Server numbers have always been an issue in MMOGs. The dreaded tightrope that developers walk to ensure no one is left abandoned on a low population server or can’t gain access to those marked “Full” to be with their friends, is a difficult one. What has been interesting to watch during the launch of Guild Wars 2 is how server numbers have varied and what impact this has had on the player experience, including my own.
The greatest problem Warhammer Online encountered was population determining your ability to participate in Public Quests. Without players, many if not all Public Quests were near impossible. As more and more of the player base abandoned the low level zones, through natural level progression, this left a void for those new to the game: no one to level with or play Public Quests with.
Guild Wars 2 does much to address this issue, with down-scaling working wonderfully. What is apparent however, is the difference physical players still make to dynamic events and renown regions. On one hand renown regions or “hearts” can be problematic with too many players. With several hundred people picking apples, the delicacy of what you’re undertaking tends to be lost. Where dynamic events are concerned, too few and most if not all can be impossible.
I found myself, having chosen Ruins of Surmia, often bypassing dozens of dynamic events in Caledon Forest because I never saw anyone and was simply unable to complete any I encountered. At times it was so eerily quiet that within only an hour of the servers launching (bleary eyed I might add) it crossed my mind to move servers in search of real people. What it truly highlighted, similarly to Warhammer Online, is Guild Wars 2’s reliance on continued attendance in all areas of the game.
With a steady influx of players in the coming years and down-scaling, I’m confident much of the game is insulated from such problems that Warhammer Online faced. However, this still doesn’t address the fact that some servers have fewer players and the server capacity indicators (low/medium/high/full) are misleading.
First and foremost, I think it was a mistake by ArenaNet to ever flag a server with a population indicator. I know of no player that would choose a low server when faced with a list of others marked as medium or high. From experience, I’m in no doubt that many if not all would see a ‘low’ flag and ignore that server instantly. Traditionally, low servers mean less public chat, less trading (though the Trading Post addresses that) less people to party with and an eerily quiet game world. Moving to a medium or high population often guarantees the complete opposite.
Ruins of Surmia was marked as low and is never likely to recover from the initial exodus or warning sign the ‘low’ flag triggered in new players choosing a home world. Although its status has now moved to medium at peak time, this brings me onto my second concern. While Ruins of Surmia is now marked as medium, the key question is how medium is it?
Having transferred to Far Shiver Peaks (and now permanently to Gandara) the levels of enjoyment are leagues apart when playing alongside dozens of others: Guild Wars 2 is so vastly different with a busy and bustling server. The fact that Ruins of Surmia is now flagged as medium is even more misleading when it is still tragically quiet. If 2000 players indicates low and 2001 indicates medium this isn’t particularly fair on those joining the game for the first time. I’m not suggesting these numbers are in fact accurate (the spectrum is likely much wider) but the point and principal remains the same.
Having played on Ruins of Surmia at medium and at low I can confirm there was little if no difference in the number of players I encountered and still resulted in me avoiding almost all dynamic events. Would it not have been a much bolder move to simply avoid flagging servers all together so that there is no bias when staring at the world selection screen. Marking servers as "Full" would be the only necessary indicator.
Alternatively if they are insisting on having an indicator, why not remove the flag all together and instead replace it with active users on that server. This then allows for a genuine informed decision with no grey areas, though it’s highly unlikely to ever materialize despite of ArenaNet’s press releases stating their concurrent user numbers.
The impact of low server numbers can also be felt in World versus World. I doubt even the largest or most coordinated of guilds can truly compete if they don’t have the numbers funneling resources into blueprints and keep upgrades. Even my guild (70 hardened, experienced players) alongside Vengence of the Forsaken, Boon Control and others were only able to make a small impact for Ruins of Surmia until the other worlds awoke and merrily steam rolled our band of merry men for a difference of hundreds of thousands of points.
Lastly, if servers are already marked as medium or low how will they improve after the inevitable player drop-off many MMOGs suffer from? Full are likely to fall to high, high to medium, until low are almost ghost towns. While this isn’t a guarantee (I’m not aware of any MMOG that people in their right minds would leave Guild Wars 2 for) it is a strong possibility as players tastes change, content becomes exhausted and new games appear on the horizon.
Thankfully the addition and good grace of ArenaNet to allow free server transfers has been incredibly welcome and is traditionally a feature that surfaces many months into a games lifespan. Only time will tell how servers eventually settle in but after waiting five years for Guild Wars 2 I simply wasn't prepared to take the risk on a server eventually becoming high or full. Would you?