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Enter at Your Own Rift: Rethinking server transfers

Karen Bryan

Last week's big RIFT news was that free server transfers were on the way with the next major game update. Players who have been stuck on lower population servers have been clamoring for the ability to join up with higher population servers, and now they'll finally have the ability to do just that.

But any time things like free transfers and server mergers are brought up, the immediate conclusion is that it's a sign that a game is losing players, and as a result, is failing. Free transfers are usually only seen as an act of desperation, and they usually come on the heels of drastic server mergers, as we've seen in games like Vanguard, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan. But if a game is believed (by the masses) to be doing OK, transfers are seen as a service that comes with a price, as in games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest II.

So how do we interpret the news of free weekly transfers in RIFT? Read on for a look at why it's actually great for the game and why they're more than just a shrewd marketing campaign.

Back in March, I had an opportunity to interview Trion CCO and RIFT Executive Producer Scott Hartsman at PAX East, and I actually asked him about the topic of servers. I came at the question with the commonly held philosophy that mergers equals bleeding subscribers equals bad. I was raised on the notion that you pick a game, you pick a server, and then you are married to both for years and years. A game had to have a community with a capital C, and everything had to revolve around that. So "tourists" and server mergers were bad because they undermined that very concept that I "grew up" with. I still remember the arguments on the EverQuest forums during the Great Merger of 2005, when players debated which server should keep its name over another. Players identified with their servers as much as they did with their friends and their guilds, and Sony Online Entertainment even put in the option for players to wear their server tag as an in-game title as a result. The dev posts that announced the mergers were solemn and apologetic and went out of their way to reassure players that this was a good thing in the long run.

But clearly, Scott Hartsman saw it much differently, and his answer reflects that. I asked him the following question: How do you walk the tightrope of having too few servers at launch, with really long queue times, to having too many servers months later, with the unfortunate prospect of having to merge? He responded as follows:

I think MMOs have gotten beyond the point where that is necessarily seen as unfortunate. I think there's too much focus placed on the number of people online at a time in a given world, and what we should really use to track the health of games is, "How many people are playing in a given month?" If you can make a game where enough people are playing in a given month, you're succeeding. So that's the goal for success. Once you define that as your goal for success, it becomes, "How do you best entertain them?" The way our architecture works, we can allocate more hardware to one shard over here and less hardware to another shard over there as needed. But as long as there are enough people around that the game is entertaining and the events are fun, we're pretty happy. If we do end up having to move servers around, chances are what we'd do is allocate more hardware to them and make even larger populations than they have right now. And bluntly, we might even do that in a success case, as we add more content over time. Again, I think we've matured enough to where so much of that can be considered fluid and people just understand that it's going to make their gameplay a better experience.
There's a tendency to think that games need to launch with a certain population and then steadily increase over time. Several of the most successful Western MMOs have been able to do it, including EverQuest, EVE Online and World of Warcraft. It's become the benchmark for success, and it seems to be harder and harder for new AAA MMO titles to achieve. But it's worth noting that WoW, EQ, and EVE all launched during a completely different time in internet history. The number of people who were online at all was much smaller than now, and of those, even fewer played online games. In 2004, the year WoW launched, Facebook was "thefacebook," open only to Harvard students. And the Google search tool was still two years away. Dial-up was still the most common way to access the internet, and no, there wasn't an "app for that" -- yet. So the audience for MMOs was pretty small, rather tech-savvy, and arguably predisposed to the charm of virtual worlds.

Not so today, and because of that, we might need to rethink how we measure the success of an MMO. Instead of comparing MMO launches to MMO launches of a bygone era, think of them a different way. Take the first few months of an MMO launch and compare that to a movie premiere. Initially, the film is shown on a peak number of screens to accommodate the buzz and the demand. Over time, the number of screens goes down. We wouldn't label Avatar a failure when the number of screens showing it starts to decrease, and perhaps we should view MMOs the same way. Today's MMO audience is much larger, but gamers aren't necessarily invested in one single title. Call them tourists, call them the console crowd, but you can't dismiss their approach and playstyle. RIFT had no choice but to open up dozens of servers to accommodate the initial rush -- imagine the queues if Trion had not. But the company recognized, even at the time of launch, that it would need to adjust accordingly later on.

You can chalk it up to a slick marketing move, but allowing free server transfers to select servers is good for the game and for the genre as a whole. Trion anticipated and had planned for this, arranging to devote more hardware to the higher population servers as needed. It's yet another example of how Trion has thought things through and improved upon past industry mistakes. It's also a trend that was inevitable: While adult games like WoW charge you for a server transfer, MMOs for younger players, like Free Realms and Wizard101, allow you to play on any server you want and even to switch servers instantly in game. Younger players are growing up on the notion that servers are just hardware and that you can still carve out a decent community within a broad, fluid, gaming population.

I think the big takeaway is that Trion is placing a heavy focus on month-to-month activity. We've seen plenty of examples of that already: world events, free weekends, free trials, and now free server transfers. And once again, the team is changing how we think about, and play, MMOs.

Whether they're keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan and Justin Olivetti save Telara on a weekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, their column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen and Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.

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