Ghost Fleets - SWTOR's Population Woes

Ghost Fleets - SWTOR's population woes

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.

SWTOR Population - servers all at Light population

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.

SWTOR Population - empty Imperial Fleet

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.


How can you claim ranked warzones are not a selling point, my entire guild left because of it. There are a lot of players that would come back for this alone

Same here. The last minute bait/switch of RWZs completely killed the PvP Community of Ajunta Pall, which was at once time second in population to only The Fatman, and the best Republic hub. Given the fact that every 1.3 interview tiptoes around any mention of RWZs, which were therefore not even remotely ready; SWTOR suffers from the wildly successful release of Diablo 3, as well as the GW2 BWE and Stress Test. SWTOR is now ALSO shifting the blame for these happenings onto the staff they're canning, rather than the Project Leads that got them there. Here's my simple 3 Step Process to fixing SWTOR: #1: Admit Fault - The bait/switch tactic of giving rewards to people subbed before 1.2, and canceling RWZs last hour, probably got them to keep the majority of the PvP players to stay for that one more month. But the way they handled the RWZ announcement, and how hush/hush the topic has been since, is driving people away. After 7+ years of WoW PvE, the MMO demographic is aggressively shifting towards PvP content. #2: Remove those at Fault - The internet is a bloodsport when it comes to PR. When people feel wronged, crossed, or conned, and they have the comfort of anonymity, nothing short of a Thunderdome Gladiator Deathmatch between developers will sate them. Barring that option due to legal restraints; Fire Daniel Erickson, Fire the Mythic Developers who've successfully killed PvP in both SWTOR and Warhammer with 100% success, and adopt a complete transparency for all game changes going forward. #3: Test Changes - Not only should the PTR be updated every night with completed changes, but every character created should have the option to be created @50, with max gear for both PvP and PvE gear. 1.2 went live without having any Lv.50 content tested, despite it introducing a new operation, a new flashpoint, and (until the last minute) RWZs, all of it untested. There is no one if not Daniel Erickson responsible for this. Do those 3 things, and MAYBE the TORtantic doesn't sink.

According to the latest Community Q&A, Ranked Warzones are on track for 1.3.

Because not everyone places that much importance on pvp. Personally I do it now and then for a bit of fun and that's about as much as anyone in my guild does. PVPers have a habit of overestimating how important pvp is to the average gamer.

No, the game is actually dead... For us that was there in beta and from launch it was painstakingly obvious where this game was going.

They should server merge sooner than later, because your right on about people putting the game on the shelf if there's nobody around. I only played a couple weeks of my free month before I lost interest. It's not because it was a bad game either, it just didn't feel like anything special, and the game world is so dead and barren in most places. They never developed a hook that made it stand out from every other title that was turned out lately.

No mention of the rumored "super servers". Hey we can dream...

Rolled on The Fatman at launch, on the advice of a (apparently very astute) friend. It was rough going at first - spent hours in server queues, and even rolled a couple of alts elsewhere just so I'd actually get to play instead of watching the queue counter - but has worked out really well long term. I hear a lot of trash talk, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I'm still loving the game. Hopefully the server adjustments will improve it for everyone.

Game is going to fail, and fail at a fast pace unless they fix the horrendously stale boring gameplay. Seriously combat is incredibly boring, slow paced, and tedious, running the same old quests is actually worse because of the VO, now you have to either sit through some hastily written spiel about why you need to kill 20 womp rats, instead of just doing it. For 90% of the quests the VO is a waste of time and money, now your personal story, and world arcs. Those are solid well written and meaningful quests (the first time) sadly there just isn't anything close to the amount of unique content that was promised to people, and the repeated content is just boring as farming dirt.

Really?? Typical troll response. First off, you are not forced to listen to VO, space bar through it. I truly dont understand how you can consider combat slow paced and tedious. I played WoW for over 5 yrs and combat in TOR is faster and more vibrant then WoW. This is an MMO not a shooter. The combat animations are smooth and feel right for the game. It has made PVP a lot more enjoyable too. SWTOR has a lot to offer. They do need to add butts to the chairs though. Server mergers would be helpful. The other issue is that there are to many trolls like the writer above me who seem eager to flame. Anyone who has actually played the game for any period of time knows that most of what this person had to say is largely garbage.

