Hyperspace Beacon: PR nightmare

Hyperspace Beacon: PR nightmare
It's my sincerest hope that we never again have a news week like we did last week. Every mistake that could be made in MMO development was made this past week.

Obviously, the biggest news revolved around the 38 Studios fiasco. Perhaps it's hard when you're in the midst of a development cycle and concentrating on deadlines and milestones to see the larger picture and the proverbial writing on the wall. It should have been obvious to the developers behind the scenes the project was doomed, but I say that with 20/20 hindsight.

Of course, Star Wars: The Old Republic won't be outdone by 38 Studios. BioWare had to flood the feeds with its own bad news in the form of layoffs. Then almost in the same breath, it announced that the game will be merging servers. I guess SWTOR couldn't be outdone by itself, either. It had to add insult to its own injury. Although the timing of the layoffs was a bit surprising, those of us observing from the outside could see the server merges coming.

The stories in Star Wars aren't just about good conquering evil, but they are also about redemption and good coming out of a bad situation. The tragedy of Luke's aunt and uncle being killed was the catalyst that started his journey to becoming a great hero and Jedi Knight. Darth Vader was ultimately redeemed when he killed the emperor. But is there the same redemption for SWTOR? Will it ultimately become the great game everyone was hoping that it would be?

Hyperspace Beacon: Server population
I do not have enough information to accurately place blame anywhere for the issues surrounding the launch and subsequent patches of SWTOR, but a lot of the issues seemed to be birthed out of ignorance. This doesn't surprise me. The leadership at BioWare Austin had not made an MMO before. Game Director James Ohlen had only worked on single-player RPGs up to this point. Obviously, Studio Lead Greg Zeschuk's experience with MMOs was limited to acquiring the Mythic titles -- which by the way belonged to EA prior to it belonging to BioWare -- and I think it goes without saying that acquiring a game post-launch is far different than creating and maintaining a brand-new MMO.

Although I saw it as a bad move, it was no surprise to me that BioWare opened more servers for SWTOR shortly after the game launched. We know this is a bad move because when the new servers launched not all the existing server populations where heavy, and the vast majority of guilds and players had already decided on a server or had it picked for them by the guild launch system BioWare had in place. Even if for some unforeseen reason the new servers capped out, it would be full of players new to the genre or new to following the game. Generally speaking, those are not the types of people that stick to a single game.

Speaking of sticking to the game, major systems were missing that help make an MMO sticky, and no, I don't believe open-world PvP makes a game sticky. However, progressive instanced PvP certainly helps players stick around. Couple the lack of that with a lackluster guild system and you have a recipe for a game that makes a great snack but not a good meal.

The craziest thing is that by the last earnings call SWTOR still had incredible subscription numbers -- despite what people might think, the 1.3 million subs did not include the free month. However, because people were settling into a routine with the game, less and less people logged in concurrently thus making the servers feel more and more empty, until those servers actually were empty.

Hyperspace Beacon: Layoffs
At the beginning of this week, everyone besides BioWare was talking about server merges. How are the developers going to do it? Should they do it? What will the publicity be like? What will it be like if they don't do it? We thought that would be the worst PR SWTOR could get. We were wrong.

The only thing worse than server merges for an MMO is layoffs. Nothing says the game isn't performing the way it should more than by cutting jobs. Granted, it's really nothing new in the industry -- even in MMOs -- to cut jobs shortly after launch. In fact, most business models plan on it. The employees are prepared for it, and have usually scoped out new opportunities by the time the cuts come. However, thanks to SWTOR's spokespeople like James Ohlen who told Gamastutra, "Unlike a lot of other game companies that, once they launch a game, downsize their teams radically, our plan is to keep the team together and continue to focus on building content," we didn't expect to follow the normal trend.

Although the layoffs were unexpected, the departments most affected were far from unusual. From my understanding, there were studio-wide layoffs. Most, if not all, departments were hit, but Q&A and server infrastructure teams were hit the hardest. I am definitely not downplaying anyone's layoff -- they all suck -- but these two teams have the most redundant employees at this stage in a game's development.

The community team was hit, too. Senior Online Community Manager Stephen Reid along with the lead of the creative team were cut. After the initial shock, this was understandable, too. Again, I didn't want either to lose their jobs, as both are incredible in their respective fields, but sometimes that's the way layoffs happen: from the top down.

Hyperspace Beacon: Server merges
A few paragraphs ago I said that server merges would be bad PR. Yeah, that happened, or at least Daniel Erickson more or less announced it on PC Gamer the next day. "We are coming up on a huge move to servers with massively higher population caps than we have today," Erickson said in the same breath that he mentioned that group-finder was not going to be cross-server. The only reason in my mind that this would happen would be because BioWare plans on merging the servers -- most likely onto mega-servers.

That said, sever mergers in this fashion will be good for SWTOR in the long run. I'm a huge believer in critical mass when it comes to MMOs. I would rather have to lower graphics quality a bit than have nearly empty servers. With critical mass, that means players will always be able to find someone to do something with. Granted, I'm on one of the high population servers now, but I have taken a trip to one of the lower population servers. When there are less than a handful of players on a starter world at any given time, then it takes the "massively" out of the MMO experience. Mega-servers will eliminate that possibility.

However, this does mean that we will have to give a few things up by converging, like character and guild names mostly. But in the end, that's a small price to pay for enjoyable gameplay.

This has been a terrible week for BioWare. We will never see one this massively disappointing again until (possibly) many years down the road when the developers turn the servers off. There is still a chance for the team to turn this week around to make something very positive out of it. Despite the numbers players see on the individual servers there are still a lot of people playing the game. It's still highly successful, and many other things are on the right track. I look forward to the future.

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to larry@massively.com. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!

This article was originally published on Massively.