Jack Emmert on Day One Server Struggles, Online Games, and More

Image credit to Forbes.com

It’s getting to the point where it seems as though we’ll never see a smooth launch of an online game.

Diablo 3 was plagued with errors, Sim City servers couldn’t handle the load, and Grand Theft Auto Online was nigh-on unplayable the first few days. At this point it’s beginning to feel like a small miracle if even DLC downloads without issue, and as our Mark Burnham wrote, maybe that’s just the facts of the gaming age we live in. For some perspective, we spoke to Cryptic Studios CEO Jack Emmert, a veteran of a number of online games, including City of Heroes, Star Trek Online and Neverwinter.

From Emmert’s point of view, launching online games might be a no-win situation.

One of the big problems that companies encounter is that the number of players trying to play concurrently is typically much higher immediately after launch than it is at any other time in a game’s lifespan. This leads to situation in which, if a company allots enough servers for the launch demand, it ends up with underpopulated servers a couple of weeks later. Conversely, if it allots servers for what it thinks the long-term demand will be, the result is a crush of players, long server queues, and the inability for everyone to play at launch.

“That’s exactly what everybody does,” Emmert said. “Even with my shardless design, I still have to buy the physical PCs that power it, and I still need more at launch than I do later. That’s just inevitable. There’s a calculus to it, to be able to sit down and say, ‘What’s your launch window look like? What’s your expected tail?’ because those machines will free up after launch. Obviously, when you’re part of a big MMO company like Perfect World, we always need machines for some product, right? After Neverwinter launches, there will be other upcoming launches of other Perfect World products, and they can use the same computers. But other companies are in different situations, and so they essentially would be buying a bunch of machines that ultimately they won’t need within a couple of months.”

While the obvious answer to this concern is to simply buy more servers, for some companies it isn’t always that simple. I mean, it works out for Cryptic because they can repurpose those servers to other games within the Perfect World family. But lots of companies don’t have those advantages. It can be more challenging when you’re a lone company that doesn’t have multiple games, since servers can quickly become obsolete, and you don’t have extra funds lying around for all those excess machines. “Usually any PC or console game is at least a two-year hike, and technology is changing pretty darn quick,” said Emmert.

As Emmert mentioned above, Cryptic’s latest MMO, Neverwinter, uses a shardless design. What’s that? Well, it basically means that everyone is playing in one server, albeit with some instancing going on. Rather than using separate machines to build discrete servers, multiple machines are grouped together to power a single, large server. In short, it means you can’t end up on a different server from your friends. This has a lot of advantages, said Emmert.

“The advantage of shardless is that you’re not shutting down servers and destroying communities. The advantage of shardless is that everybody is online all the time. You’re instancing maps, sure, but you’re always there with your friends. You’re never stuck in a situation where a buddy of yours is on one server and you’re on the other. It still has the same basic issue of needing to have X amount of hardware at launch, and you only need X minus Y hardware six months after launch.

“I think from a business perspective it’s just as challenging as a typical shard design. But for the player’s experience, I think it’s much better, because that way if we don’t need as many servers, we just take those down. But when that happens, you as a player don’t notice any difference whatsoever. It’s still the same community and the same people you’re playing with. I think that more people will embrace it (shardless).”

So why isn’t everyone using this design? One big reason, Emmert said, is that it’s not easy.

“It’s hard. It’s just really hard,” he said. “It’s not a simple thing. It’s much easier to build shards that support 10,000 CCU (concurrent connected users) and just have 10 of them for launch. It’s a lot more difficult to create a situation with a single shard, especially in a game with tons of maps and tons of entities. It’s a challenge. It’s not a simple thing.”

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