08/05/2012

How massive do you want your MMO to be anyway?

In case you haven't heard yet, The Old Republic's subscriptions are down by almost a quarter since EA's last earnings call. Obviously this isn't good news for anyone who wants to see the game succeed, though 1.3 million subs are still nothing to scoff at. In all honesty though, I kind of expected this drop-off to happen, even if I was hoping for Bioware's sake that it wouldn't. It's been quite obvious from the gaming media that SWTOR has become a victim of its own hype and that many people who bought into it ended up being disappointed and leaving the game. Those numbers were going to show sooner or later, and that's okay.

The thing is, it's still a great game for what it is, and the important thing for the devs to do right now is to keep making improvements and adding new content for the players who do like it. If people are having enough fun, they'll tell their friends. Just don't panic about winning back every single person who bought the game on launch and ended up unsubbing shortly after. I get that EA wants to have as many subscribers as possible, but you can't please all the people all the time - and honestly? My own game experience is actually better without people whining in general chat about how Bioware fails and how they are going back to WoW soon. 

On a related note, but not entirely the same subject, the official forums are awash with demands for server merges. Inquisitive Myths has some interesting numbers on how active some servers really are. Now, I understand that it is possible for a server's population to shrink enough that group activities stop being viable, but I do kind of wonder where that limit actually lies. (A future subject for Mythbusting perhaps?) In general I would think that SWTOR servers should actually be able to sustain themselves with a smaller population than those in many other MMOs, simply because standard groups generally only require four or eight people (sixteen is possible for operations but I think that's a bit of a niche thing considering that there's no benefit to it), where other games require larger numbers. I wonder how much of the "my server is dead" talk is really just perception.


I mean, what are your first thoughts when you see this screenshot? "My god, that server is dead"? Does it make it any better if I add that it was taken at roughly 5am CET, when all the night owls had finally gone to bed but the early risers weren't online yet? To me it was certainly a bit of a novelty to be the only person on the fleet, but I didn't find it disconcerting. Maybe it's an old-fashioned view to still think of my fellow players as people more than content, but it comes naturally to me to accept that people need to sleep sometimes. It's part of the natural rhythm of the world, both real and virtual. When I saw someone whine about how dead the game was just because they couldn't get a group for normal mode Taral V at 3am in the morning, I just thought that this was ridiculous.

Sometimes I also wonder whether Bioware haven't done themselves a disservice by putting that little population number in the top left corner of the screen in each zone. I mean, I appreciate it as a feedback tool, because it makes it easy to adjust my expectations for getting a response to requests or questions posted in general chat, but I get the impression that a lot of people simply look at it, see a single digit and immediately feel like the sky is falling. In another game, the zones might have exactly the same or even a lower population, but because it's not actively pointed out to the player and most don't bother with using the /who command all the time, they might never even notice. "I can't believe I'm the only person in Un'goro Crater right now, clearly WoW is dead!"

Maybe it's also because I have a lower "crowd threshold" than others due to being a bit of an introvert. Of course I want to see other people around in my MMO, but I don't necessarily need to have loads of them in one spot. Every now and then it's nice to have a big event that brings everyone together, but I don't need massive crowds in my everyday play. Being unable to click on the NPCs because there are so many other players in the way doesn't enhance my gaming experience. The Republic fleet on my server rarely sees more than fifty people online whenever I'm around, but to me this feels just fine. In fact, when I log over to an Empire alt and there's two to three times as many people on and general chat is buzzing with LFG requests, it actually makes me feel a bit overwhelmed.

All that said, I can absolutely see that there are certain thresholds where lower population becomes an issue. For example we pretty much never have more than two warzones running at once on Republic side, one for the low levels and one for the fifties. This means that if you're the ninth person in the queue you have to wait twenty to thirty minutes between matches even during prime time, and two or three people deciding to stop for the night immediately prevents any new games from popping at all, effectively grounding everyone else as well.

I do hope that Bioware will think of a good way of addressing these issues, though for now there are at least some stopgap measures that people can take to alleviate the situation themselves. To use my warzone example, no time like the present to get some guildies interested in PvP if you're just one or two people short for getting a game to pop...

9 comments :

  1. I fear the backlash in the court of public MMO opinion over an announcement like this; in all reality, 1.3 million subs for a 4 month old game (at the time of the financial call) is a pretty impressive feat. It's a little disheartening to see the drop, but I've adopted a little less gloomy attitude about it today. I think killing 5 servers by making them the dreaded "New Player" servers and shifting that population to others would be a good first step.

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    1. I think "the court of public MMO opinion" is already so negatively biased against SWTOR that it won't make much of a difference no matter what Bioware does. :P

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    2. Ain't that the truth. Most MMOs are now measured against WoW and compared - how is this fair? WoW's had 7 long years to develop stuff. There's just, quite simply, more stuff to do. TOR's been out for what? 6 months? It's not a fair comparison.

      Public opinion damned TOR as soon as it was announced. 1) It's not WoW. 2) EA is attached. That's pretty much game, set, match for some folks. It's sad. Why can't 2 MMOs thrive at the same time?

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  2. /shrug

    If I can figure out a way to come up with the money on a regular basis, I'd sub. I was impressed enough that I figured that TOR is worth my money, joining WoW as the only other MMO I'd actively pay to sub to.

    I'm not so sure how things will work out once I get into active zones, because my PC is aging quite a bit these days. Still, the game was very interesting and the ability to change the game with your choices is very exciting.

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    1. Well, if you played on Republic side, you'd probably be able to avoid the worst of the crowds. ;)

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  3. Arrrgh. That is a great post idea. Now off to go collect some more data. You're getting to be the inspiration for about half the content on my site...

    Anywho, I think large drop-offs in subs are just part of the MMO market these days, as players game-hop between titles as new content comes out. (Also a great post idea.)

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  4. Being pragmatic about it, I doubt public opinion cares in the slightest about MMO sub numbers. I'm sure that anyone that wants to try the Star Wars IP and is interested in MMOs will give it a whirl, and judge the gameplay experience for themselves.

    If you read blogs, maybe a narrowly defined "court of public opinion" made up of slightly hysterical self-appointed judges is anti-SWTOR, but not many people pay attention to that. The general review scores for SWTOR were pretty good, according to metacritic. I really count the fall in sub numbers itself will keep people out of the game. It'll only be a problem if they fall so low it really negatively affects the gameplay experience.

    As for "Public opinion damned TOR as soon as it was announced. 1) It's not WoW. 2) EA is attached. That's pretty much game, set, match for some folks.", there were squillions of internet postings that said TOR would be the second coming. I honestly don't think there was a groundswell of anti-TOR sentiment when it was announced. I think it had a fair go at the hype machine. Maybe even too much.

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  5. I think you're right about the population number widget not being the brightest move on the developers' part. For all the people (like me) who don't care, it's irrelevant, and the people who care are more likely to see it as "oh noes, there aren't enough people" no matter what it says, especially as (so far as I know) no other game has a similar widget, so there's no real comparison.

    The question of whether TOR is a success or not has another side to it. If it's considered a failure, how many people will never play MMOs again? TOR isn't perfect, but after playing a game with choices (some of which do actually matter to varying degrees) and voice acting, and class stories, I don't think I could go back to the previous style of MMO. I can't be the only person this is true of.

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  6. For people that like story (and this is a TOR blog!), try the new Walking Dead game from Telltale Games. It's a zombie story. so not everyone will love it. But it is very, very story driven.

    I agree with Depizan that TOR is an evolution of story, from my short time in it, and I also kinda think it was and is a success, at 1.3mio or 1.7mio subs. I think it HAS found a distinctive voice, and I just agree with Shinny's sentiments overall (that the cycle of hype and disappointment has been futile and counter-productive, and that 1.3mio subs *is* fine). And I find it interesting that we are now seeing more story games emerging.

    So I *don't* think we will see a future with only the old style of MMOs in it, or games. I wouldn't much want to go back to that either, I like narrative in my gameplay too!

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