Avoiding latency-related revenue caps in MMO games

Millions of people play MMO games. Especially top titles know a very large audience base. In China alone, free-to-play titles Dungeon Fighter Online and Cross Fire amass over 25 million and 50 million monthly active users, respectively. Such high user numbers are normal for free-to-play titles, as we know,  but coupled with increasingly network-taxing games, have resulted in latency problems for gamers. Those infrastructure problems—server lag, disconnects, and game service outages—spell trouble for game companies in the form of a lowered revenue ceiling.

There is more to free-to-play than a discussion on how to monetize. Gamers also have to be able to actually play the game, and the technical underpinnings can prove an big obstacle.

MMOs require frequent transfer of data between server and client, so these higher latencies will decrease game response time, user performance and perceived game quality. Different regions have vastly different latencies, which can cause unbalanced game play. Cross Fire’s Chinese instantaneous load (the number of players online at a given time) has peaked at 4 million gamers. (Compare this to World of Warcraft’s 1 million-user instantaneous peak.) Such massive volume has put a strain on the ability of gamers to engage seamlessly with the game, given frequent performance interruptions caused by latency of up to 200ms between China and the rest of Asia. 

The issue is not limited to Asia, however. Nexon’s MapleStory is notorious for server lag and connection stability issues in the US, making the game nearly unplayable during major events and after large content releases. Unable to accommodate all desiring players, server capacity places an artificial cap on revenue. While MapleStory shows strong growth in almost every other region, revenue in the US has been humbler. Inefficient traffic management may be at fault.

Some game companies have recognized the problem and put workarounds in place. After Guild Wars 2 reached a peak concurrency of 400,000 in pre-launch events, it had to halt sales to scale servers after continued complaints of lag and connection stability. To prevent this in the future, the game’s developers designed overflow servers in an attempt to alleviate the traffic problem, but it’s merely a band-aid, not a fix. Other companies have developed similar fixes that improve overall performance but continue to limit players’ access to vital game mechanics, including micro transactions. Players also remain separated from friends, PvP events, and multiplayer quest progression.

Unlike MMOs, social, mobile and mid-core games do not require continuous active packet transfers. These games are often able to succeed more universally, possibly because the infrastructure is better able to handle their traffic. Because the problem of latency extends far beyond individual publishers—to internet service providers and the world’s overall internet infrastructure—it is important to not lay blame on publishers. However,  it is important for developers to be mindful of the issues—both performance-wise and financially—that the internet’s limitations may have on their games, and proactively work to address them before launch.

Summary: Developing and publishing an online game, and especially one that is free-to-play, puts a lot of a demand on reliable infrastructure. Ignoring this affects bottom-line revenue perhaps more so than anything else.

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