Disorderly Queue

Queues and overcrowded servers are no way to welcome new customers to your game.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

Like any other medium, videogames have developed certain conventions as they have evolved - conventions which were often first set in place by technological limitations of the time, but which can persist long after those limits have been removed by the march of technology. Gaming conventions come to form part of the language of the medium, giving designers (of both software and hardware) touchstones which they know will be familiar and comfortable for their audience.

On occasion, however, there's a sense that a convention has remained in place not because it's useful, or comfortable, but just because replacing it would require thought and effort that developers don't want to commit.

One particularly infuriating example of that exists in the MMO realm, and has had a particularly nasty airing in the past fortnight thanks to the launch of NCsoft's Aion. Much has been written about the game itself, and it's unquestionable that it's a stylish, polished implementation of the genre - indeed, it's arguably the first rival to come close to the quality mark set by World of Warcraft.

You might be disinclined to agree with that sentiment, however, if most of your experience of the game in the past fortnight has involved sitting in queues waiting for a space on your chosen server to become available - an aspect of the game's launch which has coloured almost every piece of coverage it has received.

Aion is not, of course, alone in facing this problem. Most MMOs launch with queues to access their servers - worse again, many of them then end up offering players barren, half-empty servers when the player population falls after the first few months.

The fundamental reason for this problem lies in a basic convention of massively multiplayer games. From the earliest successful graphical MMOs, such as Ultima Online, games have been divided up into "shards", or "servers" - identical copies of the same game world, each carrying a portion of the game's overall population. A game such as Aion (or Warhammer Online, or Age of Conan, or any other normal MMO) launches with a number of servers available, each of which can only handle a certain number of concurrent players.

The game service operator then faces an extremely tricky balancing act. Too few servers will result in enormous queues for the game, which frustrate and upset players - not a good move when your business model relies on them being so pleased with their experience in the first 30 days that they'll happily subscribe for the long term. Too many servers, however, results in some of them turning into ghost towns later on, as the initial surge of interest in the game slows after the first few months.

When the uptake of the game is higher than anticipated, companies can respond to the demand by opening new servers - but this is a blunt, unfocused tool at best, and in many cases, is utterly useless as a solution. Players who have already invested time in a character don't want to start afresh on a new server. More importantly, players who have started the game with a group of their friends will find it very difficult to move en-masse to a new server. Instead, you see the spectacle of a game with a cluster of servers afflicted by huge queues, while new servers sit half-empty.

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