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

Since it’s so hard, it seems like there should be a company out there that specializes in providing additional server capacity to game companies to cope with launch loads, right?

“Those services exist,” said Emmert, “though they don’t cater specifically to gaming. The problem is that the cost is really high for cloud services. Usually, when you break it down, it’s much more cost-effective to just buy the machines yourself.”

Shardless designs obviously have a lot of advantages, and it seems like companies should be rushing to embrace the idea, no matter how hard it is. After all, if they can improve player experiences, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance?

“Right now, everyone’s just trying to get online. That’s Step One. Step two is ‘How can we make the online experience better?’ A lot of these games are traditional singleplayer products, and the idea of doing a client/server structure is brand new to them. There are just growing pains that take place there, and it’s going to take a little while for best practices to emerge.”

With all the fiscal and technological challenges that game companies are facing, it sounds like gamers might really have to resign themselves to an uncertain future of online launches, but Emmert isn’t so sure.

“I think that it really depends,” he said. “It’s a case-by-case basis. Companies that have a history of being able to develop tech are generally pretty reliable. I feel comfortable with, let’s say, Turbine launching an online game, whether it’s an MMO or another type of game. I’m pretty confident in Turbine’s ability to be able to create a stable experience from the beginning — maybe with some glitches — because they’ve done it before, right? They’ve done three or four MMOs, so they kind of know a lot of the catastrophes that can happen, and they can try to prepare for it a little bit better, and be ready for it.

“Typically when companies are doing something like this for the first time, that’s where there are a lot of growing pains. I think, as a customer, that’s how I look at it. By the same token, even if it’s a new company and a new game, I can take a look at the people behind it. Who’s running it? Who’s building it? Often, that will be a good indication of how they’re architecting something, and what they’ll be prepared for.”

With all the pitfalls and problems that online games are experiencing, it’s not surprising that there have been critics of the decision to take certain games online. The ire directed at Blizzard for making Diablo 3′s always-online requirement is a good example. But Emmert is a gamer too, and he doesn’t necessarily agree.

“I think ultimately it’s good. I think playing with other players is always a lot more fun than being by myself,” Emmert said. “I think it depends on the game too. Certain games work very well as single player experiences, because they’re story driven. If I’m playing with someone else, if I’m playing their storyline, maybe I’ve already played it and it lessens the impact — I’ve already seen this and done it. Or you’ve jumped ahead, and you’re seeing something before you should.

“So I think certain types of games have a more difficult time in multiplayer, but other games work terrific, like Sim City or Civilization — I think those are terrific opportunities to play with other people. Grand Theft Auto with its open world is a terrific opportunity — it’s not focused as heavily on a narrative. But I think the more story driven games have a barrier; an obstacle to go multiplayer.”

There is one thing inexperienced companies can do to help successfully launch an online game, Emmert said — find someone who has done it before. “Hire somebody who has,” he said. “It’s the number one most important thing that somebody should do. Get somebody with some experience.”

Emmert’s thoughts aren’t necessarily revolutionary, but they do shed some interesting light on the challenges that companies face as they try to bring an online game to market. However, while the struggles MMO companies face with servers are very real, that doesn’t necessarily give them a pass. While Cryptic’s shardless design doesn’t mitigate the financial issues inherent in the launch of a MMO, it put those issues where they belong — squarely on the shoulders of the company. The users don’t see the servers merge, because it’s a seamless process.

That’s a major positive step, and companies planning to launch MMOs in the future should certainly consider this as an option. Regardless of expense, it’s about improving the user experience — something that should be first and foremost, especially in today’s crowded MMO market. MMO companies would be well-served to invest in the shardless design, as it seems to be the best option currently available, or to look into creating a solution of their own.

In the case of games like GTA Online or Sim City, the issues and challenges are very different. Players don’t necessarily return the the same server every day, so there’s no continuous community building. So why are gamers forced to wait a week to be able to play their games online? Obviously, it’s a financial decision.

Perhaps instead of trying to maintain all the servers for a game like GTA Online thenselves, companies should look into allowing players to rent their own servers, much like DICE has done with the Battlefield series. Rather than spend all the time and money that managing servers requires, maybe it’s time for these companies to look to a third party to shoulder that load.

Regardless of what solution they choose, if non-MMO companies want to continue to transition to a future of always-online games, it’s incumbent upon them to provide adequate server capacity to handle the number of people who buy the game. Occasional downtime is expected in MMOs, and people are used to that. What they aren’t used to is the inability to play their more traditional games at all because of server issues. Having to wait a week to play the single player portion of a game that you paid for because it has a non-working online component is not only infuriating, it’s completely unacceptable.

With the vast majority of games incorporating some sort of online component, this isn’t an issue that’s going away. If companies don’t find a way to address it soon, it could have some serious effects on day one sales going forward.

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