Last week, 11 more servers were flagged as trial, and while players were given suggestions on which servers to transfer to, everyone is free to transfer to any non-trial servers. But how should we interpret the news, and what does it mean for RIFT players?
Will you please go now?
First off, let's look at exactly what is meant by trial server. Based on the original post by Community Manager James "Elrar" Nichols, trial servers are ones with low populations, and since there's a free weekly transfer for players and even guilds already in place, players are free to move to any other non-trial server they choose. The upside of doing it this way (as opposed to granting direct server merges) is that it gives players and guilds a chance to find a place where they can retain their names and perhaps even alliances if they are part of a larger guild community on the server. Trial servers in theory are reserved for events and promotions for which there's a spike in the overall population. It's a way of avoiding the queues like the ones that came with the final stage of the River of Souls world event.
But while the servers are still there, players can't create new characters on them, and you can't even do anything outside of the city. My little character is still in the newbie area, but according to recent posts, characters on trial servers can no longer leave their cities, meaning they basically have to transfer to a non-trial server. It's hard to look at this and not draw the conclusion that it's a server merge, but it's important to consider a few factors before taking this as a sign that the game is dying.
Back on launch day, for example, servers were so inundated that queue times were through the roof, and the team really had no choice but to open up dozens of new servers. I'm thankful it did so because within days, our server had calmed considerably and queues disappeared. I remember the era of queues in the early days of World of Warcraft, and those lasted for months. It became part of the nightly routine that you'd log in when you got home from work because the queue times were so long that you could eat dinner, do the dishes, fold laundry, and clean the house before you were able to get in. And if you didn't get in line early enough, your evening was pretty much over. I don't think players today would tolerate that for weeks or even months because the field is much more crowded today, and it's too easy to simply find another MMO to play.
Furthermore, post-launch player-retention is often compared to a leaky bucket. Players will leave, and while the hope is that more players end up trying it out to offset the losses, the reality with MMOs is that it's usually not the case. All games lose players, so the goal is to try to reduce that as much as possible or plug the holes in the bucket as best as you can. Free trials, world events, player loyalty rewards, rapid updates, and promotions all help to plug holes in the leaky bucket. Meanwhile, metrics help reveal what causes players to leave the game in the first place, and designers can work toward smoothing these things out to hopefully make the game less annoying and more enjoyable. Trion has been very active in doing all of these things, so the real question is whether the population decrease is larger than it should be, given the state of the game and the current MMO climate. It's worth noting that the current server total is what was originally slated for RIFT's release. Also, quite a few of those servers that were opened up post-launch never really had enormous populations to begin with.
There's a tough juggling act when it comes to server populations. On one hand, players view servers as their home, and we can't overlook the fact that players and guilds build up relationships over time. It's nice to log in and recognize names in open chat or run by a player with a familiar guild tag. After a while, servers themselves begin to take on a persona and can sometimes even have a reputation based on who's playing there. Unfortunately, it's so hard to hit that perfect point of having a server with a healthy, active population. Often, it either feels like a wasteland or is overcrowded and laggy. Even though players are often attached to our servers, it might be time to view them as more as more transient than fixed.
When it comes to population management, server merges are a funny bird. In one game, server merges can be a sign of the apocalypse, while in another they can be welcome news and a reason to celebrate. As far as RIFT goes, I think it's too early to start worrying about the game. It's hard to draw conclusions on the overall population decrease based on the number of servers going to trial because we don't have an accurate idea of how many players were on each one in the first place, and while we love to guess, we really don't have the luxury of seeing overall population numbers over time. I think a better indicator will come in the next six to 12 months. If we begin to see a noticeable slow down in updates, or if the content and features in each one gets less and less substantial, that might be a better sign of the overall health of the game. In the meantime, I'm prepping for the Carnival!
Whether she's keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan saves Telara on a biweekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, the column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen for questions, comments, and adulation.