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Avoiding the Launch Day Blues

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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If you’ve played an MMO on launch day, you’ve probably experienced a range of horrors. Login servers that crumble in front of an onslaught of eager gamers. Realms or shards that are listed as full, with massive queues before you can join them. Crowds of players that swamp a zone, making it a struggle to kill mobs and complete quests. We all have our horror stories to share.

Luckily, recent MMO launches have been getting better. Developers have watched and learned from earlier catastrophes, and we’ve been clearer about the level of service we expect. When a group started discussing their WildStar launch wish-lists on Reddit, Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney responded with details on what Carbine Studios is planning.

A Flexible Foundation

Back in April, David Ray, Carbine’s Lead Database and Network Engineer, provided a high level overview of WildStar’s server architecture. He described how a number of processes or daemons work together to provide some of the back-end capabilities, from instanced content to entire regions. The key watchword was flexibility – being able to scale hardware in order to meet player demand.

I’m personally hoping that this flexibility will eliminate two of my own launch bugbears: huge queues and full servers. Instead of spinning up a new WildStar realm, hardware can be used to bolster existing ones. Ray is even hoping to eliminate pesky database bottlenecks if they occur, meaning that login delays, loot and inventory lag should be a thing of the past.

In terms of actually getting servers installed, Gaffney has plans to help ensure that there’s enough room for everyone, using preorder numbers to help gauge demand. “That's basically our plan in terms of server backups, though if things truly take off it's tough to judge sometimes.” He’s also looking at a number of additional options to ease that initial server rush, including letting players reserve character names.

Getting that demand right is crucial; modern MMO servers are custom-built, with a couple of months between placing the order and getting the hardware shipped. He also admitted that it would have been easier for the team if Guild Wars 2 had been less successful. “We designed the hardware setup years ago to use any of their unused hardware, since usually games spike and drop for peak concurrency. However their servers are all still generally utilized because the game has remained popular, [which is] cool for us as a profitable company, but no free hardware for our servers.”

Handling the Zerg

With hardware installed and players flooding in, Carbine’s next challenge is to make sure that the in-game experience holds up. There’s nothing worse than seeing a queue of players, all waiting to kill a named mob. Or trying to kill ten rats, only to be beaten to the punch by a mass of other players. The good news is that these problems shouldn’t affect WildStar, as open mob tagging is now in the game.

Mobs still need to be alive and wandering around so that we can tag them, kill them and get our rewards, which is why WildStar will also have flexible respawn timers. This isn’t a new concept, but it should mean that we don’t see a lifeless desert of boar carcasses when we’re trying to quest.

Carbine is also making sure that that players don’t feel crowded early on. The first few zones up to level six, such as Northern Wilds and Crimson Isles, are capped at around 20 to 50 players. Beyond that you’re in open world, with no instance caps in place. But it doesn’t mean that Gaffney hasn’t considered it. “In a pinch of massive overload we could also instance those zones, because the server architecture is designed quite flexibly. However, in my opinion that's not a great user experience, so we'll avoid it except as a backup.”

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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.