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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: Server Stability Blues

Each Friday, the former Director of Community Relations for Mythic Entertainment pens this column that focuses on some under-served MMO story. In her debut, she tells us the Server Stability Blues.

A short time ago, I was playing my favorite MMO, and there were… issues. My server is somewhat overcrowded compared to some of the other servers in the list, and it shows. We periodically froze in place. In the north part of the zone, melee simply didn’t land and the monsters got the icon for “hey, I can’t hit you.” At least, until you got out of range and got hit with the critter’s ranged attacks, which meant that anyone of the melee classes simply couldn’t play. All was fine in the southern end of the zone, until the entire server wobbled and dumped a third of the players.

OOC was, predictably and understandably, filled with frustration.

Then came one particular outburst. “(Insert game developer) doesn’t *care* about server stability!”

Oh, god. Someone found the stupid dial on my server and jacked it to eleven.

Server stability is sometimes the only thing a game developer cares about. The difference between a big game company and a small game company is that the tech department head at the big company isn’t getting his rear end out of bed at 2 AM when things fall down go boom. He snorts in his sleep, having felt the disturbance in the force, and falls back into slumber knowing the newbie is the one blearily making his way to the colo.

At a small company, the department head is the whole department.

Either way, the entire job of some poor schmo is to get up and get the servers back up, regardless of weather, time, or degree of success being had with the only girl from miniatures gaming night at the hobby shop.

So why might there be persistent issues with server stability, despite it being the top and possibly only priority of the game studio?

  • The server is at the top of the list of options, alphabetically. No matter how many gentle suggestions appear in the announcement box for new players to please for the love of god choose Zifferelle as their new home, new players wind up picking Abericious. In this scenario, Abericious and Berisia are the only unstable servers. There is no way to fix it besides mandatory server transfers.
  • The server has a recognizable name. LOTRO’s first two servers are “Arkenstone” and “Brandywine.” Guess which one is overloaded. Hint: It’s the one recognized by the most casual of Tolkein fans.
  • The last patch put in a highly desirable feature, one that measurably increased sales. A feature cited by market research groups as THE reason to resubscribe, or extend a subscription, or recommend the game to a friend. In testing, all was well. In release, not so much. Either the test server didn’t simulate the load well enough, or the problems didn’t build up enough to be noticeable for ninety days – sixty days longer than the new feature sat on the test server. Whatever the problem, the studio is now between a rock and a hard place. Remove the feature and lose money, or fail to fix the problem and lose money. Most people choose to work frantically on fixing the problem, but are hesitant to promise when the issue would be fixed… because if it were an easy fix, the players would never have noticed the problem at all.
  • The game might be more than a few years old, on its tenth group of server programmers. The resulting layers of code would take a genius with infinite free time to puzzle out. If the game is old enough, the server programmers are the youngest, greenest, newest hires not considered experienced enough to work on the unannounced Future of Gaming product. So the person least able to deal with the legacy is the one who has to try. This would seem to contradict my assertion that server stability is all the company cares about, but it truly doesn’t. In this scenario, the server programmer is one of the only people left on the team at all.

MMO development is a lot like a duck swimming. Players see the calm, peaceful duck skimming along the water, sucking up giant amounts of subscription money kelp. We don’t see the frantically paddling feet trying to keep the whole thing afloat. So, when your server wobbles, be angry. Be frustrated. And raise hell if there’s no acknowledgement of the problem on the official communication channels within an hour. But don’t, DON’T prove your ignorance of the industry by claiming that the company doesn’t care.

Next week, I’ve got some discussion with an actual server professional to share with you. Tune in then!

Sanya Weathers / I''ve been complaining about video games for fifteen years. Fifteen years, people. In internet years, I''m not just old, I''m DEAD.

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