Thursday, September 24, 2009

NCSoft's worry over server consolidations hamstrings Aion

I had been looking forward to Aion for awhile now since I heard a lot of good reviews from people who participated in the beta tests. The combat looked similar to World of Warcraft with a couple of additions like "combo chains" to make things a bit more interesting. Also the mobs and artwork looked unique and different from the standard fantasy fare I've gotten used to seeing. Playing through one of the starting zones I saw a couple monsters that resembled nothing like I've seen in a MMO before. There was this one mob that looked like it was produced by a kangaroo and a giant guinea pig getting it on. Aion may only bring a few new features to the MMO world, but the art assets alone make it worthwhile to try out. They have a race of hamster men for god's sake.

That's why it’s such a shame that I'm having a difficult time logging into the Aion servers. After finally getting everything patched I was surprised to see such a small number of servers available. Only about twelve servers were online and they were evenly split between west and east coast. That wouldn't be so bad except all the servers in my region had queue times over an hour. I realize that new MMOs are never issue free, but putting an hour wait in front of someone who just bought a game is a bad idea. The specter of Tabula Rasa may be influencing NCSoft in this matter since that game suffered from severe server consolidation quite early on in its lifetime.

Tabula Rasa seems to have left a lasting bad taste in NCSoft's mouth even though it wasn't that bad of a game. I had fun playing my chain-gun wielding space marine even though parts of the game were poorly designed for an MMO. This became particularly obvious at the end game and a lot of people left after reaching max level. Judging by the amount of servers Tabula Rasa went from around 80k players during its first month to about 15-25k players soon after. Still there was a large niche of players who really like the mix of FPS and RPG elements and probably could have supported the game financially. Unfortunately, NCSoft is not a fan of niche games and there was also the matter of legal disputes with the game's creator.

The experience with Tabula Rasa seems to be making NCSoft overly cautious about adding servers to Aion during its first week of release. Kotaku has an interview up with some of the Aion managers who remark that this strategy is for the long term health of the game. Everyone remembers how bad the server populations crashed with Warhammer and Age of Conan last year and NCSoft would like to avoid the same fate with Aion. Their logic seems to be that news of server consolidations creates a very bad image and causes players to avoid a game. Thus, NCSoft would rather deal with pissed off customers who want to play then players avoiding Aion because of server consolidations.

I admit throwing numerous new servers into a game is usually a bad idea and can cause server consolidations further down the line. However, using this as an excuse to justify multi-hour queues is just a bad idea. Even hinting that you might be worried about server consolidations implies a lack of trust in your MMO to keep people entertained at the end game. Both Warhammer and Age of Conan had problems with their end games though for different reasons. One was poorly thought out and the other suffered from horrible bugs. Aion however has been out in Korea for quite awhile and shouldn't suffer from any of these problems. The code should be well tested and the end game should be fully developed.

The fact that NCSoft is moving so slowly with server rollouts makes me realize they just don't understand the reasons for the massive server consolidations that plague several MMOs last year. Worse is that they might be under the mistaken impression that it's just World of Warcraft's dominance in the West that causes this initial surge of interest in new MMOs. While WoW's long standing kickassery in the subscriber department has played a role in the matter, it doesn't dictate that every MMO will lose massive numbers after the first month. Thinking that this trend is unavoidable and being stingy with initial servers is just going to backfire and cause customer resentment. I'm crossing my fingers that this nonsense ends soon. I'm starting to get tired of logging onto west coast servers when I get home just because every east coast server has an hour long queue.


TV by the Numbers said...

As you noted, it's the Eastern servers that are jammed, the Pacific servers aren't.

It's not clear how much of the overcrowding would have been helped had all the NA servers been on the same schedule, but certainly some.

And it's hard to know exactly what the fortress times really mean to the end game play, but it's certainly screwing up the early game.

Scott said...

but the art assets alone make it worthwhile to try out

When they have a trial, then it might be worth my while. Otherwise I'm not spending $50 and handing NCSoft my billing info for the same game I've been playing for 10 years only with different textures. I guess I'm past that now, when I just see 3D model hitboxes standing still next to each other in a hotbar-clicking battle of attrition.

Tabula Rasa? Nah. If anything I'd guess NCSoft has perhaps been paying attention to the market for the past 2+ years where most AAA MMOs are slammed for the first month then 80% of players leave and go back to their real game. Why add new servers like WAR did only to have to get rid of them later?

Relmstein said...

But the major reason other games have suffered from server consolidations have been because of poorly tested or thought out end games. LOTR Didn't really suffer the same fate as WAR or AoC because the gameplay remained strong throughout the different parts of the game. Aion has been out for awhile in Korea and hopefully has strong content throughout the game. Your right about the combat mirroring other games, but I like the unique creatures in the game enough that I consider the game worthwhile at the moment.

Love your site. The Kotaku interview I ran into seemed to hint at some chanes to the server pool this weekend. I'm hoping addtional servers and some rebalancing between east and west coast servers.

Trevel said...

Tried the beta. A few interesting ideas (I liked the reference links in the quest texts), a few horrible ones that are inconceivable on a game that's actually been out for over a year. (Teaming for a quest means completing the quest and killing the boss mob once for every member of the team.)

When the second "beta" weekend hit, I realized I was groaning inwardly at "having" to play the game during it. So I canceled my pre-order and have been happy ever since.

Also I got to remove the !$!@ malware GameGuard from my system, which is always a plus.

While I'm ranting: You know how games or classes reach level 20 or something and completely change how the game is played? I hate that. I don't want to put hours into playing a class only to discover at the end that I actually hate how it "turns out" to be played.

Why even have the first 20 levels?

Green Armadillo said...

I'm with Scott on this one. Aion's nominal endgame is PVP. As Warhammer showed, PVP is only possible when there are other players around to PVP against. By contrast, LOTRO players seem to be far more likely to never have reached the level cap, playing solo or in small groups - that playstyle is not affected as much by population density.

(Also, note that Turbine stuck to its guns and declined to add any servers during its launch week - which didn't actually have huge queues in any case.)

I have no idea whether Aion has enough servers or not, but you cannot make that judgement call based on the opening day. From what I've heard, Aion starts all of its players in one of two zones, so literally EVERYONE logged into the server is stuck in those zones until level 10. Compared to WoW, Warhammer, LOTRO, EQ2, etc, that's very few options, which necessitates an unusually low server cap until some of the players can level out of that bracket.

jeff said...

Once we figured out the queue on Zikel was not going away soon, our guild swapped servers to a west coast one and haven't had a queue yet.

"It's not clear how much of the overcrowding would have been helped had all the NA servers been on the same schedule, but certainly some."

That would have helped a lot. Heck - set the sched to be exactly 1-1/2hrs from either coast. Someone would still whine, but it would have alleviated the headaches and debates when trying to set an entire guild up on a server.

"Teaming for a quest means completing the quest and killing the boss mob once for every member of the team."

Haven't found that to be true. We killed the boss before the ascension quest and all 3 in my group got credit. Same with any quest boss' weve had to kill. You do have to be within a certain radius of the monster though or you wont get credit.

But some of the quest mechanics are poorly done. For instance killing bears for that 'special patch of skin', where only 1 drops from each bear so you have to kill X times as many bears per party member. Stupid.

"Aion starts all of its players in one of two zones, so literally EVERYONE logged into the server is stuck in those zones until level 10"

That really explains a lot. I am hoping also, that as the first 10 levels are meaningless, they will allow you to skip that one day in the near future once you have an ascended character.