Massively Overthinking: The impact of jump start servers in MMOs

    
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With Chris’ Choose My Adventure run on Lost Ark – specifically, on its jump-start servers – coming to a close, I thought it would be fun to reflect on the mechanics and impact of jump-start servers as a concept. It’s not something Lost Ark pioneered, of course; plenty of MMOs have these fast-leveling servers, whether they call them jump-start servers or not, from Black Desert’s season servers to Lord of the Rings Online’s Shadowfax server. Unlike advanced or booster meant to level-skip a single toon, these servers are meant to help a large group of gamers zip up the levels together; you’re not skipping everything, just whisking through it at break-neck speed.

So for this week’s Massively Overthinking, let’s do this. Have you ever played on a server like this? What was the experience like? Would you like to (or like to do it again)? Do you have a negative or positive impression of these servers? What is their impact on the game overall? Do they work better for certain types of MMOs? Which MMO should consider adding one? Let’s overthink jump-start servers.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I haven’t played on a lot of private servers, but one thing I liked on a few of them was boosted XP when they had an endgame. I’ve been against MMOs having vastly different gameplay at “max level” vs. the leveling experience since, um, forever? So skipping past that stuff so I can play with friends (or so friends can play with me) is highly desirable. Being able to jump into Ragnarok Online or Conan Exiles with friends and not be a liability in group play not only made the game more fun, but led to faster bonding. In fact, in a similar vein, I recall Pokemon GO’s weather boosting at the end of 2017 being quite similar, in that players could suddenly catch and even trade very high-level wild pokemon. My friends who previously struggled to be more than fly-to-be-swatted while doing raids could suddenly actually do raids with me without us having to go to a hugely crowded area.

The only MMOs that really don’t need this sort of thing the ones without a hard endgame, such as PvP centered games without a level cap. Those are kind of an endangered species at this point though (RIP original Darkfall), so… well, basically, all of them should implement jump-start servers at some point. Have them be season or involve permadeath, release them with a big update as a way to lure back old players or lure in new ones. Obviously some fine tuning will need to be made (especially if there’s cross-server play), but until/unless MMOs have an endgame-less experience, let that xp flow!

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I guess I never realized this was an option before. From a business perspective, I suppose any MMO with more than five years of content should probably offer it. From a player’s point of view, I’d prefer if everyone could experience the content in the same way. It creates a kind of bond within the community when someone says “oh that Lalia walks sooo slow!” and everybody else can relate.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve thought about this a while, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never played on a server quite like this. Boosters, yes, and quick-leveling content, yes, and zippy seasons in OARPGs, but not a whole MMORPG server dedicated to it.

Honestly, I’m mostly suspicious about these servers as a general rule. I have absolutely no problems with people leveling quickly if that’s what they want to do; it would help my kids, for example, catch up in MMOs where I’ve had years of play. But I’m suspicious that when speed servers are used as a new-player funnel for the “real” game (as opposed to as a sideshow or toy for bored vets or catch-up mechanics), they kinda break the core function of MMORPGs, and they allow developers to sort of wiggle out of their responsibility to build a game world that actually works from the beginning and keeps working long-term. It’s an admission of failure for the game’s progression system or world appeal or backloaded endgame – probably all three. If the game didn’t really need all that content and leveling and space, why did you build it in the first place? If vertical progression is such a pain point, why did you design it that way to begin with?

So I guess that’s where I settle on it. I don’t think players using the servers is a problem at all. I am just skeptical about studios that use servers like this for anything other than a for-funsies time-locked progression server or alt ruleset. And I realize these same criticisms could technically be applied to individual character boosters, but I think that by the time the studio is doing this at the full-scale server level, it’s likely gone way beyond simply monetizing alts/returnees and progressed to papering over major design errors.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Season and quick start servers are some of the best and most practical things to add in MMOs. Since vertical progression is such a big deal for many MMOs, having a server that cater for player accounts with lower power levels and teach/remind how the game loop is makes older games like Black Desert Online more accessible.

The reality with any MMO is that if a player’s gear and game knowledge isn’t up to snuff, he’ll be hard-pressed to find folks to run dungeons and encounters with. That creates a skill gap that only gets larger the older the game gets. Having season servers is perfect because players can level up together and learn together.

I use season servers to plan out my gaming for the next three months. I start playing when the season starts and usually stop after it ends and move on to another game. There are too many games and with only a short life; I find getting a nice hearty chunk of the game through a focused season with actual progress to be the most productive thing in a busy life.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I won’t be repeating myself too much here since my CMA column is what prompted this whole thing, but now that I’ve had some time to process my feelings after writing that piece, I have to say I’m still a bit mixed, but that’s likely because of my limited time in jump start servers overall. I’ve tried to get into seasonal servers in Black Desert, as an example, but the FOMO stink that wafted over it until recently primarily kept me pushed away; now that those are a constant thing, I might give it another try.

Otherwise, the only other jump start server experience I’ve had is in Lost Ark, and that whole experience hasn’t left a particularly good taste about the server model in my mouth. But I also have to remember that this might be less a problem with jump servers and more a problem with Lost Ark itself.

We already know that the timeline for jump server players and “normal” players being able to queue together for endgame has been accelerated in LA, which seems to suggest that the endgamers are the endgamers and all the jump start did was make them get to the endgaming slightly faster, thus making the whole exercise feel less like a welcome mat for lapsed or new players and more like an onramp for the invested. At least presumably, anyway. Perceptibly. Or perhaps it’s a symptom of a small endgame population on jump start servers that can’t support instance queues.

Whatever the case may be, the jump start servers in LA have only made the problems they were apparently trying to solve worse, reaffirmed the impenetrable nature of the OARPG at the top end, and ultimately made me hate jump start servers overall. But we’ll see if that changes if I try it somewhere else.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have played Black Desert’s season servers, and there’s a lot I like about those. It’s particularly nice when you have a full slate of high-level characters and leveling up one more sounds like something on the order of getting a root canal. I also like being showered with gifts and rewards.

Time-locked progression servers in older games (like the EverQuests) give people a chance to experience the low-level game with other people. Jump start servers do the same thing.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ve never thought about joining a game because they had jump start servers, but I do like the concept. Normally, if it’s a game I’ve been playing, then I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I’m not really an alt kind of player. I find my main, and I stick with it – so another server wouldn’t really catch my attention.

Now, for a game that I’ve been meaning to play, I could get behind that. Black Desert is probably the one I’ve most wanted to play but never spent the time on it. So even just mentioning the season servers here kind of interests me. I’ll need to do some research.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I usually enjoy leveling at least as much as endgame, so the concept of a jumpstart server doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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