From an outsider’s perspective looking in, Aion’s launch seems to be having the same issue Warhammer Online had a year ago; dealing with the huge initial rush of players and tourists flooding the servers on day one. In the post-WoW MMO space, it’s more or less a given now that any majorly advertised AAA MMO is going to have to deal with this issue, and the current solution of server queues and character creation limitations seems like a rough deal for those who matter most; paying customers.
DarkFall, while certainly not on the user scale of Aion, dealt with the problem by limiting sales of the game for the first month or so, allowing new characters to enter the world at a set pace and re-distribute themselves before opening the doors once more. Current customers benefited at the expense of potential future customers. The luxury that Aventurine has over NCSoft is they don’t have to answer to other retailers, and so it’s up to them when to allow additional sales to open up. NCSoft can’t call up Gamestop or BestBuy and ask them to pull all copies of Aion off for the week because the servers are full. I’m also guessing, due to retailer contracts, they can’t start selling the game online-only, and then doing a ‘full’ release to brick-and-mortar stores later, but perhaps they could.
The problem itself is very easy to understand; the first day of any MMO is the day it will see the most users trying to get online at one time (unless the game is EVE or WoW and grows considerable after launch). You can’t just open enough servers to handle the first-day crowd because on day two it’s smaller, on week two it’s much smaller, and on month two it’s likely down 30%+ as the tourists move on. In any MMO, but especially one where population is critical (WAR and Aion), opening and closing servers left and right is asking for disaster. So what can be done?
For starters, we might as well end the ‘open beta’ charade and just call it paid pre-release for most games now, and since people in the beta have paid, why not get them on live servers? Unless you MMO gets a miracle patch on launch day (and if you do, you have more issues than just server pop), the end of beta is basically the launch-day game, so it might as well count. Allow players who pre-ordered before a given date two weeks or a month of play time on live servers, so that you mitigate the impact they will have once the boxed copy customers come online. Aion had 400k preorders, which is more than enough for 10 server (give or take), servers that can easily be avoided by boxed copy users looking for a truly fresh start. Guilds won’t have issues with surprise queues or character creation, members buying the boxed copy will still be able to play with their guild or friends, and overall you hopefully mitigate 50% of the launch-day crowd from all jamming in to see your game for the first time live.
The other solution would be to accept this trend, and have a plan ready for it. Go live with enough servers to handle all the day-one traffic, and then have tools in place to automatically merge servers as their population drops. The only real issue here would be with character and guild name overlap, as everything else in most of these games is static (this solution would obviously not work in DarkFall, as different guilds own different cities in different states of construction). Continue merging servers (quickly) until your population settles. The bonus here is you can merge one imbalanced server with (hopefully) the opposite imbalanced server, creating a better environment overall.
I prefer option one over option two, especially because the hardware to support option two might not be cheap depending on how your server clusters are arranged. The bonus with option one is that it further encourages pre-orders (perhaps you could even stagger that, so the earlier you pre-order the earlier you get in), which will give the company a better picture on what their games population might look like. Regardless of the choices made going forward, one thing is clear, and that’s that the current go-live model for AAA MMO’s is not working. It causes confusion and frustration among players and guilds, it creates imbalanced or over/under-populated server, and it leaves a poor first impression on everyone involved.