Last Sunday night I logged into Rift and waited in a three or four minute queue. In vent I joked about how this is totally unacceptable, but in a way it validated the fact that I was on a populated server with a ton of player activity. That activity level is critical to some of the better aspects of the game (rifts, invasions, world PvP), and without it the very same content would simply be less enjoyable.
MMOs have a tough challenge in keeping servers this busy. Between the tourist flood at release and the sometimes back-and-worth jumping of other users, things can change quickly, ultimately to the detriment of the most important players; those actively playing now. Even when a game is successful and growing, you still end up with sub-optimal servers in terms of player levels, and it’s surprising that more is not done to combat this problem.
Server mergers are a known sign of a game struggling, but in some cases this is more of a perception issue than a fact. WoW could (should?) have merged some low-pop servers back in 2006, even though it was still growing overall back then. Those who played on servers with a low pop simply had a lesser experience than those on high-pop servers (unless you like playing an MMO hermit I guess). While the exact method would be best determined by each company (one to one full merger, giving players a choice of destinations off a low-pop server, etc), creating a better gaming environment for your current players can only lead to longer retention and more positive buzz.
A related issue, and one that might affect Rift more than say WoW, is keeping all aspects of the game active. Currently many are still leveling to 50, but at some point soon the greatest concentration of players will be at 50, and while that means lots of similar players for 50s to interact with, it means low population in earlier zones. That’s just an inherent flaw with any level-based game, and while some deep design changes could be done to fix it, better server management would also do the trick.
Pick the lowest population server for each game type (PvE, PvP, RP-PvP) and designate them as new player servers. Anyone who is new to the game will initially only see those three servers, with a not-so-obvious way to exit out and pick whatever server you want for those looking to play with friends or an established guild. Switch which servers are tagged as new player servers whenever population levels are deemed expectable. While this won’t recreate the full experience of playing at launch, it will at least get more new players together and create mini-waves of player population moving through the content.
Take things one step further and combine the two methods. Take two mid-pop servers with high veteran concentrations and merge them to create one high-pop server of basically all 50s. Give non-50s the option to transfer to a new player server (ultimately shutting down the original server), or keep them there and wait for fresh players to come in thanks to the new player tag. Done aggressively enough and you should be able to create very active servers with players either mostly all at 50, or mostly all on their way to 50.
PR issue aside (which could be countered by either releasing actual subscriber data, or at least some trending metrics to show that things are going well overall), server community and related issues would need to be handled well. Issues like everyone keeping their character and guild name (give transfers a prefix or something), making the actual process itself painless, and communicating the changes well in advance would all fall on the company’s community team.
At the end of the day however, if you manage the process well you provide all of your players with optimal playing conditions, which is a win/win for players and the devs alike, and makes joining late less of an issue while keeping lower level group content usable in its intended state (rather than nerfing it down to solo stuff 6 months in and losing it’s real value).