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Star Wars: The Old Republic Column: Community Conundrum

By Michael Bitton on May 16, 2012

Subscribers left on lightly populated servers have been clamoring about free server transfers on the official Star Wars: The Old Republic forums for some time now and BioWare is prepared to deliver, but is that really enough?

When I first started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, I received a lot of pressure from friends and guildmates alike to roll our characters on a less populated server. They complained of the massive queues, of course, but I reassured them that it’s better to play on these super populated servers because even as optimistic as one can be – queues are almost always temporary. Players who can’t deal with the queues will pick another server and the game will undoubtedly experience attrition in just about all cases. Sure, you might still run into a queue on some of WoW’s most popular servers, but they aren’t necessarily commonplace. In the end, things settle, and the launch craze passes.

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EA Mythic made the grave mistake of opening too many servers too quickly in order to deal with player demand at launch with Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and from communications coming out of BioWare during SWTOR’s Early Access I got the notion that the team were painfully aware of this history. The team appeared to be approaching the opening of new servers pretty carefully to avoid the same issue. Unfortunately, something fell apart somewhere and BioWare ended up putting out too many servers to spread out the population.

Even at the height of the game’s popularity in that first month, there were actually servers reporting Light loads on a frequent basis. Servers that barely went over Standard load were definitely going to feel the natural attrition more so than the more heavily populated servers and needless to say, I was a bit concerned. Fortunately, I chose one of the more populated servers for my group, but no one likes to see the sort of dismal reports we’re seeing coming out of some of these super lightly populated servers and I don’t really feel transfers alone adequately handle the issue.

Server transfers will give players looking to find more populated servers the ability to do so, but basically break up what’s left of that server’s community. Mergers help consolidate the playerbase and preserve the individual server communities at the same time. Assuming all the players stuck on light servers move on to more populated servers, there will still be tons of servers that are basically just ghost towns with the lights left on. Of course, transfers don’t generate the same sort of controversy in the games media as dramatic server closures do, so it comes as no surprise to me that BioWare seems to be avoiding merging servers for the moment.

I still think it would be the right thing to do. But there may be a more ideal solution.

Ideally, allowing all players to transfer from server to server free of charge on a rolling basis as Trion did with RIFT would’ve been the smartest choice. Trion doesn’t have to worry about bad PR coming from the announcement of transfers or mergers because transfers weren’t treated as a taboo feature to begin with. Trion got out ahead of the inevitable issue and made transfers a basic account feature. Now, as the populations of individual server communities ebb and flow due to all manner of reasons, players can (and do!) organically move around the larger game community and there is a general sense of equilibrium achieved. 

I feel BioWare should take a page from Trion’s playbook here and be better late than never by allowing for transfers in the same way RIFT does while merging the lowest population servers together to consolidate the server list into a more reasonable array that better represents the game’s now settling population numbers. The latter isn’t likely to happen, and BioWare can no longer really get ahead of this issue, but they can create a more balanced game community going forward by allowing free rolling transfers.

Whatever BioWare does, they should do something soon. Even the most loyal subscribers are going to get bored pretty quickly playing on dead servers and with many new games either released or on the horizon looking to grab our collective attention it’ll be that much more tempting to jump ship if action isn’t taken soon.

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