Stop Expecting Smooth Day 1 Game Launches

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Why? The short answer is that you’ll be continually disappointed.

The long answer starts with four examples of companies who have each, in their own way, failed to smoothly launch their games: Blizzard with Diablo 3, EA with SimCity, Square Enix with FFXIV and now Rockstar with GTA Online (these are just immediately off the top of my head, but I’m sure I’m forgetting some). All of these games’ launches created massive user backlash, and all sorts of scrambling drama for the devs. It’s all too tiring to recount here, but I’m guessing you remember at least one of those.

At Game Front, we’re usually staunch consumer advocates, ready to call out anyone trying to rip you off. And when you can’t play a game on Day 1, it’s understandable to feel swindled. How is it that Rockstar, who made $1 billion in two days, can’t figure out how to get GTA Online to run smoothly? There are smart, creative people working there.

I’m starting to think we’re banging our collective heads against a wall that isn’t going to break anytime soon. Moreover, the wall may not have been built by bricks of developer or publisher incompetence, but rather an economic reality. In all likelihood, it doesn’t make economic sense for, say, Blizzard to buy enough servers to put a small country online, just for Day 1. For any online game launch, Day 1 is the most difficult.

For developers, the problem seems like it must come down to one of investment. How much do you invest in servers, and not just in the short term, but the long term? To use an analogy, in order to accommodate a horde of scampering hamsters, a tunnel must be built, which costs money. The size of the tunnel should be commensurate with the size of the hamster horde. But how many hamsters will there be? Let’s say you have some sort of ballpark. It’ll be about 10,000. You have two choices: A). Build a large, expensive tunnel big enough to allow 10,000 hamsters to flow freely, at any given time. B). Build a small, budget tunnel, one that will be clogged with hamsters for days, as they push through in anguish…until they don’t, several days later, when the traffic dies down. The large tunnel gains you hamster-happiness, and loses you money. The small tunnel saves you money, but causes hamster-anxiety for a few short days.


NOTE: this analogy was inspired by this Diablo 3 meme.


I’ll give you one guess as to which of these options most developers choose. And can you blame them? If you ran a business, and those were your only two options, which would you choose? How this decision is communicated to your customers is another matter entirely (more on that later).

What do developers have to say about this?
Usually they’re silent, but back in March we spoke with Cryptic’s Jack Emmert about the then-forthcoming launch of the MMO Neverwinter, and asked Emmert to chime in on online launches. In the words of a man who’s done this before, here’s what he said about building a hamster tunnel that’s too big:

“Inevitably, the population decreases over time, and you end up shutting down servers and merging them. That alienates players, and it gives you a bad taste in your mouth as a company.”

“As soon as you start shutting servers down, it’s a snowball, because there’s nothing more important in MMOs than the belief that there’s a future. It’s a persistent world. You’re committing your time into the game, and if you don’t see that there’s new stuff on the horizon, you’re not going to want to play anymore.”

If you’re looking for answer to the question “why can’t they just have enough servers at launch,” that’s one answer right there — over-compensating is a possibility, and shutting down servers post-launch presents its own problems for game developers. Not to mention, over-buying servers sounds expensive. Then what happens when you don’t need them anymore? You have to tear down your hamster tunnel, and you’ve wasted money.

So What the Hell do we Do?
Like I previously said, this doesn’t seem a problem that’s going to just vanish any time soon. It’s a messy collision between IT limitations, business realities, bad PR/community management and serious user backlash. Consumers aren’t necessarily powerless, but this won’t change without developers taking more active risk. Along both of those lines, here are some thoughts on how to move forward.

1. Someone start a 3rd party server company specializing in helping online games have smooth Day 1 launches. They’d focus on competitive server rental prices, and would be contracted for a number of days or weeks until the game is well on its feet. Developers shell out some cash for a smooth launch, the community notices, and a 3rd party company employing people takes a cut. Everyone wins.

2. Developers should try Jack Emmert’s idea of a “shardless” design, which they used for Neverwinter:

“One of the things that we do to avoid that is that we have a shardless design,” he replied. “We’re doing that instead of the typical MMO structure where a shard supports maybe 10,000 to 20,000 concurrent connected users, and you end up with five, seven, maybe 10 servers at launch. But what we have is a single server. Everybody is playing simultaneously in the same exact shard. How this is modular is that we can add or subtract CPUs on that shard to make it more robust, or to shrink it as demand changes. That way players are never inconvenienced about changing shards.”

Sounds like a step in the right direction, but it’s worth noting that even Neverwinter launched with some issues.

3. What about actually having digital versions of a game “sell out” for a while, when you’ve reached the number of preorders equal to your ability to serve those players smoothly on Day 1. This could even create a little buzz-building scarcity. Hey, it works for iPhones, PS4s and hard copies of games, doesn’t it? Square Enix kinda/sorta did this with FFXIV, but only after the game’s server woes kicked into high gear. It’d be nice to seem some experimentation on this with actual planning.

4. Consumers (and I think this is a big one), stop buying online games on Day 1. Whatever the actual release date of the game is, choose a date at least one week from that date, then buy the game. When you pay a developer $60 up front for a game that hasn’t even been tested yet, you’re sending a pretty big message about your willingness as a consumer.

5. Developers, stop acting like your game is going to work on Day 1. Be transparent with the community, admit you may have some problems, but be very communicative about what those problems are, and when solutions will be exacted. Rockstar took this road with GTA Online, outright admitting they wouldn’t have a smooth launch. That’s at least something and I applaud them for their candor. It helps that GTA Online is free, too.

