March 29 2013
If you've been playing online games for any length of time, you're undoubtedly familiar with how problematic a game launch can be when it entails any sort of connectivity. MMORPGs are famous for choking on the initial rush of players, which often results in server errors and long queues to get into the game. It's somewhat ironic then, that a few traditionally single-player games have moved to always-online requirements, and subsequently, burdened these titles with similar launch issues.
Diablo 3's infamous "Error 37" and the highly dysfunctional release of SimCity 5 are fresh in everyone's mind, but rough launches have a long history in some genres. I'd wager that there are more than a few gamers that avoid new MMORPGs entirely for the first week or two. It can be a major puzzle in scaling to meet initial loads on an online game, and we often see games launch with far more shards than they can support in the long haul.
It's not a hopeless situation, however. In fact, I would say it has gotten a lot better over the years. The technology has improved significantly, and single-shard systems like Eve Online's could make scaling less painful. There are MMORPGs that have had reasonably smooth launches, such as Guild Wars 2, which addressed the initial rush with "overflow servers." It may fall a little short of the ideal solution, but it beats not being able to play at all.
Note also that smooth launches are rarely news, whereas rough launches are always newsworthy, and disgruntled gamers are vocal lot when denied access to a game they just purchased. There's no doubt that launch problems are bad publicity. However, as important as first impressions are, games can and do recover from difficult launches. Even World of Warcraft's servers were swamped for weeks after launch, and primetime queues were the norm.
Given the difficulties associated with keeping online games up and running around the clock, you'd think that developers of single-player franchises would be happy to avoid the hassles of requiring constant connectivity. That doesn't seem to be the case, however, and the march toward always-online gaming continues. This could well be the future of all software - either continually calling home or existing entirely in the cloud.
The thing is that right now, there's still a lot to be said for native programs, as well as games that can be played offline. Sure, the Internet has come a long way, but fast, affordable, and reliable connections remain hard to come by in some areas.
We're probably not far from the day when every online game employs some sort of scaling technology capable of coping with heavy launch loads. Services like Steam have demonstrated what can be done, and gamers don't complain about it much anymore, especially when they're having a big sale. Cloud gaming, I suspect, is further away, but don't be too surprised if your kids someday cringe at thought of waiting a couple hours for a game to download. Then you can tell them how you once had to walk five miles uphill through a snowstorm to pick up a copy of StarCraft.