It's late here on the East Coast. Normally, I'd be writing this column after a good night's sleep but I'm sitting and waiting for another round of maintenance being done on the Star Trek Online servers during its Open Beta. It's a game that I've personally be enjoying. It's not perfect, and probably won't be at launch but for my gaming dollars, I'm going to play it. The maintenance being done is a good thing, and a natural part of the beta process. Closed or Open, it's all still testing.
Sitting here impatiently as I am though, I've been thinking about how stressful it must be to be nearing the launch of an MMO, and how much more stressful it must be to be launching an MMO that's attached to one of the biggest science fiction franchises in history.
I single out IP MMOs because of the much wider audience that they are trying to attract than your average MMO. Your average, run of the mill MMO is looking at trying to bring in and possibly even nab a portion of the pre-existing MMO player base. These are going to be people that are familiar with MMOs. They're going to be familiar with all of the hiccups and idiosyncrasies that come with an MMO launch.
Let's take launch day, for example. Seasoned MMO players generally accept the fact that on launch day, the login servers are going to be overloaded, and there are probably going to be issues throughout the day as last minute bugs get ironed out and the playing public starts to spread itself out across the game world. Sure, we go on forums and gripe about it. We may even curse the names of developers and make posts that say: "Why can't these people learn from every other MMO that's ever launched and do it right for a change." But in the end, we are generally comfortable with the idea that bugs and launch day foibles happen and we, as fans, are willing to overlook it... At least for the most part.
As I'm sure that many of you out there are aware, frustration can and will mean the difference between a long term subscriber and someone who just bought a $60 shiny box for their games shelf.
Let's say, for example, that launch day rolls around for Star Trek Online and a long time Trek fan but first time MMOer picks up his box at the local Gamestop. He gets home, installs the game, all ready to play. Then suddenly he's confronted with "The Patch." It's another MMO convention we're all familiar with. You get a game, you install and you wait somewhere between ten minutes to an hour or more before you can actually play the game. Right there, is going to be strike one from a newbie. It might get their hackles up a little bit, but there's a progress bar and everything so they're going to know it's coming eventually.
Now is where if I was working at a studio with a major IP, I'd be biting my nails, because it's what happens after that patch finishes that's going to determine whether that initial patch frustration carries over or is forgotten. If the game is unstable, and this guy can't play after he's waited patiently for his patch. That's going to be strike two for your game, and you're not even twelve hours into launch yet.
Strike three could come in any number of forms, from a bad first experience with other players to an ambivalence about the game features, but if our new player is going to choose between renewing a subscription and tossing the game in the bin, typical MMO "opening day jitters" could seal the deal.
I'm not saying that this is something that all MMOs don't face, at least to some extent. I'm just saying that the stakes can be a lot higher for a game like Star Trek Online (or the upcoming Star Wars game as another example) that's going to be relying so heavily on a crowd of people that while potentially enthusiastic about their product, could be soured very quickly before they even have a chance to decide for themselves whether or not the game is fun.
So, to anyone out there making a major IP MMO (Cryptic being the closest to launch): Make sure your game is good to go on launch day, because delays, disconnections and other frustrations may be the difference between having a strong player base built from non MMO play fans of the IP and just hoping to grab enough of that MMO audience to keep your game afloat.