The lights are on
Games are more connected than ever. Many of the world's most
popular games are now exclusively online, and an increasing number blur the
line between single- and multiplayer. Times are changing, but one thing has
remained constant: Launching a large-scale online game is a difficult proposition
- one the industry still struggles with. In this rundown of high-profile
botched online launches we discuss why problems like these continue to happen.
Diablo III (Blizzard,
Diablo III was one of the most anticipated games in PC history.
It had been 12 years since the launch of the classic Diablo II, so needless to
say Blizzard fans were excited for a new hack n' slash adventure.
In many ways, Diablo III stayed close to the traditions of the
series; it was hardly a bold reinvention of the franchise. However, Blizzard
did make a controversial decision, one that would come back to haunt the
studio. Diablo III required players to be logged into the their online
Battle.net accounts at all times - even if they only wanted to play solo.
Sadly, this proved to be difficult during launch. Many players
found themselves unable to log on to Blizzard's servers. Normally, this alone would
have caused an outcry from players who wanted to play with friends online, but the
situation was now compounded by the fact that it effectively barred everyone
from playing in any capacity. Though it was eventually solved, the launch
- and the controversial (and later discontinued) real-money auction house
- left bad taste in the mouths of many fans. Worse, it cast a shadow on
what was otherwise a tremendous game.
If measured by online outcry and general anger, EA and Maxis'
launch of SimCity earlier this year was perhaps the ugliest online launch ever.
It's unfortunate, because the core idea behind the game was an interesting
evolution of Maxis' classic simulation gameplay. Obviously, competitive (or
traditional cooperative) multiplayer made little sense in SimCity, so the
studio conceived of a way for players to effectively play alone together.
The idea was that your friends (through EA's Origin service)
would populate your region with their cities. This would allow for
specialization in urban planning; one city might be based around a large
university while drawing students from (and sending workers to) a neighboring
industrial town. It's not a bad idea, but it also came along with a mandate
that players were required to connect to EA's servers to play the game, even in
single-player mode. This decision would prove disastrous.
From the minute it launched, EA's servers barely functioned.
Instead of just locking out multiplayer, it barred players from the entire
game. As the outrage grew, EA defended the decision, saying that the game used
cloud computing to do in-game calculations. However, online modders soon
disproved this by posting a video of a hacked version being played offline
- ruining EA's credibility with fans.
The outages persisted for a few weeks, forcing EA to remove
features like cheetah mode in order to get the game to work. The result was
that what should have been a new chapter in the SimCity franchise is now seen
as a black eye.
(Electronic Arts, 2007)
Flagship Studios' Hellgate London, helmed by ex-Blizzard
producer Bill Roper (Diablo II, Starcraft), was an ambitious project that aimed
to meld the MMO genre with elements of Diablo and the fast pace of a modern
shooter. It won mixed reviews, but many praised its best elements, especially
the combat, as truly excellent. Sadly, a poor launch doomed the project to
In keeping with the game's horror theme, it launched on
Halloween of 2007. From the start, many players (some of whom had paid a hefty
$149 lifetime subscription fee) experienced trouble logging on and crashing
servers. However, the anger created by these relatively routine problems paled
comparison to the furor online when many users found they had been
double-charged for their subscriptions - and some were still not
recognized by the game as subscribers.
In Asia, the problems were severe enough that a patch was
released for the game in November. However, this fix also erased all the
progress, items, and levels that players had earned so far.
It was downhill from there. Hellgate's servers were officially shut down in
2009. However, in 2011, it was resurrected as a free-to-play game in Korea.
Half-Life 2 (Valve,
It's funny how time changes our perceptions. Today, Half-Life 2
is one of the most beloved games of all time, and any news of potential sequel
sets the Internet ablaze. Steam is considered to be one of the great
innovations in the past decade of gaming, and is credited with both saving PC
gaming and the beginning of an industry-wide move away from packaged goods.
However, Half-Life 2's launch was a portent of things to come.
For the first time, Valve required gamers to authenticate the game through the
Steam service. A Valve press statement at the time read: "All versions require
an Internet connection upon installation. This is for
authentication/anti-piracy purposes. Once this has been completed, the owner of
either the retail or the Steam version can play Half-Life 2 single player in
Unsurprisingly, the huge sales of the game in its first week
overwhelmed the Steam service, locking out many from playing the game
- even copies purchased as a boxed copy at retail. Gamers were extremely
frustrated. They might have been even more annoyed if they knew that these type
of requirements would become more common in the coming years.
