[UPDATE: We have given out all of our beta keys for the weekend of February 5th. Since you're already here, though, feel free to read the story about how HP servers make this online world turn.]
I’m standing somewhere in Telara right now. It’s another sunny day, except for this giant rift suddenly yawning open with gangs of creatures streaming out like it’s a rabid Muppet convention at H.R. Geiger’s house. Meanwhile, the ragtag group of players that just met moments ago are trying to band together, fighting back the evil – and the invading members of The Defiant (a warring faction of players) that pick this exact moment to attack.
We’re potentially talking hundreds of thousands of characters online, at the same location and on the same servers at the same time. That’s what it will be like, playing Trion Worlds' Riftwhen it comes out this March.
A few years ago – heck, even now, with some games – that’d be a nightmare scenario for MMO (short for Massively Multiplayer Online) game engineers. According to Trion's Scott Hartsman: “500 people stacking up on the same server? Years ago, in older games, people had to plan ahead for weeks to avoid server crashes .” In the past, it’d be based upon a vertical rack of PICO boxes, a rack of 32 servers sitting in a room. And God help you if too many people showed up to play at the same time. You’d wind up with long queues, glitchy gameplay and server shutdown. That won’t be the case with Rift.
As Scott explains it to me, “HP’s blade servers – heck, HP in general, is the technological backbone of Trion. We absolutely couldn’t do what we’re attempting with anyone else. We looked and there was nothing else that even came close.”
This is when I naively ask if I could take pictures of the server room setup, thinking that at least one datacenter might be close by. It’s not. The game will be hosted in Dallas and Amsterdam. What’s interesting is that it’s not one bank of servers handling Europe and another fielding the American players. Regardless of the distance, the servers work together handling different functions and letting players from around the world work together. For example, as you’re chatting in realtime, the game servers are translating language back and forth so that you don’t need to know French to tell someone living in Paris to get his butt to safety. [CORRECTION, 2/2, 12pm: Given updated information -- in-game translation is not happening.]
So on one level, it is bringing people together in unique ways. It’s also keeping them from crashing and falling apart. Scott explains, “Over the course of any given game – and especially during the Beta tests – there can be a bunch of small pockets of server hiccups throughout a single play-session, but the player will never see those.”
The Blades themselves are broken up per action across the entire game. Let’s take in-game chat in general. One cluster handles communications. If one blade fails, another in that cluster will take its place. So, you’re never experiencing downtime or running into some digital version of the tower of Babel. There are clusters handling everything from game physics and graphics to NPC (non-player character) A.I. and...you get the idea. Scott tells me that, “the software design around HP’s server blades gives us this incredible level of stability we couldn’t achieve in the past – and it also opens up possibilities to new gameplay elements that we always wanted to do before, but couldn’t.”
You see, most MMO games struggle with the Disneyworld Effect: A player is in this giant amusement park and they want to have a unique, epic experience. Effectively, though, you wind up waiting in line to attack the dragon, liche or whatever. Stab, cast a spell, get treasure. Now it’s the guy behind you waiting to do the same thing. That pulls you out of the experience – not to mention feels a lot less epic. What you want is a dynamic world doing things around you. That is one of the things that Rift will provide. And that brings me back to where this story started.
And then there are the major events that are intended to draw even bigger crowds. Here’s a tip for you: If there is a guild of high-level players running together, look for a rift to appear for an extra bit of challenge. In my play-session at Trion’s offices, I was impressed with the graphics, sure, but seeing it all unfold in the middle of massive firefights without lag or crash – that’s what seems the most promising aspect to me.
If you have any questions you’d like me to pass along to Team Trion, let me know!