Vague Patch Notes: Queues do not tell the story of an MMO’s success

    
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Not so much.

It’s time to talk about queues to log in to a game, and you know what game we have to talk about in this context. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. If we’re talking about login queues right now, what other MMO is there to talk about? That’s right, we’re talking about New World! In retrospect the introduction might have made it a little bit too obvious, but sometimes it’s just really hard to make these introductions vague, you know?

Obviously, New World has been struggling with queues lately. By this evening, Amazon will have added seven new servers to keep up with increased demand, which is a sign of a big surge, and if you look at recent activity on Steam Charts you’ll see the game’s player counts trending sharply upward. Clearly it’s a watershed moment for the game and everything is back on track, right? This is all good news and we’re witnessing a resurgence of popularity! Amazon is back on track, baby!

Context.

That image right there is New World‘s chart zoomed out to show the game’s entire history. Do you see that tiny blip at the end that almost looks like you might be imagining it? That’s the current population surge. Sure, it’s significant, it’s a good sign for the game’s population, but in context? That’s nothing.

I’ve trimmed the actual numbers, but as of this writing, the game’s peak players during the last 30 days is 40,994. That is not even 5% of the game’s all-time peak. What we are looking here is not the equivalent of the game surging into huge popularity again, but what happens when a game had scaled back due to decreasing popularity and suddenly found that it was getting a bit more popular to the surprise of the people running the game.

One of the things that I’ve talked about here before is that we currently don’t actually have great metrics for MMO success or failure. The reality is that no one exactly does.

Sure, the companies charged with publishing and maintaining these titles have the best metrics because they know exactly how much a given title costs to keep running and can look at that compared to how much revenue the game brings in and whether or not this project is gaining or losing money. But even that doesn’t actually tell the whole story.

For example, we all know at this point that Paragon Studios was not losing money with City of Heroes. By all accounts that we have, the studio was making money from the game even with development taking place on other titles. But was it making enough money to justify those costs? Were some of those accounts not quite accurate, and the game was making money on CoH but losing it when you considered that plus other development?

I’m not raising these questions because I have the answer or because the answers actually matter. Seriously, they don’t; even if I could prove conclusively that Paragon Studios was making money, the game has long since been shut down and we’re now in the Homecoming era. The point is bringing up that we do not have a great set of metrics for success or failure… and yes, this extends to surges of popularity.

LOUD NOISES

When I went to college, every dorm had a dining hall, but some dining halls were more popular than others because of more options, better layout, and so forth. In my freshman year I lived in the Northwest dorm complex, which was actually right next-door to the Jungle. The Jungle had long been a popular destination for people who needed lunch because it was near several departments, but it had a reputation for not actually being very good, so when Northwest opened its much newer and better dining hall, the Jungle reduced its number of available lines at the dining hall and generally cut down a little.

A couple months later, the Jungle was dealing with horrible lines… as was Northwest. While Northwest was clearly preferred, nothing that had made the Jungle convenient had actually changed, and a lot of people would look at the lines for Northwest and just settle for the Jungle again instead. This didn’t mean that suddenly it was more popular than Northwest; it just meant that it had reduced capacity and then it needed that capacity again. It looked on paper as if it had gotten more popular, but it was actually just a matter of circumstance.

As I have mentioned before, I do not actually operate an MMO because damn that looks complicated. Managing login server loads and server capacities and so forth looks really hard. I don’t know how to do all of that. But I do know that it’s a thing that happens, simply because every resource you devote to a game is a resource you don’t devote to other games. If your login servers can handle 100,000 people at a time but your peak daily playerbase is 90,000, you probably don’t need all of that capacity most of the time.

But if you scale that back to handling 10,000 people at a time and suddenly you surge up to a daily peak of 150,000, you’re going to have more queues. And if that’s after your initial peak was a million… sure, you’re getting a resurgence of popularity, but it doesn’t actually mean that you’re popular. It means you closed a lot of things down that you need to re-open again.

People always ask why I pick these screenshots and the answer is usually just that I felt like it.

Does that mean that queues have no relation to popularity? No, of course not. That would be just as stupid. Where there’s smoke, there’s something making smoke. Often time that’s fire. But anyone who has dealt with an oversensitive fire alarm knows that sometimes the smoke is just coming from dinner cooking and does not actually indicate that an out-of-control blaze threatens to engulf the room in a blazing inferno.

Queues are an indicator. They are not the only indicator, and in and of themselves they just tell us that more people are trying to get in to play the game than the game is set up to permit. That tells us nothing about how many people the game is set up to permit, whether that number was very low because of prior popularity, or whether the people trying to play now will continue trying.

Some games are more transparent about this than others. Final Fantasy XIV literally stopped selling digital copies for a bit following the surge of popularity before Endwalker, and there’s a clear line of communication about Square-Enix not overextending capacity for population surges while still working to mitigate these issues. Other studios are less transparent, and I’m pretty sure some of that is the assumption that queues mean everyone is super excited to play the game, and that gives the impression of a popular surge even if it’s a bit overstated.

But I think it’s important to remember that while queues do tell us something, they do not perhaps tell us as much as they might suggest. A queue is, in and of itself, a sign that something is causing a queue. And just because a queue has formed does not mean that it will persist, nor does it mean that something is a success based on no further metrics.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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