We’re on the verge of a couple of major launches. The first, The Elder Scrolls Online will already have had its first early access players by the time you read this. The other, WildStar, is coming in just about two months. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to discuss MMO launches, and why, despite the bumps and kinks, it is one of the best times for establishing community.
I know what you’re thinking. If you’ve played more than one or two MMOs, you’re probably thinking I’m a little off it and feeling a mixed sense of dread and dashed hope. Flashbacks of queues, crashing, and rampant disconnections are likely dancing in your head. We’ve all been there and, even if it’s a game we speak of with utter fondness later, may have been cursing the studio or publisher and its policies during the time we were repeatedly hitting the “connect” button over and over.
Hours-long queues that people would get dropped from for whatever reason, then would keep getting sent to the back of the line upon reconnecting. Games that just made us wait endlessly, get in, just about get into a group, then lag us all out (several). There’s a ton of frustration attached to these launch memories for a lot of us.
Yet, we’re nothing if not persistent (some might call that never learning our lesson, but I disagree), and we know that ultimately, things get better. Maybe you have some launch rituals that ease the annoyances. Players do whatever they can, and those who stayed logged into FFXIV instead of waiting forever to get back in irked many with that ‘solution’. But we try.
Developers and publishers have also tried to come up with ways to make launches mechanically suck less. Things like overflow servers in Guild Wars 2, and which ESO will also be using, were a nice touch. They had their own sets of issues at launch, however, such as players grouped up but located in different overflows, preventing players from finding one another and playing together. ESO has had its share of pre-release criticism on the nature of its phasing, but here’s hoping that ESO’s overflows have taken these things into account and will let players play together.
So why is launch time, with all of the above frustrations, the best time to start? Well, the community starts to become established, and getting in early might be the way to establish yourself too if you’re looking to be say, a prominent crafter on your server. But it’s good for those of us who don’t seek serverwide glory too.
The feeling is just different starting at the very beginning than when you start later. It’s like the rope being dropped at the opening of Disney World (and no this metaphor has nothing to do with “themepark” games!). Everyone wants to rush in, see what everything is like, experience it all, and do what there is to do. Exploration was always a big deal for many, including myself, and now that everything seems to be all over the internet practically as soon as beta opens, some might argue that it has lost its luster. If developers honestly try, they can still make games worth exploring in, but the fact that communities rise up so quickly to plot the details of a game into resources is not new. The speed and availability are more recent. It’s a double edged sword, but if you can avoid the temptation to look and explore yourself, it seems less stale to do it earlier than months or a year down the line. Even with a lot of info online, there are still many people who will be coming to these games almost completely fresh.
Honestly, a game’s community tends to begin forming earlier, in beta, although there will be plenty of people that try and never continue beyond that phase, so what I’m saying definitely still applies. Even in recent years, where betas have tended toward eventual large groups of players testing the game in its pre-release stages and a major marketing tool. Some people whom I’ve met in betas are people I’m still in contact with. It’s a soft time, a time of change, and a time when many seem to be highly open and willing when it comes to grouping and exploring together.
Most of the time, a game’s population is also highest at launch, so that’s another plus in my book. With the grouping aspect I mentioned, the feeling of being wannabe pioneers in a brand new land, and the fact there are crowds at the same position as you are, these make games seem extremely alive. Start an MMO months or years down the line and there is a much higher chance of dead hubs or seeing only a handful of other people at or near your level, having some more trouble finding others for content (even with group finder tools), and a bunch of people running around on alts who probably think you’re an alt too and aren’t always as forthcoming. There are things we, as players, can do to be friendlier and more helpful toward others after time has passed post-launch, but it never quite captures that excitement.
This is a little bit of an exercise in nostalgia, but for me, despite all the potential for trouble that a launch brings, it also sets people off on somewhat equal footing, and that’s valuable. One hopes that the people streaming in on either virtual side will form a helpful, quality community. In many games, the seeds take root at launch and develop on the journey, and this is an investment of time that can really pay off. Being there at the very beginning is the best time of an MMO (with the release of expansions and major events that bring players back also capturing some of that feeling) and personally, I’m okay with putting up with a few bumps in the road that we’re all about to journey on together.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez