With the success of Ragefire, Lockjaw, Stormhold and Deathtoll and the prospect of yet-another-Everquest-special-ruleset-server to come, Daybreak Games appear to have twigged at long, long last, something I could have told them a decade ago - players go ga-ga for new servers and special rulesets. They always have and probably they always will. Anyone remember Discord, Everquest's short-lived permadeath (aka Hardcore PvP) server? Even something as demented as that was rammed - for about a week.
There's the gleam of a sustainable and potentially lucrative idea in what DBG are doing. It could offer a solution to that awkward bloating problem suffered by all long-running MMORPGs, the one that comes when the sheer weight of content accrued over years of updates and expansions, most of it towards the top end, threatens to topple the entire ship.
Once that sets in, to entice anyone new to play your game the whole process - leveling, stats, gear, you name it - has to be slimmed down, speeded up, thinned out and somehow made to look more like a gentle ramp and less like a sheer cliff. That's a road that ends with A Free Level 90 With Every Expansion, 89 levels of content that no-one plays any more and an economy that looks like the Weimar Republic crossed with Uncle Scrooge's Money Pit.
When EQ was the big dog in the park and a new server seemed to open every month I made characters on all of them. Everyone just loves that new server smell. Mostly I'd level up for a week, occasionally a month, then slip back to whence I came. Occasionally one, like Luclin, would stick and I'd have found a new home.
In the long years since those glory days, few MMOs have found a reason to keep opening servers (apart from in that embarrassing first week about which we don't talk anymore). Until recently the usual scenario was a long, slow drift downwards, with larger populations eating smaller and any special cases like RP or PvP lucky to cling on to anything at all. /wave LotRO.
Of late companies have preferred to avoid the bad feeling and worse publicity that comes with consolidation and retrenchment. A whole slew of clever, technological solutions have been employed to shore up the cracks left by diminishing numbers. Cross-server dungeon finders, server clusters, megaservers, anything that makes it look like people are still playing in droves.
These things do work, for a while and to a degree, but in the end they mostly just aggregate the existing, shrinking population into more coherent population centers. That's a good thing but it doesn't address whatever underlying problems led people to leave in the first place. Sometimes those problems are nothing more than an aging, over-familiar game failing to fight off a plethora of newer, shinier competitors. Sometimes, though, as I said earlier, at least some of the blame is down to bloat.
When you've got a great product but so much of it that new players are scared to even try you out, what if, instead of just merging your existing servers as the entrenched population declines, you continued to open new ones periodically? Servers with different rulesets, targeted at particular demographics, or just standard ruleset servers, but always somewhere new, returning and stalled current customers could find an equal footing?
It's something SOE always did, sporadically, and it was, as far as I could tell, usually successful, in the short term at least. And by far the most successful of those servers seemed the ones that offered a genuine, unequivocal fresh start.
Stromm was an EQ server that allowed no transfers for a long period after launch. At least a year as I recall, maybe longer. I moved there and stayed. It was a fantastic experience that revitalized my Everquest addiction for almost two years. The same thing happened again when EQ2 opened the Freeport server, whose radical F2P ruleset forbade any possible crossing of the streams with the rest of the game's ultra-conservative playerbase, thereby guaranteeing, ironically, that any previously-accrued in-game wealth and status meant nothing.
It's all very well attracting new players but you have to monetize them effectively if you want to stay in business long enough to have any chance of opening even more new servers some day. DBG seem to have worked this out at last. Even before Smed left to spend more time with his anger management counselor (or possibly his EVE Online Corp, which probably amounts to the same thing) you could feel the winds of change blowing. For DBG, unlike the latter years of SOE, the motto is clearly no longer Free To Play All The Way. There's a return to a very evident emphasis on regular payments, at least when it comes to having fun in Norrath.
All these new, popular, special servers with their cool names and their fashionably retro rulesets, they all require All Access membership, or, in plain English, what we used to call A Subscription. Yes, you can still play for free, but now you kind of feel as though you're standing out in the car park looking over the velvet rope at the door of that new club everyone's talking about, the one where all the exciting sounds are coming from.
Crowfall plans on premiering a new style of permanent impermanence for MMOs, with a non-combat world that persists and campaign worlds that don't. That still sounds like a recipe for bloat to me. GW2 takes enormous pains to keep all things relevant and bring down barriers to entry yet still somehow ends up with some of the highest, hardest-to-climb progression walls of any MMO ever. Coming up with ways to include everyone is hard and half the ideas that we're asked to accept break a lot of what made the games and the genre attractive to begin with.
If we could get a rotation rolling, where lower population servers merged and consolidated as new servers opened up, perhaps it might just be possible to manage the expectations and desires of both established players who are happy with what they have and don't want to give it up and new starters, prodigals and self-defined have-nots, who'd relish a clear run without all that Old Money and Old Boy's Network clogging up the field.