Speaking of "fail", I fail to see how gameplay, content, or combat is all that different from the other MMOs I've played (WoW, EQ2, AoC, LotRO, WAR, etc., etc., etc.) Slightly different spin, same basic premise. I'd like to see more world events (Rakghoul plague was fun) and I expect we will. VO is fun when I'm in the mood, and spacebar-able when I'm not. Deserted servers are no fun. They're fixing it. Don't think I'm an apologist for SWTOR - it isn't perfect by any means. I just don't see how it is fundamentally all that much better or worse than most of its competitors. Less mature, certainly. What do you expect at this stage in the game's lifecycle? Personally, I'm playing SWTOR because I'm bored with my max level WoW toons, but I can't force myself to grind through the BC and WotLK content yet another time. IMO, if SWTOR has a fatal flaw it is exactly that: lack of differentiation with other MMOs means that people bored with the genre in general will tire of it quickly. I suspect Thesiobhan is one of those people...
SirRobin's picture

TOR just suffers from a poor design and bad decisions. For me MMORPG's are about options and the journey being just as, if not more, important as the destination. TOR just didn't have nearly enough options and the journey wasn't anywhere near long enough. Too short and too linear. On top of that they talked about auto-instancing zones but then hardly used it. Instead, opening dozens and dozens of servers that were pretty obviously going to die on the vine given how quickly you could get to the endgame and how repetitive most of the content was. I give EA credit for being very quick on the ball with trials after TOR stalled out. However, they have done terribly at implementing transfers and mergers now that their numbers are spiraling downward. Come on guys, you've done mergers and transfers before. In fact you have a whole bunch of experience with it as recently as Warhammer Online. We've even had round one of the layoffs before transfers or mergers were ready. BioWare Austin needs to get their heads out of their butts and quickly. We know from Mythic that more layoffs are coming. The longer they take stabilizing their losses, the more widespread those layoffs will be.

BW ignoring ghost fleets is just going to hurt this game. I am truly pessimistic about BW business sense concerning this game. When I read about the layoffs, I wondered how many people would still have a job there if Bioware wouldve provided character services at release. Name change, appearance change, faction swap, and race change are things I wouldve already paid a pretty penny for. Oh and I would probably snap from joy if they enabled a class specialization change. Thinking about all the revenue BW couldve collected from these services, if the money from this would have saved even one job... well I just hope BW realizes they didnt let down just there customers on some of these points.

This is not a stumble out of the gate - this is the Star Wars curse. Star Wars has a devoted but limited following. Once the novelty wears off, there are maybe a quarter of a million people (US) who will stay with a well-run Star Wars game. That's actually a decent number for an MMO - unless you have WoW-sized numbers in your eyes, and a WoW-sized investment on your balance sheet. Sony found this out, now EA is finding it out. Their shooter titles are breaking sales records, while this albatross drifts downward and generates negative press. ... ... ... It really is a lovely game. Fortunately they give you a Companion, so you don't have to play it alone.

Companion is a good point that I hadn't really thought of before. If indeed the game did largely fail, it'd still be a lot of fun to run through the class stories as a co-op, mostly single player game. Not the kind of thing you'd pay fifteen bucks a month for long-term, but if they drop the box price enough, maybe pay for a couple of months while you chew through the soloable content. Would that be enough revenue to keep the servers open? Would they switch the business model to some variation of the "free-to-play" arrangement? Dunno. But now that I think about it, the game would be worth playing for a little while as KOTOR III even without a real MMO aspect. Being able to seamlessly duo with a buddy would be a bonus compared to old-school single player RPGs. I guess we'll see how it goes...

I thought the class quests and story line were initially very good but running out of PvE high end content is occurring and dailies and weeklies are just not fun the 6th 10th or 30th time. THE BIGGEST PROBLEM FOR ME I love to PvP and it was fun UNTIL 1.2 when they made PvP much more unbalanced than it was before. I would come back if all classes had an equal chance against each other but jedi Sage ranged DPS is so overmatched against well played marauders, inquisitors, and agents it is just painful to pvp anymore and just unfair. I have a job and no time to level up another character to match my sage. I have quit SWTOR until I see the PVP playing field anywhere near level.

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