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Elder Scrolls Online Column: Megaservers vs. The Elder Scrolls

By Michael Bitton on October 29, 2012

The Elder Scrolls Online is starting to sound like an MMO Elder Scrolls fans can be proud to be excited about. However, one feature nestled in the information overload we’ve received over the past week has me both excited and concerned.

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It’s the much vaunted ‘Megaserver’ technology that’s got me thinking lately.

First, let’s break down exactly what a ‘megaserver’ often is and where it’s been employed in the past. In its most basic definition, a megaserver is simply the implementation of a ‘single server’ or multiple extremely high capacity servers for a particular game. EVE Online uses single server technology to allow for all players to exist in the game as part of the same universe. DC Universe Online also uses ‘megaservers’ to consolidate its playerbase.

In reality, these single server solutions are still comprised of tons of servers that support the infrastructure, but players are essentially oblivious to the magic going on behind the scenes. In some of these games, you may find players all logging onto the same server, but zones are often broken up into different channels or instances, essentially copies of the same zone with a limit on how many players are allowed into each copy at a time. The Elder Scrolls Online is apparently going down this route.

Generally, I’m a huge fan of single server solutions, and what Zenimax Online is proposing for The Elder Scrolls Online takes the whole idea a step further. You see, in The Elder Scrolls Online, players will be given the option of setting their own play preferences. Players will be asked what sort of age groups they want to play with or what playstyle preferences they have (ex. PvP, raiding, etc.) and the game will intelligently match up players of like interests when sorting out the populations of zone instances. Instead of just shuffling players into different zone copies by simple load metrics, The Elder Scrolls Online will give players the option of tailoring the community they share the world with to their own individual preferences. The game will even remember players you’ve interacted with and place you in zone instances with them if they’re online. Neat!

So, what’s the problem then? Well, for me, it’s two-fold. The general notion of having a single server solution for an Elder Scrolls MMO makes a ton of sense. Elder Scrolls games are often gigantic seamless experiences that go the extra mile to foster a sense of immersion for the player, and what better way to do that in an MMO than have everyone in the same ‘universe’?

The problem with Zenimax Online’s solution is that they are going with the zone copy version of the implementation. Many members of our particular community here at MMORPG.com have been vocal about their dislike of zone instances for quite a while now, most recently when learning that Star Wars: The Old Republic would go this route, but I’ve never really had a preference either way. For an Elder Scrolls game, though, this particular implementation can work against the distinct benefit of going single-server in an Elder Scrolls game. For many, including myself, the allure of an Elder Scrolls MMO is, at least in part, being able to inhabit the same world as everyone else. Zone instances tend to really break down the sense of a community in an MMO, especially in a single server situation, as you’ll often be playing with completely different people every time you log on. Even if the game remembers who you’ve interacted with, there’s no guarantee that all these players are in the same copies of a particular zone, so things could potentially get messy quickly.

Making matters worse, Zenimax Online is also looking to employ phasing, which is great as a storytelling tool to give players a sense of having a real impact on the game world, but it’s this particular implementation of phasing combined with zone copies that may lead to some significant compartmentalization of the experience. In The Elder Scrolls Online, choices you make that impact the game world in a meaningful way will be permanent for you. So, not only will there be specific instances for zones, but there may be altogether different variations based on the choices you made. Did you save the village from burning, but your friend did not? What happens when you both want to play together? I don’t know what elegant solution Zenimax Online has for this scenario, but I’m hoping the devs have something in mind. Even discounting the friend scenario, the possibility of having not only multiples of a single zone, but many multiples based on the state of said zone gives me cause for concern.

I realize the technical challenges involved with getting all players onto the same server will require some compromises on Zenimax Online’s part, but given the dearth of information we have on this subject so far, I can’t help but find myself concerned that the game will end up suffering for this choice instead of benefiting from it. Fortunately, the folks behind The Elder Scrolls Online are a good deal smarter than I am when it comes to this sort of thing, so I’m hopeful they’ve already recognized these concerns and have some sort of solution at the ready.  

Do you feel the pros of a single server solution outweigh the potential negatives raised in this week’s column? Why? Why not? Let us know in the comments below!

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