Thursday, October 23, 2014

Megaserved - What do mass server merges mean for WildStar?

WildStar is the best MMO to be released in recent memory and it's on life support. At least that's what the naysayers will have you believe as they square off against the fan boys who blindly insist that every word from the development team is gospel. While we could endlessly debate the significance of key staff leaving and how specific design choices have led to current circumstances, the hard fact is that WildStar was steadily losing active players to the point where some servers were dangerously underpopulated. The recent implementation of megaservers will put a cork in the problem of empty cities but is unlikely to stimy the greater problem subscriber bleed. 

I toiled away for years on one of WoW's most underpopulated servers (Nazjatar) and ended up quitting not because of a lack of people but because I simply became bored with WoW. While it was frustrating trying to get a weekly raid group together, and open world PvP consisted of level capped characters griefing lowbs, there was an appeal to playing on a quiet server. I never had to queue - ever - even during peak hours right after the release of an expansion. Also, gold selling spammers rarely interrupted the flow of Chuck Norris jokes in general chat - I suspect that the server just wasn't a lucrative enough target. But, above all, there was a genuine feeling of community on the server. All the regular players knew each other regardless of guild affiliation and we were unified in knowing that while our server was small, it was our server. When the option to transfer realms came around, many of us opted to stay, despite potential detriment to character progression, because we felt that it would mean losing some of our best online friends. 

One of the main criticisms levied against the launch of WildStar's megaservers is that active players have already availed themselves of free server transfers and that, in effect, we were already seeing the consolidated server population. It may be true that many players have migrated to the most populous servers but, as my experience in WoW can attest to, many players have also chosen to stay put. Combining servers will mean more players running around and anyone suggesting otherwise is mistaken. That said, I will grant that the number of "extra" players seen will probably not be tremendous. In any case, the overarching idea of creating a server with a healthy population is to ensure that guilds have enough bodies to tackle 40-man raid content and PvP areas are the settings of epic battles. In this case, at least in the opening days, megaservers are a resounding success. Some world first raid-clears have been made and forums are alight with tales of massive open world PvP clashes. Indeed, players are able to indulge in WildStar's best features again. 

Megaservers have addressed a serious problem but aren't a magic bullet. Players were leaving WildStar well before servers were empty. Balance problems, a grindy end-game, and staunch refusal by the developers to cater to casual players have been the most frequently cited reasons that WildStar hasn't maintained it's launch base. Notably, none of these are being resolved by megaservers or the next major patch which is targeting long-standing bugs. As such, megaservers are catering to the player that has stuck around instead of attracting old ones back. The listing ship is being righted but not bailed out. I don't pretend to know what WildStar needs to do if it wants to grow its player-base or if current levels on the merged servers are sufficient to justify producing new content, what I do know is that for the players who have been enjoying the game from day-one, megaservers were a necessary step given the state of the game. Server architecture costs money and running near empty servers would tear precious resources away from content creation and quality assurance.

WildStar is probably not on it's death bed, but the future isn't exactly rosy either. Warlords of Draenor is bound to suck at least a few players back to World of Warcraft and WildStar's next boost of content (not bug fixes) seems a long way away. Megaservers should bring some stability to Carbine's income as players will no longer be leaving solely based on empty servers, but they don't guarantee that player's won't leave for other reasons. I suspect that the next six months will be critical in determining WildStar's long term viability. Personally, I'm hoping for players to re-discover the world of Nexus and just how great it is in a universe of cheap knock-offs and bland settings.