MMOG Gold Rush

MMOG Gold Rush
Putting the "Massive" in "Massively Multiplayer Online"

Shawn Williams | 26 Jun 2007 12:03
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Everyone knew how worlds were designed: They were basically a series of "zones," sometimes interlocked, sometimes completely detached, accessible only by very special means, sometimes migrating connections from room to room to simulate settings like a sailing ship. You came up with a number of zones, mapped them out, populated them with some monsters and divided them among the servers according to their load. Players would quickly learn the necessary routes - which zones connected, where there were shortcuts, the quickest paths through zones.

And then, Asheron's Call launched in late 1999 and introduced a radical concept: no zones in a three-dimensional world - just one, big continuous continent. Seamless.

It Keeps Going and Going and Going
Asheron's Call took place on the world of Dereth, a roughly square continent about 24 miles on each side. Created by Turbine and released in November 1999, AC broke with the well-established norms of its competitors, Ultima Online and EverQuest, in a number of ways. It was set in an original fantasy world that lacked "stereotypical" creatures and playable races, skills weren't bound to specific classes, and it featured a new technology: dynamic load balancing, which made for wide open spaces. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn't a reaction to market forces; Turbine designed AC that way from the very beginning.

"People always seemed to think that EQ, AC and UO were all trying to differentiate from each other, when in fact most of the major decisions had been made long before we even knew of each other," says Jason Booth, Turbine's original Lead Technical Artist and one of the earliest members of the team. "We were all just doing our own thing and sort of bumped into each other at E3 one year."

Their "own thing" included a scalable server-side architecture. It worked by dividing the game world between available servers (in this case, individual computers networked together locally), based on population density in certain areas and the server's available processor capacity. Depending on how players spread out in the world, the servers would shift processing between themselves, sharing the load. What's interesting is how different play styles affected the technology, and how the technology reacted to solve the problem.

"On [player-vs.-player] servers, people spread out a lot more, causing more of the world to be loaded and increasing memory usage," Jason explains. "Whereas on [non-PvP] servers, people cluster more, causing network and processing load to be the limiting factor."

The players experienced those imposed limits by way of "portal storms," an in-game term for "too many players in one spot." When a number of players gathered in any one location, the game instituted a portal storm, which randomly teleported people out of high-traffic areas.

Crossing The Great Divide
The seamless world was incredibly immersive. When you're crossing a mountain range for mile after snow-covered mile, a five-second load screen can still kill the illusion, especially when something incongruous to the real world happens, like the weather changing from partly sunny to mostly terrible in an instant, or the position of the sun in the sky not matching from area to area.

In Asheron's Call, when you worked your way across the continent, it really felt like exploring. You weren't looking for zone walls, you were looking for passes through the mountains, and those passes sported all the dangers of their real-world counterparts.

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