Friday, January 11, 2013

Merging again

My fellow players of Star Wars: The Old Republic certainly have suffered their share of slings and arrows recently, but the latest development of yet another round of server consolidations has people shaking their heads in bemusement.  At a time when Bioware can't afford to alienate any more of its base of core users, and on the heels of a previous server merger that met with mixed reviews at best, EA/Bioware has consolidated its server real estate for a second time.   But more ominously, they've done it in a manner that I think foreshadows their handling of decisions to come.

Those who are left now are the most dedicated of the hardcore fans.  

1.        This has, in my opinion, very little to do with player experience, and everything to do with getting ready for the free to play transition.  This means streamlining the game as much as possible and making it as efficient to run as they can over the long term

The original server merges were handled very poorly, in my opinion.  They initially came out with vague suggestions that “server transfers” were going to be available, making it sound as though they were responding to an expressed desire by the community to transfer to a destination server of their choice.  In addition, they emphatically assured us that this choice was completely voluntary.  If you were happy on your server, you could stay.
a.       It turned out that none of that was true.  There wasn’t any provision for player-directed server transfers, this system was entirely about server consolidation.  In addition, the gentle language thrown in stating that the server transfers were completely voluntary was another bald-faced lie.  This was always about server merges, and nothing about it was ever voluntary.  The only choice you had was the timing of the move.
b.      Server merges brought with them all the problems that players were anticipating:  log in queues, increased competition for resource nodes and mob spawns, de-personalization of the larger community, disruption to guilds (including the potential to lose members, lose bank contents, and lose the guild name), and the very likely chance that people would lose their character or legacy names as well.   
c.       That last problem was the most troubling one, because it seemed to penalize the section of Bioware’s fan base that was the most loyal.  These loyal fans were the ones that Blizzard had carefully cultivated pre-launch. The ones who manned the forums, participated in the beta events and were first in line to pre-order the game, many of them sight-unseen.  It was these fans that lined up for early access so they could get a head start on their characters and secure the names that wanted.  This was supposed to be Bioware’s reward to them for pre-purchasing the game.  Unfortunately, this reward was taken away with the handling of the server mergers.
d.      Players actually control very little about their game play experience.  The one element of creative influence that a player has is the choice of the character name.  It is the one thing that separates my Jedi Consular from the thousands of others in the Old Republic universe.  Players become attached to a particular name and it develops meaning for them over time, not only within a particular game but it becomes a point of identity across many games that they may share with their friends. This issue of the character name, more thay anything else, represented a breaking of faith between Bioware and its long-term fans.
3.       Now we come to yet another round of server consolidations.  All the same problems are appearing in one form or another, including the same trouble with long term players losing character names.
a.        The first consolidation was jarring, but the players recognized that it was for the good of their beloved Bioware, and were willing to help out to get them out of the jam of having opened too many servers at launch.  The second server consolidation was like a blow to the face, with little preparation or warning and with all the grace of a cow kicking over a milk bucket.  They are heading to free to play, mergers will make the game cheaper to run over the long term, so it got done.

b.      Bioware has always given the impression that they are listening to their fans, and adjusting their production based on that feedback.  This second merge was the kind of authoritarian move more reminiscent of Blizzard.  I think the real outfall from this second move was to strip away any of the residual good feeling that Bioware still had from their loyal followers.  SW:TOR is no longer a supportive partnership between a game company and a dedicated group of players.  Instead it is an impersonal, packaged system with all the customer concern of the average cell phone company.  Electronic Arts is a big business that makes decisions on things like layoffs and content and customer services based solely on the bottom line.

4.       Does all of this mean that the game is now terrible and we should all leave and play something else?  Certainly not.  It’s just that we are being given a sample of the kinds of decisions that we should expect for the future.  It’s a marker of sorts.  A reference point for down the road when we are wondering how new story content will be delivered, or what benefits will be available to F2P vs subscribers.  When that discussion begins, for better or worse, when unpopular moves need to be made, expect impersonal and sometimes brutal decisions from a company with its eye firmly fixed on the bottom line.

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