One of the people from over at CCP, the people who brought us EVE Online, has written up An Argument for Single-Sharded Architecture in MMOs. I fully support this idea.
The main reason I like it is the one thing that irritates me most of most MMOs is when I meet a new person in real life, realize we both play the same game and then realize that we can’t play together unless we a) start over/start new characters or b) one of us pays to move servers and leaves all our other friends behind. Even the people with whom I played EQ with for many years can’t seem to get themselves on the same server when a new game starts, mostly because thanks to other games they have a couple of different circles of friends, and they want to play with all of them, but when twenty of their friends from WoW want to play on LotRO server X, and twenty of their EQ friends want to play on LotRO server Y, they have to choose. And that sucks.
On the other hand, in a game like EVE, it is impossible for me to run into another EVE player that I technologically cannot play with (unless they play only on the test server). All I need to do is warp to them and we play. Even in Wizard 101 and Free Realms, which technically have multiple play shards, you can switch shards whenever you want and play with anyone you want.
Another reason for my like of a single shard comes to light every time I talk about EQ for very long to other people. During my time in EQ I played on 4 servers. My main server was E’Ci and I spent the bulk of my time there. But I also piddled around on one of the PvP servers (one of the team ones, not the free for all) and one of the RP servers (were I spent most of my time in the bars of Neriak spinning tales for those who would listen – which surprisingly was more than I expected going into it, but unsurprisingly didn’t last long as power gamers flooded the RP server since RPers are much easier to push around and less likely to race to max level thus leaving high end content more available). I also did time as a guide. Each server had a distinct personality. As a guide I was called in to deal with situations that didn’t happen on my main server, E’Ci. E’Ci had a strong public grouping/raiding system, where other servers were entirely guild controlled. E’Ci had, at the upper levels, guilds that, for the most part, maintained relations and raid schedules to give everyone a shot rather than fight, where other servers had guilds training each other and swiping raid mobs from each other and camping entire zones for days/weeks on end to monopolize spawns. When I talk about the game of EverQuest, I’ve come to realize that not everyone played the same game that I did. But a game like EVE or Wizard 101 or Free Realms or any other unified player base game, my stories are their stories. If I talk about getting ganked in some system in EVE, I can bet another EVE player will know what I mean. But when I talk about hanging out in the East Commons tunnel looking for deals back in the day, some people will say, “Don’t you mean Greater Faydark?” or “You mean the North Freeport bank, right?” or “North Karana was better.” because not every server evolved exactly the same locations for community gatherings. But in EVE, the best place for you to go to buy stuff is the best place that everyone goes to buy stuff.
I hope more games take the single-shard design route. Multiple servers were fine back in the EQ days when there wasn’t really much competition, but these days, even if I went back to EQ I’d have to choose which friends to play with since I’ve got friends on two or three different servers. When I look at new games, my friends and I usually try to get on the same server, but eventually some of them vanish to other servers to play with other groups. For me, this usually ends up with me losing interest in the game and quitting because I can’t play with all of my friends.