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All of us have a soft-spot within us for the city or town that we call “home”, and that nowhere else in the world really compares because it is “home” after all. Quite often there will also be with this adorning sentiment, a place not quite so within our hearts, a place usually within the same area that we love to hate, and so ensues this ongoing rivalry between the two locations in a struggle to answer the question, “Where is better?” For those of who don’t know, I live in Perth, Western Australia, and such a city that we “Perthies” love to hate is the city of Fremantle which is about a 30 minute drive from the central business district. Sure, the place has its charms, but I wouldn’t want to live there – visit, perhaps, but not much more for a few hours at a time. The city of Perth is my home and that’s where I belong. But what if I had to work in Fremantle? Well, I guess if I had to work there, that’s an exception I’d be willing to make, a “sacrifice” if you will.

imageFuncom spoke in one of their Friday updates about some of the details pertaining to their server setup for ‘Age of Conan’. Funcom has enlisted the help of e-business management solutions company, IPsoft, to sort out server hosting and all other things networking for ‘Age of Conan’, due for release on March 25 next year. We already know through quarterly financial reports, that these servers, at launch, will be located in two cities: one in Europe, and the other in the United States. In Europe, the server for ‘Age of Conan’ will be located in Amsterdam. In the United States, the server for will be located in New Jersey. Funcom is confident that the servers in these two locations will be adequate to carry the load of thousands upon thousands of players that will log in to the game on a daily basis for the years to come. So ideally, players from Europe will play on the server located in Amsterdam, and players from North America will play on the server located in New Jersey – a logical configuration, but Funcom also mentioned that which server you play on will depend on what version of the game client you purchase and install on to your computer:

“…when it comes to our main server centers for launch we are splitting them into two primary territories: North America and Europe. This is the core divider. This means that your primary server destination will be decided according to where you buy your retail box. So, North American gamers will only get the choice of North American servers, and vice versa.”

To put it simply: North American client = North American servers; and European client = European servers.

Funcom went on to say in their Friday update that this was a decision made by them to ensure the best possible gaming experience for US and European players respectively. US players will get better latency time playing on the servers located in New Jersey, and players in Europe will get better latency time playing on the server located in Amsterdam – it’s academic, really. But herein lays the problem: because of the nature of the internet and online gaming, namely MMORPGs, players will establish clans or guilds that consist of members from different parts of the world. A US-based guild will of course comprise of players from within the United States, and players from other continents of the world, namely from English-speaking countries within Europe. So for guilds to play together on the same servers in ‘Age of Conan’ will now mean that players from outside of where the guild is based and where the “native” server is located, will have to purchase the game client native to that particular region as exemplified above.

It is a bit of an inconvenience, and one of those exceptions or sacrifices I spoke of in the opening paragraph, but it is at least a workable solution. Like the driving distance I would have to stomach from Perth to Fremantle to get to work, players outside of the US wanting to play with others from their US-based guild would have to stomach first ordering in a US client from abroad, and suffering (if we can all it that for the time being) the higher latency they would experience than those living at least in the same country as the server’s location. The more serious gamer would have to make the individual decision as to whether the higher latency would be worth it: being with the guild, or being part of possibly with a different guild but experiencing better latency time because they are on a server closer to their own location.

Regardless of any inconveniences, we are at least given the option and the freedom to play on the servers we choose based on the client that we purchase, so essentially, guilds are able to stick together, and with that, a sweeping sense of relief hits those with already-established ‘Age of Conan’ guilds with member-counts surpassing the 100 and sometimes the 200 mark. For a lot, it’s not a question of latency time or waiting for the game client to arrive in the mail, but a question of actually being able to play with their guildmates and get the most out of their ‘Age of Conan’ experience. I myself played in a US-based “supergroup” when I was playing City of Heroes/Villains on a US server, and because I considered most of these people friends and people I could most enjoy the game with, and if they had been European-based and resided on an EU-based server, I would have joined them there also. MMO gaming is becoming more about the social aspect rather than a sole focus on the gameplay.

imageBut you still can’t help but feel just a little bit sorry for these players having to log in from Europe to play with their friends on a US server, and vice versa, because we’re all too aware of the impact latency time has on online gaming. First-person shooters spring to mind when considering the importance of a low/good latency time and your ability to simply do well in the game. Reaction time is crucial in that particular setting and could mean the difference between killing or being killed, and so it makes sense to first have a good connection and to play on a server close to home with a good ping. The same could be said for ‘Age of Conan’ due to its revolutionary trademarked “real-time” combat and its particular emphasis on PvP combat. You could make the argument that the player with the better latency time or ping (and by “better” I mean significantly better) will have the higher likelihood of victory due to the fact their reaction time will be better matched to the data transfer time from server to them. It’s not always the case, I understand, as even skilled players can overcome those with better latency times, but as long as the latency time doesn’t make the online experience unbearable, where movement and combat is reduced to the likeness of a slideshow or a cheesy PowerPoint presentation.

