Another feature in Free Realms that I hope will become more commonplace in the future is the fact that characters are not bound to a single server. You actually select the server you want to play on after logging in. The same character can play on any server. It's not the most ideal solution: I prefer Guild Wars' implementation better, where everyone is in one shared reality and you can change instances at will.
But however it's implemented, disassociating the character with the server removes a significant obstacle in playing a game. It's always rather frustrating when I run into someone who plays an MMO I'm playing, whether its EverQuest II now, or City of Heroes in the past, or even World of Warcraft. And then you realize they picked a different server.
So I pretty much have to hope all the friends I ever make will be on the server I rather randomly selected on day one? And hope that that server's population doesn't dwindle, leaving me playing an online game with NO ONE to play with? And hope that I don't discover that the culture that developed on a different server might be more compatible with my playstyle -- but after I've become too invested in my existing characters to simply abandon them and reroll?
An MMO gains strength by getting its players to feel invested in their characters. That means getting them to NOT want to simply abandon the toon and reroll. Preventing easy transfers actually makes it more likely for players to QUIT the game (if you have to abandon your character anyway, you may as well play a new game, rather than simply mimic your previous steps for a month to bring your new clone on the new server back to a similar level of progression.)
I'm not sure I understand why the game developers bind us to a single server anyway. Why not let us transfer between servers freely? Why have exorbitant character transfer fees ($50 a character is outrageously expensive for one, let alone the dozen I have)?
Part of it is technical, of course. Each server probably has different data centers associated with it, not all of which are collocated. Am I wrong in thinking that the benefits to player retention would most likely outweight the costs of developing that tool?
If all my friends on server A quit, I might have friends on server B that I could play with -- but I'm not paying $50 a character to move them, and I'm probably not interested in leveling from 1-80 all over again. Or let's say I pick a server and suddenly find that the population is low and it's hard to find a group. I would be more inclined to quit the game than start all over somewhere else; while I can't speak for anyone else, I can't imagine most people would find "reroll a new character" (which takes a few days /played, and therefore several months for the majority of players) to be a viable solution. Our time is money and most of us would rather spend it doing something new instead of repeating what we've already accomplished, just somewhere else, which might itself suffer from a population issue by the time we get back to the same level of progression we started out at.
Another obstacle is name collisions, due to game decisions like forcing characters to have unique first names, but allowing multiple accounts to pick the same name so long as the characters are on different servers. But that's a decision that players can choose to make. OR, an even better solution, would be to ALLOW duplicate names, just like the real world allows. And like Champions Online will allow.
Preventing easy server transfers doesn't really help prevent griefing, especially when there are cheap name change potions available.
So there's all that. What other reasons remain for making it difficult to change servers? What wouldn't Sony have to gain if, for instance, they took their character transfer service, and got rid of the fees, making it free for everyone to transfer between servers with compatible rulesets (even if it had a few reasonable time limits, like restricting characters to moving once per month)?