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Anatomy of a Launch - Part One

Mathew Reuther Posted:
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Anatomy of a Launch - Part One

New MMORPG.com writer Mathew Reuther pens this look back at the Age of Conan launch from his perspective.

The Backstory

Each new year sees a few high profile MMORPG releases. These game launches are something each early adopter of a new MMO eagerly anticipates yet dreads at the same time. The veterans of the massive online gaming battlefield can tell you some real horror stories. As new games come to market and eager gamers await the opening of the game servers, one of the most oft-repeated tales is that of Anarchy Online's 2001 launch.

The story of this launch is probably one of the most chilling MMO tales floating around the net, as when the game released it was nearly impossible for customers to actually play. The ambition of the game's creators to have one large world where every gamer who wanted to play would be able to interact with every other player was unheard of at the time. Even today only one game (EVE Online) has successfully achieved this goal in a large scale title. This ambition came at a high price as the in-game avatars actually generated so much stress on the game engine that a matter of walking fifty meters in the game world became an arduous journey that could take fifteen minutes or more. Though the game developers (Funcom, a minor development house based in Norway of all places) were quick to begin addressing the issues, the damage done by the initial problems is incalculable. Even post-fix efforts to woo customers back with offers of free playtime were not a resounding success. Though Anarchy Online remains profitable (albeit with an alternate revenue scheme) today, it is likely a shadow of what it could have become had the launch not been an abysmal failure.

The Setup

As a result it is with much trepidation that gamers awaited the release of Funcom's next entry into the MMO market. While gamers may be a lot of things, the vast majority of them are keen students of history . . . at least as it applies to gaming companies. Of course from the get-go Age of Conan was unlikely to face anything remotely close to the problems that Anarchy Online did. The development team had learned from the past and took great care to minimize such risks by maintaining a traditional multi-server model and utilizing instancing technology very heavily within the game world. Unfortunately when you have a track record which includes the mother of all bad launches even the most hardened MMO warriors get wary when contemplating what may happen when your next title is released.

As a method of soft launching the game Funcom decided to roll out with a staggered release. Pre-order customers were to be given access to the game servers three days prior to the official launch. This would give the company time to spot and fix any major server issues before the masses arrived. Originally the Early Access program was scheduled to start on May 17th for North America and Oceania while Europe would begin on May 20th. Shortly before release the date was moved up for Europe, thus both programs were scheduled to begin at the same time. During the week leading up to the planned Early Access start date customers were allowed to register a pre-release key, pay a small amount of money and receive 10 days of play time. This offer was limited and Funcom closed the Early Access program down a few days prior to the 17th.

The Initial Fallout

Though Early Access was always advertised by Funcom as being a limited opportunity the majority of retailers did not adequately advertise this fact. As a result many individuals who had pre-ordered copies of the game were unable to participate in the Early Access program. This was the first truly major blast of negativity to hit Funcom's new flagship product. Prior to this the only really notable criticism had been isolated venting from a small number of Closed Beta testers and general disappointment at the unoptimized client and level restrictions of the Fileplanet Beta. Across forums large and small, including the official boards at ageofconan.com sizable numbers of dissatisfied (pre-order) customers made their displeasure known.

Though there were a few more slots opened up in the Early Access program after the initial closure, those openings vanished very quickly indeed. This left a large number of individuals waiting for the official release, while one of the primary reasons cited by buyers for pre-ordering was access to the servers prior to the official launch date. This created a situation where customers turned against each other due to jealousy and anger over perceived mistreatment at the hands of Funcom. A typical “fanboi vs. naysayer” scenario had broken out amongst people who were all pretty much fanbois. Exactly the kind of negativity companies tried to avoid had spawned due to the massive demand for access to the product. Even before launching Age of Conan, success was already hurting the game.

While it is simple enough for Funcom to claim that they were unable to control the actions of their resellers, that is an excuse made after the fact. This entire scenario could have been minimized by careful attention to detail on Funcom's part. A survey of the details on the largest resellers' websites would have given the company enough information to ask that the conditions of the program be made clearer. It is not unusual for companies to utilize interns to act as watchdogs over programs that do not warrant the attention of a vital member of the company. Such employment of a young student in the Marketing or Communications fields would have been wise. Unfortunately nobody will care that the middle man lied about the Early Access program details. People will only remember than when Funcom closed the doors on the program they were left out in the cold.

Please Release Me . . .

When the 17th finally rolled around the collected gamers held in their community breath. A last-minute patch was applied, pushing the scheduled start time back numerous hours, cutting deep into European prime time hours. As disgruntled gamers began to despair the game opened up (on the 18th for many Europeans) and thousands upon thousands of gamers poured onto the servers. All was forgiven, and virtual heads began to roll.

The euphoria was short-lived for some as random technical issues cropped up to stop people from playing. However for the majority of players the game ran well enough and was relatively stable. The greatest number of problems were actually due to Funcom's failure to assess server needs properly. As a result some people were unable to play on their chosen server . . .