With the conscious decision for players from abroad to play on servers not “native” to them, as Funcom has suggested, it is acknowledging that the game experience could not be as good as playing on a server closer to home:

“Should you play on a server on another continent it would mean a potentially poorer gaming experience, latency wise, and we would like to avoid that at all cost.”

It’s important to take note of the selection of words in the Friday update, as Funcom has said explicitly a “potentially” poorer gaming experience could be have by playing on a server on another continent. Now, this could simply be a matter of the PR department waving their wand and casting a rank three Calm spell on those considering playing on a non-native server, but to me this sounds like Funcom is placing quite a lot of faith in their server setup and what IPsoft will be doing to ensure server stability. This places the onus on the individual player and the reliability of their own internet connection. Thankfully, most developed countries around the world are now using broadband internet connections as it is now a system requirement on modern online games to have such a connection. The question of your broadband speed is a different matter however, as some countries offer faster broadband speeds than others. A report written in September of this year indicated that the top five countries offering the fastest broadband speeds were (in order from fastest named first): Japan, Korea, Finland, Sweden, and France; with Japan and Korea averaging broadband speeds as fast as between 45 to 60 megabits per second. Interestingly, the Netherlands ranked just outside the top five and the United States beyond the top 10. Norway, where Funcom’s headquarters are, ranked higher than the United States and managed to scrape in to the top 10 of the list. But okay, your broadband is good, but to be closer to a server is better.

For those of us in between Europe and the US, namely players in Oceania and Asia, we’re obviously caught in middle choosing either the European servers (Amsterdam) or the North American servers (New Jersey). There isn’t going to be an Asian or Oceanic client of ‘Age of Conan’ as far as we know, so purchasing either the European or US client is inevitable, but where do we go? History has shown that Oceanic players tend to favour US-based servers due to the social gameplay potential, but we are, naturally, a lot further away from Amsterdam or New Jersey than those who, for example, are living in the UK wanting to play on the US servers. Typically players in the Oceanic region get better latency times on US-based servers also, but that’s probably because US servers tend to be better equipped for larger server populations and are able to carry the proverbial load. So this will mean a potentially poorer gaming experience for us in Asia and Oceania, but as we only have one of two options: Europe or the US; we’re going to go where the gameplay and the social aspect of the MMO takes us.

imageThe distance and the potentially poorer gaming experience we understand is something we’ll just have to deal with, but what of the future for Asian and Oceanic players of ‘Age of Conan’? I completely understand that establishing a server in any location of the world is a very expensive operation, and could only be worthwhile given that a company like Funcom could foresee remuneration that justifies the expense of setting up the server in the first place. Obviously, the larger markets for ‘Age of Conan’ are the European and North American, but it has been shown in other MMOs that there have been a large number of Asian and Oceanic players connecting to such games, so it would be unfair to say that there is no market for these regions. Am I saying we’re being underestimated? Perhaps I’m implying that, but what I am going to say quite explicitly is that there is good reason to establish servers in other parts of the world to accommodate those who face the conundrum of having to choose between two cities.

As MMOs are largely becoming more of a social phenomenon rather than a technological one, it’s important to acknowledge that because of time differences between parts of the world, players are now opting to join servers or join with guilds that are able to cater to individual play schedules and so forth. Players from the US have opted to join Australian and Oceanic-based guilds because that player might work night-shift in the US, and so the individual play schedule would match those of the Australians and Oceanics.

So slowly, as technology gets faster a better, the concern shifts from latency time and physical distance from client to server, to being able to provide customers with the opportunity to get the best social experience out of the MMOs that they play.

Quietly, I am confident that even from here in Perth, Western Australia, I will be able to enjoy ‘Age of Conan’ to its fullest potential even playing on the US (New Jersey) servers (that’s a distance of approximately 16,000km by the way), but here’s to hoping for the game’s global success and expansion from servers in just two cities, to many around the world as the profile of the game rises.

Until next fortnight, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,

Out.

Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, November 2007

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