Grand Theft Auto Online
(Rockstar Games, 2013)
The most recent of our examples, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto
Online, being the first really ambitious attempt to create a persistent GTA
online universe, was the subject of much anticipation. Given that the company
was doing something extremely ambitious that it hadn't attempted before, there
were bound to be problems. To its credit, Rockstar admitted as much prior to
the launch of GTA Online: "The first couple of weeks we expect to be heavily
focused on tuning the experience as it goes from internal testing to the
reality of being played by tons of people in the real world so that all the
usual teething problems for an online game are overcome. We hope it will all
run incredibly smoothly, but please bear with us if it doesn't, and help us fix
any and all problems!"
This statement proved to be prophetic. When GTA Online launched
on October 1, the litany of complaints were familiar: problems logging on to
servers, some players experiencing bugs which resulted in lost cash, cars, or
To its credit, Rockstar, which had clearly anticipated the
situation, acted quickly and released patches to attempt to fix the issues in
the game's early weeks. While it's not quite perfect yet, thing have gotten
better. To help placate its fans, Rockstar also announced a "stimulus package"
of $500,000 of in-game cash to players (although this was delayed later).
Why It Happens and What
Can Be Done
While these are some of the most high-profile examples,
problems with online launches have existed since there were online games that
required servers. In researching this article, I saw references to the troubles
with the launch of Ultima IX: Ascension in 1999. Our editor-in-chief, Andy
McNamara, recalled to me taking a vacation in 2001 to play the EverQuest: The
Shadows of Luclin expansion, and "looking at a blank computer screen for a
In many ways, it appears that - for all the advancements
in video games - we haven't made much progress in being able to successfully
launch an ambitious online game.
As to why this keeps happening, the reasons are both complex
and simple. Simply, it's really hard to do - and I don't mean to sound
glib. For one, you've got to account for all the difficulties getting writing
solid network code and getting it to work with a variety of different levels of
PC hardware or now-aged consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Then there's the matter of servers. It's a tremendously
expensive part of bringing a game to market, especially since very few games
can command a monthly subscription fee like World of Warcraft. Publishers and
developers have to attempt to guess how many servers they'll need, based on
presumed demand. While pre-orders and other metrics can help, it's an inexact
science at best. Blizzard president Mike Morhaine admitted as much in a
statement apologizing to fans for the problems surrounding the launch of Diablo
"The launch week of
Diablo III was memorable for many reasons -- some positive, and some not so
positive. We were thrilled that Diablo III had the biggest PC-game launch ever,
surpassing the lifetime sales of Cataclysm (the previous record holder for
biggest PC-game launch) in a matter of weeks. We've been floored by the
"However, the launch had
many challenges as well. It has always been difficult to forecast how many
players we will have. With World of Warcraft, it was a challenge to handle the
immediate demand when we launched back in 2004, and that was just in North
America. We eventually expanded to other regions and reached nearly 5 million
players by the end of the first year, and there were a lot of growing pains
with that. However, we've never gone from 0 to more than 6 million players
across multiple continents within a few days with a brand-new game. For Diablo
III, we looked at historical sales for Blizzard games and other top-selling PC
games and watched preorder numbers. We even upped our estimates to ensure we
had additional capacity, or so we thought. In the end, it just wasn't enough,
and that is something we will work hard to conquer for future releases."
Obviously, private and public betas can help sort out problems
prior to launch, but it's nearly impossible to simulate the crush of millions
of gamers hitting the servers at once on launch day. Grand Theft Auto V sold
over 11 million copies on September 17. By the time GTA Online (which was free
to all who purchased the game) launched, the tally stood at over 17 million. If even
half of those consumers tried to log on during the game's first 24 hours, that's
over 8 million users. How could those circumstances be replicated by a beta?
It's likely that these launch-day online problems will
continue, but there are some rays of hope. One, let's hope the scandal
surrounding SimCity has finally convinced companies that locking gamers out of
single-player if they are unable to log-in to the game's servers is a bad idea.
Microsoft certainly learned the hard way when it was forced to reverse its
"always on" policies for the Xbox One earlier this year. While there are many
interesting features that can be implemented with an always-on game, it's
important that gamers are given at least a bare-bones offline option for
Ironically, Microsoft is also doing its part to help ensure
that Xbox One online experience are better and more stable, by offering the use
of its own dedicated servers to all Xbox One games. This should
- hopefully - make online games on the console more stable and take
some of the server burden off of publishers and developers. It will also mean
that multiplayer games won't have to be "hosted" on one player's console,
reducing lag and ensuring that a match won't end if that player drops his or
Still, if there's one thing that history has shown, it's that
it's hard to anticipate what challenges lie ahead. As technology improves, so
does the ambition and scale of the games we play. Even as game companies work
on solving today's online headaches, tomorrow's problems lie in wait.