Danger Will Robinson, Danger

Despite the relatively smooth launch there were some immediate issues, particularly with the server loads. Funcom made the decision to release four different server rulesets (PvE, PvP, RP-PvP, and CPvP) during Early Access. The balance between these rulesets was generally more favorable to the pure player versus environment servers. Unfortunately all information available to the public at the time pointed towards the fact that it was indeed player versus player server rulesets which were more in demand. In fact, some player versus player servers were filled to the arbitrary capacity levels imposed by Funcom within 30 minutes of the servers opening. Players from the same guild were at times literally unable to join the same servers and play together due to the popularity of the server type.

The true depth of this problem became apparent on the official release date. When the servers opened up to the general public (anyone who had a retail box) those servers which had previously been very busy were in fact completely full for many hours every day. Though Funcom established a queue system for logins, even that became full on some servers. This meant that people with characters created on the first day of Early Access were unable to log in and play. If you did not have a character on the server and wanted to create one in order to play with the rest of your guild it was absolutely impossible until the load dropped to normal levels. This is due to the lack of support for character creation without login. The system's weakness (in the eyes of the users, at least) is the fact that you cannot even make a character if there is a heavy load on the server. As a result the community itself has experienced a great deal of internal strife. Guilds have fought internally over the server choice, with latecomers complaining of overcrowding and Early Access members complaining about the loss of playtime which would result from changing servers.

Though the company has attempted to add servers in order to alleviate the stress on the most populous servers, the major problem with adding to the pool once the 17th had passed was that entire guilds had already chosen servers based upon the information available prior to the opening of Early Access. Though there are many unaffiliated players a majority of the MMO gaming population follows a kind of twisted avian migratory pattern. Some may send scouts while others may move en masse, but what is for sure is that the flocks like to stick together. Guilds with ten members in the Early Access program suddenly expanded to include twenty, fifty or more members who tried to access overfull servers. Despite adding sufficient servers (quickly) to cover the player load, the cards had already been dealt before Funcom realized that there was a problem. The underlying issue remains a problem: there are in some cases not enough slots on servers which filled up early, while newer servers are a touch under-utilized.

At this time it is clear that without assistance that only Funcom can give, the servers will have difficulty peacefully load-balancing themselves. It has been confirmed that Funcom does have the capability to execute server transfers for those characters wishing to make the move but the company is hesitant to do so until they feel that there is definitive need. With less than two weeks having passed since the official launch Funcom is not prepared to admit to the need for transfers. Admittedly the load issues on the more populous servers have lessened, but it remains impossible to create a character on those servers during prime time. Thus some players who are unable to login outside of those hours are still prevented from joining their guildmates. The speed with which the company balances these overcrowded server populations out will prove critical to the healthy growth and development of those communities.

Uh, Oh: Supply Train Derailed

While shortages and product delays are a fact of life we all deal with on a daily basis (look at gasoline prices . . . in Europe) it is atypical for a pre-order of a standard video game to experience any kind of delay. Unfortunately in the case of Age of Conan this has been the case for many customers. Despite Funcom's assurances that the physical game would be available upon release there have been critical failures in the logistics train for both the standard and Collector's Edition copies of Age of Conan.

Various resellers were either instructed not to ship copies until one day prior to release or did not receive the game boxes until too close to (or after) the release date. Thus many players have been forced to cancel pre-orders (and lose the remaining benefits) and obtain retail copies (which are sold out in some markets) or have had to wait until long after release to begin playing. Though some Age of Conan community members have been quick to point out that blaming Funcom for distribution issues may be a bit harsh in light of the fact that Eidos is the company's distributor, it is worth noting that bad press rarely sticks to the distributor when it can stick to the developer. This is compounded by the fact that the resellers specifically suggested by Funcom are in many cases the ones with the biggest shipping problems. This includes Funcom's own ”official” store which only shipped games on the 26th of May, three days after the official European release.

In addition some Collector's Edition copies of the game have been issued with a defective product key. This issue has prevented a significant number of customers from playing the game until a replacement key is generated. While Funcom does have a special email address set up for the handling of replacement key requests, this process has reportedly not been quick. Some customers have been left with no access to the game for up to three days (and in rare cases even longer) after acquisition of the product.

This is of course the result of poor quality control during the manufacture of the Collector's Edition,but the error message rendered by the input of one of these faulty product keys is not helpful to say the least. A far more efficient method of dealing with faulty keys is for the account management software to refer people who have an invalid key to an email address or online form for further assistance. To date this has not been done. The error message simply indicates that you need to contact customer support, for which no email address or contact form is given. The address which is to be used for replacement keys is not advertised well enough as a result. Unless you have access to the official forums (which in most cases requires a valid key) you would need a friend to tell you how to proceed.

Read Part Two here.


Mathew Reuther