Bear with me on this one, as I will be referencing a couple of different articles in order to make comparisons between some popular MMOs and the companies behind them.
I noticed today that a few articles have popped up regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic and the accusation that they have too many active servers. According to the squeaky wheels on the official forums, several servers are relative “dead zones” where players have a difficult time finding other players to group with. It has been stated that while SW:TOR only has 10% of the subscriptions that World of Warcraft currently has, they have 50% of the number of servers that the MMO giant has. If this is accurate, then it is easy to see where some of these concerns are coming from. The easy solution would be to consolidate servers and bring players closer together.
Unfortunately, the suits on Wall Street don’t see it that way.
The plain truth is that nothing shakes up investor confidence in the companies who produce MMOs like server consolidations and/or lower subscriptions. I don’t think it is a great stretch to imagine that most of those investors are only vaguely aware of the products their investing in, and perhaps overreact to these kind of metrics. As a result, despite the fact that consolidation would make the experience better for YOU, the player, and may in fact keep you playing and paying, server consolidation is a measure of last resort. This is especially true if you’re Electronic Arts and you just shelled out an estimated 80 million dollars to make the game, and it has only been out for a few short months. I don’t think SW:TOR is in dire straits just yet, although they certainly could be if their big April patch falls short of expectations, but they’re certainly not the only MMO who’ll play the numbers game for a better quarterly statement.
Take a look at World of Warcraft, the 800 pound gorilla in the MMO market. They’re certainly not above this kind of sleight of hand either. A very interesting article I read back in 2009, and one that is still relevant, highlights some of the ways that Activision Blizzard manipulates statistics in order to market their game and keep their investors happy. You may hear that WoW has 10 million subscribers, but that number doesn’t take into consideration that many players in the asian market aren’t playing or paying quite the same way as their American and European counterparts. For instance, at the time of the article, the Asian market made up 50% of the WoW player base, yet only accounted for 6% of the total revenue. Other areas where WoW has been historically accused of fudging the numbers is keeping servers online that have huge faction imbalances; servers that would greatly benefit from mergers with others that could balance them out and improve the overall player experience.
The WoW annual pass scheme has certainly been an effective tourniquet on WoW’s bleeding subscription numbers. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the short version is that if you agree to purchase a one year subscription to WoW, you get a free digital copy of Diablo 3 as well as an in game pet and beta access to the next WoW expansion. Seems like a great fan service! The reality is that no company would make such a move unless they had already reached the decision that doing so was the best financial decision possible. They’re essentially giving their players a $60 game in order to guarantee they spend $180. And when I say guarantee… I mean it. Apparently is it almost impossible to cancel the annual pass once you’ve paid for it. For anyone in the Blizzard Finance Department, this is a huge win. You’ve essentially locked in a large portion of your revenue stream and marginalized the future subscription losses you would have suffered otherwise, buying you a year to prepare for the announcement of Blizzard’s next MMO, code named Titan. In the meantime, you just hope and pray that people still love pandas and Pokemon.
Going back to the Old Republic and their server issues, it is really nothing more than a corner they’ve painted themselves into by failing to plan. Every MMO, especially those with monthly subscriptions, see a huge population swell at launch. Players are eager to try something new, and the first 30 days is generally included with the price of the game. This means that almost no reasonable amount of servers that would sustain your normal expected population post-launch will be enough to handle this kind of traffic. Server queues begin to back up longer and longer as players try in vain to all get in at once. After the initial 30 days, however, the population starts to fall off to a more manageable level. If you’re artificially increased your launch servers to minimize queues, or if your content is relatively stale or buggy and players start leaving, then server populations start to dwindle and thin out. It is important to note that this happens to every single MMO that has ever released (or at least it has happened to enough to be considered the rule even if an exception or two actually exists).
So what is a developer to do? What kind of solution can you come up with to account for the perfectly normal and anticipated launch rush, while at the same time minimizing or hopefully eliminating the post-launch purge and merge?
It appears that ArenaNet may have the answer.
As part of their design of Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet is implementing something called an overflow shard. This server acts as a buffer against server queues, allowing you to temporarily play on a separate, dedicated server while your remain in queue for your home server. When your queue is up, you hit a button and after a load screen, you magically reappear logged on to your home server and standing in the same spot you were in on the overflow server. That is forward thinking and innovative. No two ways about it. The real genius is that it doesn’t matter if you have a single overflow shard or two dozen of them. It will be seamless to the player who is playing, and post launch you can still reduce the number of these overflow servers without sending up red flags to your investors. The suits remain happy, and your players come away with an even better playing experience.
Seems odd that someone at a company the size of Activision or Electronic Arts didn’t think of it first.