Strip away all the conventions, standards, and expectations of an MMO and what do they all have in common? They’re a shared virtual world where anyone from anywhere on the planet can slip into the role of someone or something else and play together. So then, why do MMOs all too often impose real world borders on their games and what are the reasons they do so?
Of course, there is the obvious answer. It’s a business decision. It’s frequently smarter for game companies that are unfamiliar with or unable to operate in foreign territories to license the operation of their game to third parties. To protect that investment, the licensee may require that their region’s customers not be allowed to bypass their work and jump to the “official server” in the original region.
There is logic to this, from a corporate point of view, but as so often happens when creativity and business collide, it kind of misses the point of what makes online games attractive in the first place.
“As online games and internet usage in general has exploded over the past years, people have had more chances to become connected with others across the globe,” said Scott Hartsman, a veteran online games executive. “These are relationships they’ll want to carry into any game they play. Not letting people continue those friendships isn't progress - It's regression, and it’s one more potential barrier to having a game adopted.”
Take my father. Born in the 1950s, the only windows he knows about are on the front of his house. Computers were just never part of his life, but he is, in his own way, a gamer. The man loves chess and his biggest joy is playing people online. Why? To him it’s amazing that the computer lets him play a guy in Russia one minute and a guy in Thailand the next. The man types with two fingers, but he always asks where his opponent is from, and I’m not entirely sure he hasn’t marked them all off on a map somewhere. He even started getting up at obscene hours of the morning so he could play people in even further away places.
That, right there, is the joy of the Internet and MMOs are an amplification of that. They bring people together who would never share a beer in real life, and put them towards a common cause.
“With forced separation, the negatives outweigh the positives on the product side,” said Hartsman, but still, I wondered what those positives are.
According to Hartsman, language is obviously a big reason. “MMOs need to be approachable. Part of that approachability is social – Feeling like you’re in a place where there’s activity you can understand can help ease new players into the rest of the experience. Defaulting people into a region where they can understand the dominant language other players are using can help.”
The next big reason is maintenance.
Typically, game companies shut down their servers in the middle of the night when the fewest people are playing. “The best time for a customer in California can be the worst for others in London or Seoul,” he noted. If a game is truly global, there is never a good time to fix things.
So what is the solution? Assuming an MMO that is divided over multiple servers (and even EVE has a Chinese world), game companies need to get creative to ensure a great global experience.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with defining regions by language or geographical area,” said Hartsman. “If at all possible, it’s ideal to let players opt in to playing in whichever one they choose. They may have friends elsewhere, they may be serving overseas, or they may want an immersive aspect of learning a new language without leaving home. These are all real world examples of how customers have taken advantage of having the freedom to choose how they want to experience online worlds.”
A global approach is doubly important when you have an MMO that will be localized into other languages. Some games lag as little as one day between the English and non-English versions. For critical releases, many still do simultaneous, world-wide launches of content they want the entire audience to see all at the same time. There is no reason that a single service cannot support multiple languages.
MMOs have also become more agile. Many issues can be fixed on the fly with no interruption of service, such as the upcoming Heroes of Telara.
Connection speeds can also be an issue. When a guy in Australia tries to connect to a server in Texas, things can get hairy. The truth is, though, most people understand basic geography, especially online gamers, and as long as the developer presents this information so that the customer can make an informed decision, there is no reason not to leave that decision in their hands.
A whole other issue is the idea of “culturalization,” where a game itself is changed fundamentally to appeal to a different audience. While better than straight translations, obviously, it’s more difficult for a culturalized game to co-exist with the original. At that point, though, I think it’s safe to call it an entirely new title and move on.
With truly global games, players have a better experience. There is no confusion – seriously, some games out there have so many versions, on so many services that I am not sure even the developers know what is what anymore – and people get to enjoy the game on their own terms.
The beauty of the Internet is that it is – to invoke the cliché – a global village. MMOs need to be mindful of this. They’re about social bonds and the formation of communities. The more they limit it, the more fractured their player base becomes, the harder it will be to keep people online.