One thing I am a big proponent of is building games to have one single world server. The simple reason for this is illustrated by every single game that doesn’t do it. I play, then find out some of the people I work with or chat with on message board or whatever play on another server. Usually we have just one option, someone has to start over. Although, more and more games are allowing server transfers… for a price.
However, I do understand the limitations of many games to support a single world environment. Imagine World of Warcraft with only a single world… the lag would be unbearable. Outside of the sheer population problems, one world means you need to actually develop more content in order to spread people out and keep it from being bland, unless you go with a 100% group/raid instanced world.
As an alternative to trying to cram everything on to one world server, I think what I would like to see is an in-game acknowledgement of multiple worlds (or shards, if you prefer) with a method to allow players to move between those worlds.
Lets take WoW as an example. Put in an NPC in each major city who wanders around like a crazy homeless person muttering about the multiverse. Give him a quest, where the player needs to gather a few simple items (a gemstone of some kind, a few other things, nothing rare, all common drops cheaply obtained, maybe some food for the crazy guy as well). Upon bringing the items, the NPC gives a second quest and sends the player to a room where they take the items gathered (reconfigured by the NPC) to an obelisk, opens a dialog with a list of all the servers, they pick one and hit Complete Quest. *poof* The player is logged out to character selection where the character they just chose to transfer now has a listed status of “Travelling to [insert server name here]…” The transfer takes somewhere between 3 to 10 days to take effect. That last part is there to discourage people from transferring back and forth alot.
Maybe even throw in a part about how the shifting between worlds is rough, and the character will lose all items not tightly bound to their souls (i.e. – droppable items and money are gone, oh, and the bank is going to give your stuff to Goodwill after a few days so you lose that too), if you fear transfers will hurt the game economy. And of course, the devs could exclude servers that are new (if that is desirable) or already over populated (but if you give players the ability to leave crowded servers, doesn’t overcrowding become their problem?), and even provide a glimpse into the interdimensional pathways (a count of server populations including the number of characters queued for transfer).
I guess what I’m saying is, at this point in time, a game that launches should have, from day one, a way to easily transfer characters (at the very least from the DBA point of view) since the games that have come before have shown that players desire it. I know in some cases, making this player controlled would eliminate a revenue stream from the company, but maybe instead they just add twenty-five cents to the monthly fee they were planning to charge. Besides, if they build it into the game from the get go, it means they don’t have to pay someone to run character transfers later.