You may recall I've noted on this blog before that RIFT had the best and smoothest launch of any MMO that I have participated in. Granted my experience does not go back as far as most, but in reading commentaries from those who were part of earlier launches, I don't think it is much of a stretch for me to say that RIFT's still ranks among the best. But Trion did make one key mistake with RIFT's launch, and it had little to do with client stability, or bugs, or many of the errors that typically plague an MMO in its birth pangs. No the mistake Trion made was opening too many servers.
The launch of an MMO is almost without exception its busiest time. The most players are interested. The most players are trying to play. And consequently the servers are hammered leading to potential queue times, and nobody wants to be stuck in a queue waiting to play the game. So what do you do? Why you open more servers of course, give those people more places to play. And while this seems like the "no brainer" solution, it really is a short-sighted decision with negative long-term consequences. Once the launch "rush" is over, once the "one month tourists" have sampled your game and departed, what you are left with is a plethora of empty servers and frustrated players that have committed to your game.
This is where "corporate PR" kicks in and looks for a way to spin what inevitably has to occur... server merges and consolidations. But that term is poison in the MMO community. Once you utter it, the sharks smell the blood in the water and declare your game a failure. In Trion's case, their gimmick was "trial servers." Prior to the debut of RIFT Lite, one of the promotions in the game was free trial weekends for people to sample the game. So Trion took most of their low population servers, kicked all the "real" players off them, and labeled them "trial servers" to service these weekend promotions. No servers were actually closed off or shut down, but this quite obviously is a case of server merging/consolidation. Trion was able to "spin" it as something else and avoid that dreaded term.
Fast forward to this week and we see the same scenario playing out again, this time in the case of Star Wars: The Old Republic. SW:TOR got off to much the same start as RIFT; a very smooth launch, high expectations, and high demand. And then Bioware made the exact same mistake that Trion did, they overestimated the long-term interest in their product. They opened a ridiculous number of servers and within months, many of those servers were reduced to virtual ghost towns as the "tourists" departed. This was perhaps even more evident in SW:TOR because its numbers were even higher than RIFT's at the start and its story based model led to many players, even highly interested players, leaving the game once the story content was exhausted.
Did Bioware truly believe that their game could buck the trend in MMO's and maintain the same level of concurrent players and server populations after the launch boom? I do not pose this question rhetorically. I truly would be interested to know. Did they really think their game was that much different or would be so popular that it would essentially be the only MMO since World of Warcraft to grow appreciably after launch? Many other bloggers including myself have commented on the fact that WoW needs to be viewed as the exception that it is, not the rule for MMO populations and growth. It is an enigma likely to never be repeated. Why any MMO developer, be it Trion, or Bioware, or anyone else would expect to duplicate that at this point is absurd.
So now Bioware finds itself in the same position as Trion, desperately trying to "spin" away from the dreaded server merge/consolidation admission. But unlike Trion, Bioware seems to be handling it poorly. There is no PR "gimmick" like Trion's trial servers. Instead they have all but admitted that shutting down servers is their long-term goal, citing new "super servers" that they hope to create. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to some of the transfers they have set up. Medium servers transferring to other medium servers, etc. And communication from Bioware regarding the long-term disposition of these supposed "super servers" has been murky at best.
I truly hope other MMO companies with upcoming launches are watching, specifically folks like Funcom (The Secret World), ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2), and Carbine (WildStar). Learn a lesson from Trion and Bioware. Keep your expectations in line. In this gamer's opinion, a Day 1 queue is more acceptable than a Day 100 dead server. Don't make the same mistake twice.