April Feature Pack: The Megaserver

The final feature to be previewed before next week’s big (very big) update has been announced, and they’re not kidding when they say it’s a major one. The very way that servers work is changing. Once again, I note that this addresses something I used to hear people complain about in the first year of the game, and rarely hear any more – but that’s not necessarily a reason to ignore it, especially since the megaserver system implements a solution I’ve heard players suggest in-game. There are things I don’t like about it, both for practical reasons and for reasons of principle. However, it’s one of those changes that has made more sense the more I think about it.

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In short: while accounts will still have home worlds, in actual play there will no longer be clear divisions between servers. Once the megaserver system is fully rolled out (which will take a few months from the sound of it), players entering any zone will find it populated with people from a variety of home worlds, rather than a specific copy of that zone for their world alone.

First, the advantages.
First and foremost, this is intended to ensure a healthy population in any map, at any time. Players doing the same content will be brought together regardless of what server they’re based on, meaning that there should always be people around to help kill a champion or to clear that skill point with you. In a game with such an emphasis on the flow of people naturally coming together around dynamic events, this makes sense; more on that later. Guesting (a very useful but at times cumbersome system) will become less relevant, as the megaserver is biased toward sending friends and guildmates to the same copy of a zone anyway, bringing familiar players together. ArenaNet also mention that the system will do its best to bring together players who share a language, something which was also addressed earlier with an LFG tool feature.
There will be no more overflow maps because everyone will essentially be in an overflow map – while still connected to their own world’s WvW, of course, as of a change a few months ago.

One thing I will be glad of with this change is that guesting will hopefully cease to be the easiest way for players who aren’t based in the handful of biggest, busiest servers to complete major living story or world events. For all ArenaNet’s attempts to build a sense of server community, I far too often see a failed attempt at something like the Twisted Marionette or the Temple of Balthazar (even at what are obviously my server’s slow hours) followed by “this server sucks and we will never win this, I’m guesting to ______.” Not only does this mean that people aren’t committed to rallying their home world together for a challenge (because an easier zerg option is available), but once such players have the achievements they want they rarely come back for any other attempts, making it all the more likely that my server will never achieve a win for themselves. Under this system we’re not relying on that premise of “on this server”; people who want to do the event will be brought together to do it, no local limitations or guesting required.

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There are downsides to the system, however. From the early days ArenaNet have talked about their desire to build server community, giving each world’s communities challenges to overcome together and a reason to organise and get to know key personalities. I think their success has been mixed, not least because they also wanted to leave the door open for people to move between servers in order to play with friends, and I’m not sure you can really have it both ways. Although the megaserver system’s weighting will mean people from the same home world play together more often, this change intrinsically undermines the integrity of servers as separate worlds to which players belong – hence the need to reassure people that WvW (a game type entirely dependent on the premise of home worlds) will remain, and still work this way.
Overall, though, I think I am (or should be) okay with the weakening of server community in favour of a strengthening of community, across the game; Guild Wars 2 is meant to be social and co-operative, and removing barriers to making that happen is sensible – not to mention it should make enjoying large group living story content much easier for all.

Other downsides include irritating little practical things. The one that bothers me the most is that players will no longer be able to tell if a waypoint is contested until they arrive in the zone that contains it – because the world map will no longer be one coherent world (amusingly, I’ve just realised that this brings it closer to the instanced explorable zones of the original Guild Wars; guess that’s what happens when you spend this long working toward similar core design goals and priorities). As the second megaserver post states,

A defining point of the dynamic event system in Guild Wars 2 is its capacity to impact the state of the world and unlock access to certain content and resources. Some examples of this are waypoints, dungeons, and the temples of the human gods in Orr.

Many of these ideas relied on the coherency of a world; a temple or dungeon could be free on Blackgate but not Tarnished Coast, and it was the activity of the locals that made the difference. If you wanted access to something, you had to get people together to clear it. Understandably, with the megaserver assigning players to zones when they enter them, this information can no longer be reliably displayed for players until they get there; the state of the event will depend on the map they’re put in. This takes away from my sense that the state of the world depends on us, since it’s more like a lottery to see whether the zone I’m handed has cleared an objective or not. On the other hand, I suppose having more players in all maps regularly (rather than having to go to Lion’s Arch and call for local support) may mean that objectives are cleared more regularly – some percentage of the people coming to Mount Maelstrom at any time will be wanting to access Crucible of Eternity, after all.

Temple of Balthazar

So, things we’re losing: contested waypoints will not show reliably from the world map; instead, anything contestable will appear contested until one enters its zone to check. The Orr-wide temple/shrine mechanics (which were a cool concept) will no longer take the state of the relevant god’s temple into account, but rather just the nearest temple. Where an event chain is relevant to the accessibility of a dungeon, players will have to enter the zone to find out whether it’s free or not. All of these are relatively minor annoyances which seem necessary to implement the megaserver system, but they’re annoyances nonetheless. In a broader way, we lose the sense that our game world is one coherent world, and we lose the potential for things which affect the state of the whole game world – unless they’re region-wide, across servers. Admittedly, that could be interesting!

I am a fan of simulation in my virtual worlds. I like things that make the game world feel like a place, and not like a game – that’s why I liked the idea of one-off events, and do like living story that runs as the current events and affairs of a real-time changing world. Conveniences like instancing content so that it can be run at a player’s convenience and/or as many times as they like takes away from that, but to do otherwise can be infuriating for players who snatch their play time between real life commitments – world simulation is cool and all, but as none of us live in Tyria full time, current events can’t work in true real time without leaving a lot of people out. The megaserver is convenient gaming, but makes the world less of a world; it means I’ll always be aware of the server assigning things to shape my experience. Still, it’s a convenience and will (hopefully) make it easier to enjoy content when I play, without those irritating ‘doomed to fail’ attempts, and so I am not really objecting.

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A few other things that will be changing with this system:
In the future, as the megaserver is rolled out across the game, guilds will be united into single entities rather than having ‘chapters’ on different servers if their members are spread across worlds. This is good and makes sense, in fact it’s really a necessity for the way things are going – but it will take a while, we’re told, before it happens.
World events are shifting from being triggered based on various circumstances in their local area (different for each boss) to activating at set times on a rotation. This takes away from the real-time, spontaneous nature of these events… but let’s be honest, I and most players have been using online event timers for a long time now. A schedule is available in the post (subject to change) and shows that low-level world bosses like the Shadow Behemoth will pop every two hours while higher-level bosses are less frequent – but some world boss will be up, across worlds, every 15 minutes. I’m not sure how conditional pre-events are accounted for under this system; the post states that various bosses will be modified to make them work with the new schedule, so we shall see. Naturally, the megaserver combined with the schedule should mean a good sized crowd at any world boss when it’s due to be up.

Fire Elemental

So, that’s apparently it for new features in the April 2014 Feature Pack – details, of course, to come with the patch itself. Now we wait. When the 15th rolls around, I’ll be logging in to all my characters in turn – checking their traits, runes and sigils (with the possibility of shopping around for new ones in all cases), stocking their wardrobes with everything they’re entitled to, opening a large stash of unidentified dyes, and then venturing out into the world to see how it feels.
As of last week, I’m considering adding a number of my favourite local server celebrities to my friends list, for the day when the Almighty Megaserver decides that means I’d like to play alongside them and makes sure that I still see them around on a regular basis.

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