Monday, August 3, 2009

Bad Idea? 24/7 Servers

Welcome to my blog. I will be discussing “A” list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. Today I will be focusing on whether servers should be open 24 hours a day 7 days a week (except for maintenance).

When a game is in the initial design stage, no one asks, “so what’s our server schedule going to be?” I pay a monthly fee to use my health club, yet I can only do so during certain hours. I have a season pass to my local 6-Flags amusement park, and again I can only use it during certain hours. There are certainly precedents for limited access to a subscription based activity.

Players expect 24/7 servers

When servers in World of Warcraft (WoW) go down unexpectedly, the forums fill up with unhappy players complaining they pay for 24/7 server access. In fact WoW compensates players when their servers are down more than expected.

Why? Obviously players get upset when servers are down during prime playing times. Players get almost as upset at any server down time. There are two broad reasons for this: 1. mini-sessions and 2. a psychological attachment to the server.

Mini-Sessions. The benefit of playing in prime time is that there are more people on-line to group up and explore content with. However, there are a number of activities in Massives that a player can accomplish solo, during off hours. These include hunting for rare spawns in EverQuest, training skills in Eve, crafting in Dark Age of Camelot, playing the Auction House (AH) in WoW, farming for materials in Warhammer, etc. When I was playing the AH in WoW I would log into WoW after breakfast, at lunch from work, and before hitting the gym after work, to look for bargains. These sessions only lasted 10-15 minutes, but were fun for me.

Psychological Attachment. For me, my psychological attachment to my current massive is similar to my attachment to my car (I live in the suburbs). If my car is in the shop I just don’t feel right, even if I am not planning on leaving the house. I feel this same non-rational response when the server is down, even if I was not planning on logging in. I’ve tried and deleted a number of attempts to explain this better. If you have not experienced this feeling yourself, let’s just leave it that a many players feel a disturbance in the force when they are unable to log in.

The Daedalus Gateway is a good read on the psychology of gamers.

Financial Benefits of non-24/7 servers

“A” list Massives give players a choice of different time-zone servers. So even if a server were to be down 8 hours a day, players would be able to choose a server that could accommodate their regular play schedule. With servers down part of the day, less IT people would be required. Additionally less customer support, such as game-masters (gm) would be required. Note: it has been my experience that more player shenanigans, such as exploiting and griefing, occur during off hours. The financial benefits are real. I don’t know that I would like to be the first one to sell non-24/7 servers to players as a means of keeping their subscription prices low.

Realm vs. Realm and non-24/7 servers

In a Realm vs. Realm (RvR) game, one’s opponents can affect one’s gameplay, usually through capturing objectives. In Dark Ages of Camelot (DaoC), this is a statistic buff to everyone on the winning side. In Warhammer (War) access to content is restricted on the losing side. I love these kinds of games and have no problems with the rewards and penalties involved. However, my game-play can be affected by events not under my control. On my server in War my opponents launched an “alarm-clock” offensive. On a holiday weekend, they set their alarm-clocks for the middle of the night, and stormed our city while most of us were asleep. Fun for them, surely. Fun for us, not so much.

There is a certain amount of disassociation between player and game world when events unfold over which he has no control. So we have two competing feelings here, a disturbance in the force when a server is down, and an alienation when gameplay is affected by other players when a player is offline. I believe that an RvR game would be improved by limiting server uptime. I would recommend time-zone servers that open after school gets out and closes down at 2 a.m. That’s ten hours uptime.

Our main object here is to improve gameplay, and ensure that a player has a chance to log in and defend his Realm. I believe players can be made to see restricting server time is an advantage.

There is still the question of players that want to log-in to play mini-sessions, such as crafting, farming for materials and the auction house. Players like these and players who want to log in solely to socialize can be accommodated in War by having the capital cities only, open during off times.

To Sum Up

24/7 Servers are assumed into game designs from the beginning. I believe that Realm vs. Realm gameplay would be improved with non-24/7 Servers. There are potentially new types of Massives that are not based on DikuMUD –type games. When you sit down to design your game don’t assume your servers will be open 24-7. Put high up on your white board “Server Hours?”

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