I have no particular axe to grind with Planetside 2. While I was hoping it would be everything the developers promised I wasn’t really invested in the idea of Planetside, particularly since I have no experience with the original. It sounds fun, sure, but there’s plenty of other stuff I could be doing with my time, and so it’s no skin off my nose if it turns out to be a flop. In that context it might seem odd to be doing the Angry Internet Man thing of bitching about the latest screwed-up MMO launch if I don’t really have any stake in it. But I think what’s going on with Planetside’s EU launch is interesting. It’s interesting because of the peculiar status of Sony Online’s European operations, and it’s interesting because it’s a perfect storm of bad decisions that are directly contributing to the slapshod and laggy performance of the game on European servers. So if you have a spare ten minutes I’d like you to follow me down the rabbit hole to have a look at possibly the textbook case of How Not To Launch Your MMO (In Europe).
Item 1: Outsourcing is never a good thing for your customers, stop trying to tell us that it is.
The only reason a company ever outsources part of its business is if it makes that part of the business cheaper and/or easier for them to deal with in the long run. Customer considerations don’t come into it and the customer knows it, which is why the news that Sony Online (or SOE) were outsourcing the EU operations for eight of its major online titles to a German television company called ProSieben was met with widespread horror by anyone who happened to be playing a SOE game in Europe. ProSieben’s previous forays into the gaming arena appear to consist of browser-based Flash MMOs, and nobody has heard of this company outside of Germany. SOE’s justification for this was that ProSieben had a better European customer service infrastructure than they did, but what they don’t appear to have considered is whether or not ProSieben had the experience and the capacity to take on the running of complex MMOs with massive playerbases. The troubled transfer of DC Universe Online to ProSieben’s stewardship is an apparent answer to the negative, and forced SOE to delay the subsequent transfer of Everquest II indefinitely while they sort out the problems.
Still, when it comes to Planetside 2 ProSieben are not the root cause of the problems currently plaguing the EU servers. Something SOE have made very clear is that they’re the ones running the game side of things; they set up the servers, they deal with technical issues. ProSieben just handles accounts, billing and customer service. What this split operation is doing instead is muddying the waters. New players who weren’t fortunate enough to be the beta for Planetside 2 (and thus have Sony Online accounts) have to make an account with ProSieben and download the client from ProSieben’s website. Planetside 2 is on Steam, but if you download that client and try to use a ProSieben account with it you’ll be told that the two are incompatible since the Steam version will only work with Sony Online accounts. On launch day, though, ProSieben were given a faulty version of the launcher by Sony that simply didn’t work, and the first Sony knew of this was through frustrated tweets levelled at John Smedley, head of SOE, because they’d outsourced their European customer service to ProSieben.
Item 2: Ramping up server capacity to meet demand may be cheaper than investing in excess capacity to cope with launch, but…
…offering a choice of two servers at launch for the entirety of Europe was probably lowballing it just a little bit too much, and led to a weird situation where most of the big internet communities – Reddit, Somethingawful, RPS – plumped for EU Miller as their prospective virtual battlefield. Both EU servers were immediately crippled by insanely high player loads, with hundreds of people being stuck in queues to join. This is hardly unheard of for a popular MMO launch and Sony have since added three more servers in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the initial two, but there’s a couple of reasons why I don’t think the problems for Miller and the other EU server aren’t going to go away any time soon. First is that you can’t transfer a character from server to server yet, and so anyone moving to a less-overcrowded server has to start from scratch with a new character. Second is that Planetside is a multiplayer game, where people play in groups with friends, and those big outfits I mentioned above are going to want to stick together. Nobody wants to move to a new server on their own, so either they’ll move en masse (highly unlikely) or they’ll stay put on poor overpopulated Miller. Thirdly, there’s an incredibly stupid business decision designed to wring as much money out of players as possible that actively discourages moving to another server.
Item 3: Any items you buy for your characters are character-bound, not account-bound.
So a couple of months back, when Planetside was still in closed beta, Sony decided to run a promotion called Alpha Squad. The deal was that you’d pony up forty bucks to Sony, and in exchange you’d get beta access and forty bucks’ worth of Sony funbux (called Station Credits in America, and something irredeemably stupid in Europe) to spend when the game went live. Many, many people went for this deal, with the result that there’s a sizeable proportion of the current Planetside playerbase who started the game with this fake Sony money burning a hole in their pocket. Most of them spent it immediately on unlocks for their character. After investing forty dollars in your pretend MMO soldier you’re not going to want to abandon him to move to another server, since that will in effect waste the money you just spent on him. This is the primary reason why most players are staying put on Miller hoping to ride out the storm.
The end result of all this is, well, this:
Crippling lag issues that render the game unplayable at peak times in addition to those 500-strong queues. It’s not just Miller, either; I made a character on one of the new servers they set up to allieviate this problem and ran into exactly the same issues. Curiously European players have reported (I’ve yet to try this myself) that when they connect to American servers on the US East Coast at peak times they experience almost no lag. Indeed, the US servers have had a startlingly smooth launch, with only the barest trace of the lag and warping issues afflicting EU servers because of heavy load. You can bet that if Miller was a US server they’d have had things fixed on Tuesday evening just after the game launched. Instead it’s taken over two days of forum screaming and video evidence for Sony to take a good long look at Miller, largely because they’re dealing with the European playerbase through the glovebox of ProSieben. They say they’ve fixed it, but from my little foray into the desert continent ten minutes ago I’m far from convinced; although the infantry movement was much less rubberbandy I still saw warping vehicles and aircraft, and so Planetside 2 remains a game I’m unlikely to give much time to for another week or so until they really do have the kinks ironed out. It’s a shame, really, since this did have the potential to be the game of the year. As it stands that might be true in 2013, but right now it’s pretty much still an open beta. If you’re European and you plan on giving it a go in this next couple of days, this is likely what you’ll have to put up with. It’s free, so you won’t have lost anything, but I doubt it’ll be a particularly enjoyable experience for you or anyone else.