very definition of a server merge, the real problem being that people think merging servers means their game is dying. Merges are a natural part the MMO lifecycle and are essential following a big launch or a long-term drop in player to help maintain the critical density of players an MMO requires to function. Before Warhammer Online's launch, Mark Jacobs famously told people to judge Warhammer Online's health by whether it was adding new servers or merging them six months after launch, and as a result the game didn't merge servers after its natural post-launch subscriber bubble burst. Many servers became ghost towns and fell far below the critical mass required for things like PvP scenario queues to work, so eventually Mythic was forced to eat its words and perform server merges.

In the future, I think more MMOs should ameliorate the server merge problem by employing the RuneScape model, with a single unified userbase and any player able to log into any server. There are so few drawbacks to this model and so many advantages that it baffles me that so many MMOs have gone the traditional sharded route. Having a single login pool makes server load balancing automatic, as players will naturally to gravitate toward higher-population servers with shorter queues and those who want some peace and quiet can swap to a low-population server temporarily. This model also makes it feasible to run geolocated servers in more specific regions than the broad categories like "Europe" and "North America" normally used and to designate servers for special purposes like trading or PvP. If more MMOs took a leaf out of Jagex's book on this one, server merges would be a thing of the past.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief
@nbrianna: I'm in favor of calling a merge a merge and being done with the stigma. Consolidating servers is completely normal and necessary for server-bound MMOs, and it's very much important and newsworthy and laudable when a studio recognizes its game needs the merge and still has the resources to pull it off, so heck if I want to see games mocked for knowing how and when to fix their problems. I've seen too many transfers and merges rescue games I love from doom to think the transfers and merges themselves are doom, and I've seen too many games shrivel up because their owners wouldn't address the population problems. I've lost character names, houses, land, items, and guild histories because of merges and transfers, and it was always worth it. If you genuinely care about MMORPGs, you don't stigmatize merges; you applaud them.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor
@Eliot_Lefebvre: I can totally understand why people don't like server merges as a whole. You cultivate a server community and then get it mashed together with a totally different community. This gets even more severe when you have a strong roleplaying community on the server because that's almost certain to get badly hit by the merge, like shoving the school football team and the drama club into the same practice space. Combine that with the fact that a lot of games are overeager about adding servers at launch and then quickly merging them back down, and server merges sound bad.

The fact of the matter is, though, that merges are a natural and healthy part of any game's life cycle. As a game gets older, it needs to merge servers and make sure that players aren't logging into utter ghost towns. What's key is that it's done with an eye toward the communities of those servers, and that servers are not added with reckless abandon when the game first launches so that the later merges don't need to be quite so severe.

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor
@jefreahard: There's no better term, and frankly this industry is swimming in a big enough pool of PR sewage already so please just call it what it is! In LotRO's case, merges are a positive for the company and the players. If LotRO had launched last month instead of eight years ago, then server merges might necessitate hitting the oh-crap button. Or they might not, depending on what a "server" means in a particular game context (see SOE's decision to launch 167,487,321 H1Z1 servers this week).

Most merges are inherently positive unless it's a title with open-world persistence and ownership (which LotRO lacks). My guild lost a prime housing spot in Vanguard because of a merge, for example. Other than that, I can't think of anyone negatively affected by merges aside from those with creatively bankrupt character names.

Justin Olivetti, Contributing Editor
@Sypster: Studios can dance around server merge terminology all they like, but using convoluted phrases and misleading explanations only hurts their rep and insults our intelligence. Be blunt, call them merges, and be as clear as possible how and why this will aid your game and its population. I'm so tired of gamers having snit fits or fainting over the merest whiff of a merge. Hey Chicken Littles, the sky isn't falling; it's just part of an MMO's lifecycle. Games expand and contract, and keeping a critical mass together is far more healthy than keeping tons of unnecessary servers with minimum populations open.

Of course, if more MMOs could institute single-server tech, there wouldn't even be a need for this discussion. The real question is why this technology isn't the norm 12 years after EVE Online launched.

Larry Everett, Columnist
@Shaddoe: My solution is simple: Don't create a situation where you need server merges, don't have more than one server, don't require the character first name to be unique, and ye gods, don't have more instances than you need. If the game has multiple servers now, then merge them together immediately! Tell the players that you're bringing your game into modern era instead of some archaic system of 10 years ago.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor
@MikedotFoster: The only people enforcing a server merge stigma are the people caterwauling over use of the term. Who cares how it's phrased if the net gain is a better experience? And if devs are too cowardly to state the truth when making game changes, they deserve to have their titles rot on the vine. Bending over backwards to placate the whining fringe is the easiest way to punch a ticket toward irrelevance.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor
@MJ_Guthrie: Well, most all my server merge experiences have been horrendous! In worlds with open-world housing, losing a spot you've worked so long for as well as all the time and effort to decorate -- twice in Vanguard, mind you! -- is disheartening at the least and game-ending at the worst. At least when EverQuest II with its instanced housing forced a merged, my homes and all that work weren't lost. However, that one destroyed a good community as folks went many different ways; yet another thing that lessens a game's enjoyment. Let me just say that merging RP servers with non-RP servers is never a good idea, either.

If ArcheAge were to merge servers for any reason, even though more population could be nice, it would effectively kill the game. I know I'd never log in again if all the land I'd worked so hard for and built up was wiped again. I would not try to rebuild after that. Maybe if it happened in the beginning, but not now. No way.

As for terminology, devs should just call a merge a merge because that is what it is. Trying to reinvent terms and language just because you want to look better feels cheap, demeaning, and downright phoney. Yes, there is a negative stigma to merges, and that's because when ownership comes into play, negative things happen in merges -- especially if said game is a sandbox. If there aren't any ownership issues to deal with (I'm including names here, which people can be very adamant about), and if friends and guilds can easily remain together, merging can be a great and positive thing. Basically no one likes to lose their stuff. So with that in mind, devs should think long-term and not put out 30,000 servers to help ease a first month rush that is going to die down. Weather through it for the long-term health of your game. Don't be short-sighted: You don't want to lose the loyal ones because they feel shafted.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.
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