Servers. Some might think about them in purely utilitarian terms, but for others, when coupled with an MMO, servers conjure up all sorts of notions. With megaserver technology becoming somewhat more common in newer titles like The Elder Scrolls Online and even in older games undergoing some revamps (like World of Warcraft), the idea of what a server is and what that means to a player is shifting. Servers are not just the bones behind the worlds in which we play, but tools for players and studios alike. Yet things are changing on both ends, with larger environments and smaller ones taking hold in the genre. What might this mean for communities?
Back in the day, we had a list of servers, along with their types, regions (if you could even see that listing), and eventually, relative population load. Guilds and whole communities would sometimes form in the beta, with decisions made en masse where to wind up for live. This continues today, of course, but it feels different somehow. One of the reasons is definitely the growth of the genre. Releases were fewer, with more time between them, so circumstances felt a little more intimate. Additionally, different server rulesets gave the opportunity to choose the type of experience you wanted out of a game in a more self-directed manner than some of today's titles. That's both good and bad, since it means that some of today's MMORPGs have more direction and are more tailored to deliver a certain experience. Yet the downside of that, for some, is the rise of the themepark, and the creation of games over worlds that took hold in the genre for a long time.
Megaserver technology brings a feeling of a larger overall community, especially when populations start to decline, but these can make the experience more cohesive in the face of that. Sometimes you don't want cohesive, though. Sometimes you want a community to develop organically, with more like-minded individuals than not, who you want to spend time with over the next couple of months (and for many, hopefully longer). Nobody can force socializing in these games, and some are plenty happy to bang out content solo, but what's one stumbling block is the ability to play the game in the style most suitable to you instead of ultimately feeling like a game isn't for you.
One of the most important aspects of individual servers being varied and plentiful is that they make the same game available in multiple ways to different players. If you're an RPer, there's a good chance that you'd choose a roleplaying server if the chance arose. Those who love nothing more than to hunt down and battle other players might feel more to appeal to them on PvP servers. A little of both? Try RPPvP servers. If you're having none of that other people bothering you while you do what you want thing? Join a PvE server. In addition to making the same game available in different ways to players, these server distinctions often give server communities their foundation.
Communities form for various reasons, so no one is pretending there's one magical answer. Yet if a group of roleplayers head to the same server, the community there is probably going to be less intense overall than an open PvP server. And while people on a PvE server don't have to worry about others ruining their questing or materials gathering, those on PvP or RPPvP servers might have a wildly different environment and economy than the PvE players. Since some enterprising players may have sprung a protection scheme. Bodyguards, anyone? The point is, when servers exist separately, they often develop their own identities. This can also include games where there's a more sandbox bent, allowing events and other methods of impact to occur individually. Megaserver tech, coupled with a more uniform general development process (more streamlined, more themepark, less need to devote workers to change and balance servers while still keeping up with differences between them).
With the buzz and development of user generated content in MMOs, we also seem to be on the edge of getting some of that community-determined direction back. Games like Shroud of the Avatar, EverQuest Next, and Star Citizen all look to bring varying degrees of player control back. The current Kickstarter sandbox project Shards Online also promises a customizable experience. Players can set the rules and set up experiences that they want to have. A game like EverQuest Next: Landmark lets players stake claims in the world. Having multiple servers is vital to the nature of this project. ArcheAge also lets players impact the world in significant ways.
When it comes to Star Citizen, Shards Online, and Shroud of the Avatar, their respective developers will put the decision in player hands whether to play with a few or many. SoTA can be played online, offline, or on personal servers. Star Citizen won't have traditional servers but players will be able to connect with others and instances will be important. Shards Online's developers intend to create a sandbox that will be fully customizable in terms of how players play. There will be servers for all, as well as the ability to create personal ones. As we're seeing a shift even at the higher levels, the MMO genre has widened and some of what many veterans valued is returning in some format.
The question of whether or not changing from individual servers to either megaservers or smaller, personal servers is the answer is moot. There is no one answer. While megaservers can be a way to mask population declines, it can also make worlds feel more robust. Personal servers or the ability to choose whether or not to play a game online with everyone or with just people you know offer other options. I've asked (with a degree of hyperbole) if smaller games will 'save' the genre. They are, at the very least, broadening it.
But what about those server communities? Too big and things might not feel cohesive. Too homogenous and it feels impersonal. Too small or instanced, and it has the potential to block newcomers. When games like the upcoming crop (and others) are released, it will be something to watch as far as impact. Communities will grow, as they do, but how they grow might see permanent impact.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez