For those that play World of Warcraft (and some similar games) the idea of “realms” or “which server do you play on” is so much a part of the system, that we don’t often stop to question it. Choosing a realm is just part of the normal character creation/startup process, and we just sort of accept that we can only interact with other players that happened to choose the same realm. If we want to play with our RL friends, we have to make sure when we start up a new character that we choose the same realm as our friends, otherwise we can’t form a group with them or chat with them while playing.
From a server administrator’s point of view, realms are a “quick fix” to a pretty difficult problem, namely how to take a service that works great for 500 people and sell it to 50,000 or even 500,000 people at once. At some point, a single server, or a cluster of servers, starts to strain under the load and either the server or the players’ computers can’t keep up, and the result is crappy game play. (Which is why many of us with last year’s computers will avoid going to Dalaran in the evening.) So, the quick fix is to put users into individual buckets and treat them as a smaller group, then clone that cluster and do it again and again. Poof, instant scalability.
I won’t hand-wave and say that scalability is easy… in fact scalability of design is probably the most difficult problem that growing companies face, and it’s a problem that keeps me and dozens of friends employed. It’s a huge challenge to design a system that works great for 500 (at the right price, for startup) and then also works just as well for 500,000. Whenever you grow another 5x or 10x, you inevitably hit another barrier where something breaks and needs a pretty fundamental redesign… sometimes it is the RAM size or CPU speed, other times it is the network between the servers that is strained.
But, it’s not an impossible problem… take a look at how Dungeons & Dragons Online handled it: Everyone is basically playing together, and when a single place gets too crowded, another “instance” is formed and as people enter and leave, it becomes balanced again. (An “instance” is like a private sandbox where you can only interact with a small set of people). If you want to meet someone in a popular place like a city, you may have to ask them what “instance” they are in and switch yours, but it never interferes with chatting. When you get out to less populated areas, the instance is not necessary and there are actually more people to see, interact with, form a group with, etc than if the entire population were segmented from the start.
So… what’s really wrong with forcing people into realms? For one thing, it means that I can’t actually play with all my friends, even if we happen to be on the game at the same time. I have one set of friends on one realm, and another set of friends on a different realm, and I have to choose one set of friends over the other. Brad Hicks recently wrote a pretty thoughtful piece (see My Take on “WoW Tourism”) on why “networking” is such an important key to Blizzard’s success and why other games have a struggle to get and keep players: players want to play where their friends are, and will return there, regardless of how cool the game experience might be elsewhere. If this is true (and I believe it is) that means that Blizzard has this huge advantage, and they basically squander it by forcing users into hundreds of “silos” where they can’t interact with each other. What might be their biggest, best feature is instead “designed out” and made into an annoyance.
Another thing that’s wrong with the “realms” concept is that Blizzard has provided a way for people to move characters from one realm to the other, but they charge money and make the process annoying and slow. If you’ve started out on one realm and later find out your friend plays on another realm, you can either start over from scratch with a new character, and re-do all the story line you’ve already done, or you can pay $25 to move your existing character to the other realm. In either case, you will never get to interact with ALL your friends at the same time. Besides that, it bugs me that they’ve taken a limitation and turned it into a new revenue stream.
So, I say to Blizzard: Tear down this wall! Design a system where population control is built in and seamless, so the areas are just as crowded as you want them to be, and I can always interact with my friends if I want to. If DDO and even SecondLife can do it, so can you. It’s a hard problem, sure, but it’s getting harder to solve the more you wait. Once it is solved, one of your best qualities (networking and playing with people you already know) will be multiplied many times over. If you can’t solve the “visible” population problem, at least let me *chat* with all my friends… that much should be dead easy. (Even City of Heroes got that one right.) And for goodness sake, don’t pretend that your most visible design flaw is actually a “feature” and charge people real money for moving their fake stuff around.