Server issues

It seems like more and more games are being released and then collapsing under the weight of the people trying to play them. I think the worst experience I’ve ever had in that vein was trying to register to play Metal Gear Online. It took hours and hours and constant refreshes on web-based infrastructure apparently built with the belief that no one would actually try to play the game. Server issues seem at their worst in games where the multiplayer aspect is more important; online-only games likeSOCOM: Confrontation and Metal Gear Online are unplayable immediately after their release, and online-focused games like LittleBigPlanet have trouble accommodating the influx of players when the game finally hits store shelves.

It’s incredibly frustrating, and since all of these games had public, online betas before their release, it’s also quite inexplicable. I know that betas these days are just glorified demos, but the server issues that crippled all of these aforementioned games post-launch were all present in the beta phase. What is the cause? I don’t know much about the tech behind online gaming, but as a layman, it seems to me that these companies are underestimating the demand for their game. With a release like LittleBigPlanet, which seems to be a cornerstone of Sony’s PlayStation 3 marketing strategy, how is that possible? Especially since the recall limited the amount of copies that actually made it into consumers’ hands.

I wrote earlier about how game publishers are experimenting with ways to reward early adopters, some of which rely on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. One of the games that is doing that is LittleBigPlanet, which has free, limited edition DLC for week one purchasers. It seems to me that all the progress they make in trying to get consumers to jump on their products as soon as they hit shelves is undermined if the day one experience is going to be a laggy, frustrating disaster.

12 thoughts on “Server issues

  1. Well, look at it this way: If your game is a laggy, frustrating disaster, isn’t it better to get as many copies out the door as possible before word of mouth spreads?

  2. Then again, that huge spike of users playing online seems to only happen at launch, then it comes down in the weeks after. It’s probably not economical to buy the huge amount of server power it would take to sustain that release spike if in the end, the amount of users is just going to level out down the road anyway. I get the feeling that a week or two from now, LittleBigPlanet will be working much better, just due to the lessened load.

  3. “One of the games that is doing that is LittleBigPlanet, which has free, limited edition DLC for week one purchasers.”

    Wait, what? I hadn’t heard of this!

  4. “It’s probably not economical to buy the huge amount of server power it would take to sustain that release spike if in the end, the amount of users is just going to level out down the road anyway.”

    Solving this issue would be a tremendous boon to both consumers and producers of these games. Some way to scale server resources up and down as needed, cost-effectively. Buying in to a wide, distributed network of servers shared by many games, maybe? (like this “cloud” thing I hear about sometimes?)

  5. More and more PS3 games are coming out and crashing that is.

    On 360 you usually just see some matchmaking problems that are ironed out in a quick patch.

  6. I think there is a reason why you pay for an Xbox Live Gold membership. Maybe those charges go towards actually maintaining the servers that gamers play on. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Microsoft usually handles the servers for it’s online games.

    I for one, love the fact that online play for the PS3 is free, but I’d like more online stability for the games. I had to unplug my Ethernet cord while playing LittleBigPlanet when the game initially launched because it was messing up my offline play.

  7. The problems are not necessarily due to under-estimating the number of people trying to play. Estimating what happens in a complex system as load increases is hard – as in Ph.D. dissertation hard. Designers of a system often over-estimate the system’s ability to scale with increased load.

  8. No, it has *nothing* to do with ‘underestimating’ demand. Why else could I buy a copy. If you print X copies of a game, your servers should be able to hold around all of them at peak times of day. End of story. WoW was nearly impossible to pick up at launch, as was Dark Age of Camelot; both because they learned from the hideous release months of earlier games like Everquest and limited distribution based on how much their servers could take. With a game as focused on online content as LBP it’s something the server gurus just need to suck up and take care of before hand.

    Control over supply is a last, largely vestigial advantage of physical distribution for primarily online experiences. It should be used (of course you can always limit your game to X downloads too, but I’m sure people would bitch a lot more…)

  9. Xbots all forgot about Christmas 07, when XBL ground to a crushing halt? It’s not just a PS3 problem.

    But hey, you got a free copy of Undertow!

  10. Just to update my comment above, apparently the LPB launch download stuff is actually going up *next* week on PSN. Which I suppose could be a good thing for people still waiting on their copy.

    As for the actual post topic, I can certainly see where it’s uneconomical for publishers of a single game to set up enough servers to handle the theoretical *maximum* load given the number of physical copies, when loads that high are probably only going to happen for the first couple weeks. But of course if you low-ball it, you run a high risk of annoying your entire fan base during those weeks.

    What would make sense to me is for someone to have a bank of “reserve” server power which could be rented out to various games to smooth out their launch windows. Of course, the servers would have to be adaptable to multiple game types, and there would be issues of migrating over collected data to the game’s main server farm once the initial load slows down. So there’s technical hurdles to overcome, but I could certainly see it becoming worthwhile as this sort of situation becomes more and more common.

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