6. Consumers, understand that just because you’re angry, and you passively expect a game to work on Day 1, it still may not. I don’t blame you for that, but instead I’d encourage you to refer to #4. Just vote with your wallet. Stop giving developers your money until you’ve given the game time to get on its feet, and you’ve verified it works. At some point, it isn’t just developer greed/incompetence causing you pain — you chose to spend money on a product that past precedent shows is very, very unlikely to work right at launch.

Once more, this article is in no way meant to belittle the anger or injustice you feel when a game doesn’t work right at launch. Rather, understand that merely expecting something to change (‘it’ll be different this time’) doesn’t mean it will. Additionally, understand there’s more going on here than outright greed and/or incompetence. These launch issues aren’t a fluke, and it’s an actual problem that’s probably here to stay for a while.

How you react to that is up to you, and unfortunately how much developers care is up to them. We can hope they get the messages we send (refund requests, not buying games on day 1, etc.) but passively expecting a change won’t work. Furthermore, you’ll just end up wasting a ton of anger and energy.

What do you think? We certainly don’t have all the answers, so we invite any ideas/suggestions you may have in the comments.


Follow Mark Burnham on Twitter: @MarkBurnham

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7 Comments on Stop Expecting Smooth Day 1 Game Launches

Derek

On October 4, 2013 at 6:30 pm

#3 key answer. If physical boxed copies were no longer available and it became acceptable practice to sell out of digital copies when capacity is reached, then many more game launches would be stable. Not to mention pre-ordering would become a far more common practice and only further allow game companies to prepare for their product launches.

If developers knew exactly how many customers would play during launch week, had a reasonable expectation of how many would still be playing a month later, along with other data such as platforms and systems specs, then launches would be much smoother. At least in the ill-preparedness category of bad game launches (think FFXIV:ARR).

fethski

On October 4, 2013 at 6:50 pm

A distinction has to be made between games like Diablo 3 and SimCity and games like FFIV and GTA Online. There is no reason for a Diablo or SimCity game not to be able to be played offline. Diablo 3 on the consoles can be played offline and once again EA is talking about making SimCity offline even though they swore up and down it couldn’t be done.

FFIV and other games that actually need an online requirement to play are always going to have day 1 launch issues. I don’t like it but, it’s the nature of the beast. And while I wasn’t able to play GTA online until tonight it still had a single player game that I could play without needing to log onto somebody’s server.

crasskris

On October 5, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Allowing digital copies to ‘sell out’ is a step into the right direction, but it is entirely the wrong step, at least when it comes to GTA V. Why would you stop customers throwing money at you when you have a single-player game to enjoy?

I think the analogy you should use is the beta test. Let a manageable portion of your player base enjoy online mode first, then phase in other players as demand in the first wave goes back. You can be cynical about this and include access as a pre-order bonus, or you can make it a reward for a completion achievement in single player, on a ‘first-come-first-served’-basis, thus rewarding your hardcore fans.
The second model would actually serve as a beta test (or gamma test), since the hardcore are the ones most likely to smoke out bugs before the unwashed masses arrive.

That being said, I have troubles buying the tunnel analogy. In the days of effortless virtualization and cloud services, tunnel size isn’t as set as devs might want to imply.
Also, #5 might also be used to counter Emmert’s experience: if you have a server gta_5_one, just name any server you expect to eventually merge with it gta_5_one_day1_overflow_1, gta_5_one_day1_overflow_2, and so on.
That way players will hardly see merging as a negative sign, but rather the result of careful and responsible planning.

Huntsman06

On October 5, 2013 at 9:24 pm

I think as consumers we should expect smooth game launches. Now I understand online features, sometimes servers explode and whatnot and when Battlefield 4 is out and online ready you can expect some down time.

My issue is with developers being lazy. Find an issue, no big can just patch it day 1 and only a few people will be able to play the game prior to the patch. Game comes out and what do you know? No patch! So you spent $60 to play a buggy game that won’t be fixed for days or even weeks.

What happened to the ambition of previous generations? Back in the day, Developers had once chance, that was it!

Now online updates are a wonderful thing as we see minor bugs and glitches be panned out over time, and I strongly agree that developers need to actually acknowledge an issue when it’s pointed out to them. Especially when it’s the kind of bug that a developer could spend years searching and not find, yet a consumer finds it the first 10 minutes.

And nothing annoys me more than getting an update and thinking “oh, maybe they finally fixed ” and they don’t. So I wait until a patch next month and I have the same thought, and again its not fixed. Also wish they would tell us (at least vaguely) what’s new so I don’t wonder what’s new. Because that’s another pet peeve, “I just waited 20 minutes and downloaded 300MBs of updates, and I see no difference in any way or form.”

D'oh!

On October 7, 2013 at 6:41 am

So, if something’s broken, we should just lower our expectations. Good plan.

Such a backwards way of thinking, this.

Mark Burnham

On October 7, 2013 at 9:58 am

@D’oh!

Just to clarify, the idea isn’t to just lower your expectations (the words “lower expectations” aren’t in the article), rather it’s to understand that unless consumers, or developers, or both change something, the problem isn’t going to go away.

meh

On October 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm

” Blizzard with Diablo 3, EA with SimCity, Square Enix with FFXIV and now Rockstar with GTA Online” – not even 3 sentences in and already a grievously consumer-unfriendly mistake. You don’t honestly think there isn’t a *tiny* difference whether you can’t play a *singleplayer* game at launch as opposed to an online multiplayer?

You’re talking about business. Well, what good is a business that doens’t deliver what it promises? If I pay 60$, I expect whatever I bought to be in prime condition, instantly. That includes getting to play a game on the day it launched.
The problem is one caused by greed and that’s exactly why they won’t limit the number of online copies.