Almost every gamer has, at some time, dealt with a nasty problem that I like to call “gamer segregation”. While the term is obviously a little on the strong side, it describes well the many barriers that online gamers of different nationalities often bump against when trying to play with each other.
Nowadays the internet seems to be boundless and borderless. Social networks like Facebook or Twitter instantly connect us with friends all over the globe, and even an Italian like me can write on an American website (hoping that my English won’t betray me) after chatting with writers that share the same interests and views across the ocean.
Just like many of you, I have good friends scattered on every landmass on Earth, from the US to Japan, passing by Iceland or Russia, but when it comes to playing games together things start to be problematic: there are still too many borders and barriers, and a sizable percentage of those simply have no reason to be there.
One of the best advantages of playing online is the ability to connect and play with people that we would never be able to meet in the real world, sharing aspects of our culture, different points of view, play styles and even languages. By playing online in the last twenty or so years, I definitely improved my English and started to learn Japanese, quite the added bonus, considering that I did that while having a lot of fun.
Unfortunately many developers continue to miss the value of letting gaming communities of different nationalities and regions interact with each other, and even too often such contact is impossible because of anachronistic relics like segregated regional servers, region locks and IP bans.
MMORPGs are often the worst offenders, with many games sporting communities split at the very least between the US and Europe. Did you perchance assume that the Internet bridged the Atlantic Ocean? If you play popular MMO titles like World of Warcraft, or plan to partake in the future action fest on Tera Online, you may want to think again. The virtual Atlantic is almost as impassable as the real one.
Let’s get something out of the way once and for all: latency isn’t the issue. I can accept local servers in games in which lightning-fast reflexes can create the divide between victory and defeat, but most games really don’t require that kind of extremely quick response, and even many FPS games (one of the genres that suffers the most from a less than stellar ping) are now played globally without the slightest problem over Xbox Live and the PSN. There’s absolutely no MMORPG on the market in which inter-continental distances can be a real issue.
The main problem is that game developers and publishers often don’t want to bother with servicing regions different than their own, dealing with annoyances like different taxation systems, international payments and so forth, preferring to radically split the operation of a game between different regions to streamline the process.
The obvious result is that, if you want to play with your friends that live in a different region, you have to import the game from that region, of course giving up the chance of playing with your friends that live in your own. Sometimes that’s not even possible, as IP region locks come into play blocking even the possibility of importing (or of playing the game at all, like in the case of Vindictus/Mabinogi Heroes that still hasn’t been released in Europe, and blocks European gamers from playing on the American servers).
A further array of problems and annoyances comes when the game developer decides to license the operation of the game in other regions to a third party provider. For instance Warhammer Online players are familiar with that, and future Tera Online fans will most probably experience the frustration coming packaged with it.
As competent as they may be (and quite often they aren’t), third party providers simply don’t have the tools to offer a service on par with that offered from the original developers and publishers. They don’t have direct access to the code, so if a problem arises they need to wait for a solution to come from overseas. They often can’t keep up with the patching schedule and offer a lower quality customer support. This without even mentioning the fact that players that reside on the servers handled directly by the developer normally have more efficient tools to let their feedback be heard, while the poor sods on the other side of the regional barrier see their opinions and complaints filtered by the regional provider, if they ever reach the developer at all.
On top of that, servers handled by third parties tend to lose population much faster, risking to leave the remaining players stuck in a ghost town, facing severe difficulties in finding other people to play with, and ultimately jeopardizing their progression. In the end the result of locked, third party licensed regional servers is not only the segregation of gamers of different nationalities, but also the creation of first and second rate customers, regardless of how much they pay for the game and the service.
A much better solution (while still not optimal) is for the developer/publisher to handle the operation of the game in all regions, while still offering regional labeled servers that the players can freely select according to their personal preference and to where their friends play, and not only to where they live themselves. While there still is a degree of segregation, as most players will naturally join their own regional server, at the very least the freedom of joining all the servers partly makes up for it, and customers from different countries are on equal footing service-wise.
The ideal solution, at least for games in which distance latency isn’t a crippling issue (which means most games, and every single MMORPG on the market), is of course having international servers including gamers from all over the world.
A shining example of that is, for instance, EVE Online: the whole community is not only gathered under the same service, but also in the same big server. Want to play with your friends from Korea, Spain, Brazil and Australia? That’s great, because you can.
The advantages of having the whole community gathered on the same servers aren’t even limited to the ability to play with international friends and equal service quality. There are also quite prominent functional advantages.
Regional servers tend to have their users concentrated in a few time zones, resulting in daily time frames of maximum traffic during which the server may even struggle to cope with the crowd, and dead times, when finding someone to play with is a real pain. On the other end of the spectrum international servers have players from every single time zone of the world, providing a constant presence through the twenty-four hours of each day. The result of this is quite clearly visible on Final Fantasy XIV, a game still struggling for population due to a rocky launch, but that seems more populated than many others simply because there are no times in the day in which the servers are empty while almost everyone is sleeping or working.
We can only hope that, in the future, more and more developers will see the obvious advantages of operating their games internationally, doing away as much as possible with gamer segregation. The internet managed to tear down many of the walls that kept us separated from millions of potential friends. It’s definitely about time for those obsolete barriers to crumble even in online games, letting us play with all of those friends regardless of the fact that they live on this or that side of an overgrown pond. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing online at all?