In MMORPGS we always want things bigger. We want bigger worlds, bigger cities, and of course we want a bigger server population. We reason that if there’s several thousand players on a server, there’s sure to be people online in every area of the game at all times. No one wants to live in a world which feels empty.
But there are certain design decisions which work well for a server population of a few hundread that doesn’t work for a server population in the thousands. When I used to play MUDs in the 90’s, I would normally expect a grand total of 5 to 30 people online at any given time. Everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew everyone’s alts. You hung out with the same people every day and you complained about the same people every day. It was like living in a small village.
MMOs on the other hand, are cities. They wouldn’t be “massively multiplayer” without being massive. You have to make an effort to group with friends. Unlike a MUD, an MMO character you meet is entirely forgettable. This causes certain gameplay mechanics which work really well in MUDs to break in MMOs.
In the MUD I played longest, there was full player vs player combat, with corpse-looting. Players who stole items after a battle were shunned and players who honorably let their victim reclaim their corpse were known praised. Someone who picked on newbie characters or new players was held in especially low regard. It was possible to round up a gang to chase a newbie-killer around the MUD and make the game practically unplayable for them.
I thought I’d have a similar experience when I started playing the Ultima Online beta. But there were too many people. Someone could kill you the day the servers went live, and never be seen again. Someone who helped you defend your honor could also disappear into the crowd. Perhaps it was a factor of the newness of the server that kept a set of norms from developing. But ever since the dawn of the MMO, I’ve never known the name of every character on a server, as I once did.
If MMOs want to have servers where players form meaningful friendships, alliances, hatreds, and enemies, then they may need to design their MMOs to function with smaller servers.