When Star Wars: The Old Republic was launched in December 2011, BioWare made a decision to open the gates to a massive number of game servers in order to alleviate congested queue lines. Traffic at the time was spiky, queue times were frustratingly long and servers were filled to capacity. But unless you've been playing only on The Fatman, where the population remains consistently high, you've likely noticed a recent sharp decline in numbers. Only a handful of servers reach Heavy traffic status during peak hours lately, and a large number of them rarely break Light.
This, along with recent news of "corporate restructuring" and some rather ill-advised statements by EA executives, has created the mistaken impression among many players that the game is "dying" or even "dead." It's not - there are still hundreds of thousands of active players, and no-one here is suggesting that the end is nigh. Corporate restructuring is not unique to BioWare and, though unfortunate for those affected by it, not unexpected. The curiosity-seekers that filled server queues to capacity at launch have moved on, which happens with every big-name title. What we have now are the people who are in for the longer haul, who are interested in and enjoying the game, who are looking forward to the future of SWTOR. The only problem is, those people are spread too thin.
Low-population servers are problematic in MMOs for a number of reasons. Players who rolled characters on these servers back before the bubble burst have put a lot of time into gearing them up, but have no one to group with. New players ignore these low-population servers for basically the same reason - there's no one to run with, and there's a lot of content that requires a group. PvP at any level doesn't work when there is no one to fight against. No one is paying $15 a month for a single-player game, but that's what the players who are stuck on these low-population servers are getting.
The common advice for players who are stuck on dead servers is to roll a new character on a more active server. That's a fine idea for someone who is level 20 or so and is looking for a few people to run low-level Heroics and Flashpoints and maybe get some PvP in. For the people who have invested a lot of time and effort into their characters, who have unlocked legacy perks that are bound to that dead server, this is not an option. These are the people that are quitting the game out of frustration. In a nutshell, dead servers fail to attract new players, and actually lose existing players. They're just bad business.
The real issue here is, quite simply, too many servers. The population is spread too thin, and it's costing BioWare subscribers. There are two simple solutions to this problem: character transfers and server mergers.
Yes it's off-peak, but seeing the Fatman at "Light" is still disconcerting...
Character transfers are coming sometime this summer, either with Patch 1.3 or shortly before or after it. The first round of character transfers will be free targeted transfers - players on select servers will be allowed to move characters to other select servers, free of charge. There is some concern that BioWare will try filtering players from the high-population servers to the low-pop ones to even things out, but this seems an unlikely course of action. That would be counter-productive - players are crying out to move to servers with MORE people on them, not fewer. More likely, players from a handful of very-low-population servers will be corralled together onto one or two other servers to condense populations. The old servers will be devastated and barren (for anyone who misses the free transfer), but the destination servers will thrive. After the first round of free, targeted transfers, the plan is to offer periodic free promotional transfers to and/or from select servers. In other words, one month might be free transfers to Server X, and the next month might be free transfers from Server Y to anywhere. There will also be paid transfers to any server of the player's choosing.
Option B is server mergers. There are more North American servers (over 120) than there are people on fleet most night for a lot of players. The number of servers could be easily halved and the remainder could handle the traffic load. From a player's perspective, this seems like an ideal solution to the problem of low-pop servers - everyone gets crammed together, nobody loses their stuff and abandoned servers don't become ghost towns for people that may have missed the free-transfer period. From a financier's perspective, however, it looks bad. In the eyes of a shareholder, "server merger" = "financial trouble," since it involves eliminating resources that are no longer generating revenue. For the money-people, server mergers are the digital equivalent of layoffs. For this reason, server mergers are not likely to happen unless (or until) character transfers fail to alleviate the low-population problem.
Obviously, it would be much worse from a financial perspective if the game keeps hemorrhaging players for want of server mergers. The healthiest thing BioWare can do right now is keep its active players together by whatever means. All the other things that people feel are missing from the game - ranked warzones, group finders and the like - depend on an abundance of other people to play with. The first step towards making these things happen is to concentrate the population onto fewer servers, either through the planned transfers or the community-suggested mergers. Doing either will allow SWTOR to better live up to its great potential, which will inspire much more growth.
Better composer for this picture's soundtrack: John Williams or Ennio Morricone?
Either method will help the current player base, but what is being done to attract new players? In order for the game to really thrive, it needs to grow. The Star Wars license ensures that the game will always have at least a hardcore "cult" following - myself included - but there's a pretty big chunk of the gaming market born after 1983 (most of it, really) whose only theatrical Star Wars experiences included Greedo shooting first and Jar Jar Binks, and who don't hold the franchise in such reverence as us old-timers. BioWare needs to put more asses in the seats, and the way to do this is to add more stuff that people are asking for.
We already know that the game needs ranked warzones and dual-spec, but these are not really top selling points to attract new players. Fixing open-world PvP, on the other hand, and building around that aspect of the game, would be. The first time I went to Ilum, I was exhilarated and a little bit scared, expecting to be jumped at any minute by some battle-crazy Jedi looking for a quick, easy kill. The same thing happened the first time I set foot in the Outlaw's Den on Tatooine. In my opinion, that's how people should feel when they go there - threatened, ready to throw down at a moment's notice even on PvE and RP servers. But it never happened - no one was there. There's no incentive to do it. Ilum is a dead zone, and the only reason to go to Outlaw's Den is to check to see if anyone looted the loot containers that spawn there. Build a game around those places that involves more than staring matches and kill-swapping, and the whole game changes.
The Rakghoul plague outbreak dynamic event was also great. People really got into it, and it became more than just token- and boss-farming. The game felt alive, hilarity ensued. More of this, please. These are the things that sell the game to new players - characters of all levels can participate, there are rewards for casuals and hardcores alike, and it encouraged social interaction (even if that social interaction was puking on someone's boots to infect them).
Flashy new content will have to wait for later patches, though. Patch 1.3, "Allies," is a quality-of-life patch which aims to stabilize the existing population with a same-server group finder and targeted character transfers. This needs to happen first before new growth - it's illogical to build a structure on an eroded foundation.