How Not To Launch An MMOMay 16, 2008
In the past couple weeks, we’ve witnessed ominous signs leading up to Age of Conan’s launch — the Open Beta was extremely buggy and nearly unplayable for some, the system requirements are pretty demanding, and now it appears that players who paid $5 extra to get early access to the title may be shut out completely due to overloaded server capacity, which has absolutely enraged some would-be customers.
[Update: ScytheNoire informs me, “The issue is that some people didn’t pick up their pre-order card or didn’t pick the option in time, and some stores were refusing to hand out the pre-order cards until the 17th. But those who paid did get their 10 extra days and into the early access.”]
Now [waggling a finger], don’t you for a second think I’m looking to bash AoC or gloat about what looks like a very rough launch. Any successful MMO boosts the entire genre as a whole, and I’m all for AoC doing well. They have a nice-sized, passionate base of fans, and many people are reporting that the game world is gorgeous, the combat is well-done, and the grit is appreciated.
Yet what worries me is that this particular company — Funcom — is the dubious winner of Worst MMORPG Launch Ever with its previous title Anarchy Online (which was so bad people couldn’t play regularly for months). If there’s any company that knows, first-hand, how very, very important it is to ensure a smooth launch, it’s them. Many players, already a little nervous over ghost of Anarchy Online, have understandably paused or even withdrawn completely from the starting month of AoC. Perhaps the launch day will come and go, and surpass all expectations — all of this previous worry was for naught. And perhaps it’ll be a nasty, rocky trip. As the Mythic team has stated all along, “You only get one first impression with an MMO”.
Whether or not AoC launches well is not (surprisingly enough) the focus of this article — instead, I’m looking to the future with a crinkle of concern over WAR’s launch, and a desire to see it slip off the boat dock with ease and grace. So with that said, here’s how NOT to launch a MMO:
1. Be Unprepared For The Number Of First Day Players
World of Warcraft, for all the praise and success it’s seen since, was absolutely unprepared, naive and uninformed as to the interest level in their title. Despite an incredibly strong beta, Blizzard launched the game with far fewer servers than were needed — resulting in horrendously long queues that kept players from, y’know, playing. What’s worse is that this server shortage went on for weeks before it was fixed.
As the MMO field grows, developers need to realize that the player base is ever-expanding, and they need to over-anticipate the first day server load. Everyone wants to play on the first day, which results in virgin servers receiving the roughhousing of a lifetime — hundreds of thousands of players attempting to log in, within a short span of each other, and demanding immediate access. A MMO that doesn’t overestimate their server needs (and then add half onto that) for the first day is a MMO that is just begging for a mess. I’d imagine that it’s ultimately easier to eliminate and consolidate servers, if they’re not needed, than have to rush to hook up brand-new servers in the middle of an ugly crunch period.
2. If You Promise Something For Day One, Put It Off.
The issue here is that, sooner or later, devs are pressured by their publishers to set a firm launch date and stick to it. You can only delay a game for so long before you irritate your fans irreversibly and become a laughingstock in the community. So when this happens and devs go into “crunch mode”, it’s often the case where they realize they simply cannot make good on a promised feature(s) — one which they’ve been touting for months in all the press hooplah — and they make a decision to cut it out of the game for the time being. Players who log in are then told that Feature X is still in the works, but will be patched in at a later date.
You can imagine how that might leave a sour taste in the mouth.
3. Showcase An Unstable, Buggy Open Beta.
By the time you hit open beta, the devs should pretty much be showing off a finished product, which they’re both demoing and stress testing through the open beta process. Despite the word “beta”, it is simply not acceptable to have glaring bugs, holes, crashes and any other feature that makes the game a miserable slog — or worse, unplayable. Age of Conan’s messy open beta period — from the limited downloading sites, to the (alleged) two different versions of the beta that open and closed beta testers were playing, to the nasty bugs that popped up all over the place — is a prime example of how to shoot yourself in the publicity foot.
4. Showcase An Unstable, Buggy Launch Version.
The list of egregious sinners for this are almost too many to mention: Anarchy Online, World War II Online, Asheron’s Call 2, Star Wars Galaxies, Vanguard, Horizons, Dark and Light…
If, on day one, you’re making PAYING customers effectively beta test your product, then congratulations! You’ve alienated and pissed off the very people you’re trying to milk money from, and guess what? I wouldn’t bet the farm on them being around for month two, when the subscriptions kick in.
Yes, some of these titles have struggled back from a horrible, buggy launch to carve out a solid niche in the MMOscape, but none of those titles have become smash hits, and many more of them wheezed to an early death.
I just can’t imagine how crushing it would be to be a dev on one of these projects, putting in years of my life to making this game, getting my hopes all high that this will be the Next Big Thing… only to be on the receiving end of a literary bludgeoning by my fans on the first day who tell me I’ve just wasted a good chunk of my life on digital crap.
5. Push It Out The Door Before You’re Ready
This has been kinda covered by previous points, but it bears repeating (stupid repeating bears, what with their redundant natures). If it’s not ready, DO NOT LAUNCH. If it’s not polished, DO NOT LAUNCH. If you need any reminders to this effect, purchase one of several hundred thousand un-bought copies of Vanguard and hang it on the wall above your desk. If a publisher does not have the resources, patience and time to wait until their MMO is 100% ready to go, then they have no business in the MMO market.
6. Have A Crappy Account Manager
Finally, as important as it is to present a playable, smooth game to your audience, you cannot overlook the account creation and payment process. First-time MMO players, especially, are a little nervous when it comes to having to make an account to pay, on a monthly basis, for the privilege of playing that title. Don’t make it worse by making the account creation process a huge chore (Final Fantasy XI) or screwing up the billing so players get charged two, perhaps three times for a game they then can’t log on and play (Hellgate: London). As this is handled online, apart from the game client, there’s no excuse for this to be anything other than picture-perfect.