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Alter-Ego: What's in a name?

While it is incredibly tempting to go off on a tear about the major decision announced this week to reboot the entire DC Comics universe, starting 52 new comics at issue #1 and essentially retconning every hero and villain we've known to date, this week's column isn't about that. After all, this isn't a comics site, and we've already heard from the DC Universe Online developers that the continuity in the game is separate from that of the overall DC Universe. (Considering how much we heard that noted in the recent chats, we wonder whether Sony Online Entertainment didn't know this major shake-up was on the way.) As such, I suspect we will see the game's storyline remain essentially intact, at least until the point at which we finally take down Brainiac once and for all. After that, it's anyone's guess. Depending on how the reboot works, it might well shake up the game's direction if the new comics are doing well with readers.

No, instead our superpowered game is getting its own different version of a restart in the promised upcoming MegaServer merges. While before we had multiple servers, each side will now have two -- one PvP and PvE for both PC and PS3 players -- giving us a total of four. Over this mad-scientist server-mashup, the issue of collisions looms. This week, we also found out that the merges will not only affect player names but league names as well, ensuring that there is plenty of confusion and concern on the part of the playerbase.

Will MegaServers be the bane or balm of DC Universe Online's population issues? What precisely are the facts and fallacies? Whom will this affect? Join me behind the break as I take a look at the overall situation!

What's the point of the MegaServers?

As anyone who has actually played DC Universe Online in the last few months can tell you, trying to find people to play with can be a royal pain in the butt. Now, if you find yourself on one of the more populated servers, happen to play during prime time, and are in a well-connected and populated league, this is quite possibly something you haven't even noticed. That's why I've repeatedly said here that leagues are important and why I've recommended that you locate a league that meshes well with your preferred playtime.

Speaking from my own personal research as both hero and villain across multiple servers and playing at off-peak times, I can tell you that it can be hours before you run into anyone in the open world -- if it happens at all. Judging from what I've heard from other DCUO players, I know I'm not alone. Peak times on lower-populated servers can be just as quiet, leaving players to queue for a very long time to get into a group instance.

If you happen to be running any of the sub-30 content, you're in for a serious exercise in frustration in terms of finding groups, since most of the playerbase these days is focused on the endgame gear grind so common to MMOs. Try running sub-30 content on a low-pop server, without a league, at off-peak times, and you'll begin to understand why the merge is so desperately needed. It is almost completely pointless to even join the queue under those circumstances, as you'll probably have to go before a group ever pops for you.

Been there, done that, wouldn't wish it on anyone. There's something kind of sad about logging into an MMO and seeing quite a few people standing around but not being able to find anyone to play with as you level up. (Those moments are the times I desperately miss the sidekick/exemplar system in City of Heroes.)

The naming conundrum

For some, being required to change a character's name really means nothing. However, if you're an MMO fiend who has taken a character concept from City of Heroes to Champions Online and then to DC Universe Online, a specific name can mean a great deal. This is one of those really tough situations Sony Online Entertainment has managed to put itself into through by creating MegaServers after launch as opposed to designing the system beforehand. Now as to whether or not the devs didn't look around first, or whether they simply dismissed the idea of using instanced zones on a single server as a way of combatting overpopulation, I can't tell you. For whatever reason, they opted to split everything into multiple servers (even adding more at launch rather than letting things die down a bit before deciding), thereby ensuring that the game's population was too spread out once the usual first-month-only players left.

For those not familiar with the way this mechanic will work, let me give you an overview. Say we have five people named "Hurricane" playing on the PC side. Hurricane #1 and #2 started with the free 30 days and decided the game just wasn't their cup of tea. Hurricane #3 is the typical "five-to-eight hours" casual player that Chris Cao said the team was envisioning when it created the game. Hurricane #4 is a roleplayer who spends maybe 15-20 hours a week logged in, with that time dwindling as of late because there simply aren't nearly as many people around to RP with. Hurricane #5 is a hardcore raider who has spent gobs of time grinding gear and is often found idling online waiting for anything to pop.

By SOE's rules, Hurricane #5 automatically gets the name, Hurricane #3 and #4 are kicked back to find new names, and Hurricane #1 and #2 (who may or may not ever come back) find all their character names on their accounts are released due to their being inactive (not just the names that collide). On the surface, this may seem like the fair thing to do, but the rabbit hole goes a wee bit deeper.

The problem really is this: When you creates a character concept -- especially one for a superhero or supervillain -- the name is a very intrinsic part of that persona. Batman wouldn't be nearly as awesome if he were "Batguy" or the even more ambiguously silly "Winged Night Rodent Dude." The choice of a name is a very conscious part of the wow factor, the pow, the zing that makes the character who and what he (or she) is. When it comes to roleplayers especially, those names are very much a part of the backstory, the genesis of the character, and taking it away from them essentially means they have to scrap all the playtime they've put in creating these detailed personae, motivations, flaws, etc. Unlike the raider, whose time has been focused on amassing gear, they've instead opted to use their time to amass something less tangible but no less important to them as a player: a certain level of that character as a living, breathing denizen of the DC Universe.

Now, taking the overall statement from SOE that only 5% of the current game's population will be impacted by the impending collisions, let's do some math. We'll be generous and assume that DCUO is holding onto 500k subscriptions across both PS3 and PC, all servers combined. If that's the case, you're looking at 25,000 subscribers who will lose their names of choice. Even at 100k subscribers, that's still 5,000 subscribers impacted. Of those, how many will be willing to stick around when there are still other issues such as bugs, graphical glitches, and the rest on top of losing the names they chose for their characters' concepts? If there's a mass exodus over this naming policy, SOE could be looking at a loss of $75,000 per month on the low end, factoring in a loss of only a scant 5,000 angry ex-subscribers.

I have a very hard time believing that this makes fiscal sense to anyone.

Add in the word from Deadmeat that leagues will similarly be impacted, with the caveat that the number of active subs in the league will be the first consideration, followed by active time played by members in the event of a tie, and the cycle starts again. We have the potential for many name clashes, and many leagues will likely be unhappy to cede league name ownership after putting time into promoting a particular league name, creating websites, and developing a reputation. While leagues might have more wiggle-room on renaming than personal character names, you still run the risk of disenfranchising portions of the playerbase -- another financially risky option.

So what can be done?

While I am not a developer, I'd say it's time to look around and see what others are doing before jumping off the cliff. Sadly, SOE doesn't have the luxury of time to research this, as the server populations seem to be dropping off again and we need the MegaServers sooner rather than later. Global handles are the most obvious option that would allow players to retain their names, and they have the added benefit of letting players smack down account-level ignores against other players they absolutely can't stand. Players have tendered many other ideas on the 58+ page thread about MegaServers on the PC forums and 11+ pages on the PS3 side, as name collisions appear to be a big deal on both sides.

As it stands, the current planned policy may well hurt the game more than it helps. Personally, as one of those people who has carried a character name and concept from CoH to CO and now to DCUO, I would hate to lose my name. (With that said, I've yet to find a game where that character name is taken, so I'd note that I'm very unlikely to lose it.) Nonetheless, my hope is that the DCUO team can find some acceptable way to allow players to keep the names -- and thereby the character concepts -- that are important to them.

Every week on Saturday, strip off the mask of your Alter-Ego and soar through the world of DC Universe Online with Krystalle, then catch up with Larry on Wednesdays as he showcases the superhero game on the Alter-Ego livestream. Send up a bat-signal to ping Krystalle or Larry with your burning questions. (Packages wrapped in green with a purple bow will be returned unopened.)

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