The potential of digital distribution is great, its promises many. It can reduce costs to developers by cutting out much of the process involved in bringing a game to retail. No box, no shipping, no materials involved. The only real expenditures, at that point, are on marketing and bandwidth. Sometimes, those savings get passed on to the consumer, but, more importantly, it also allows developers who wouldn't otherwise have the financial means to release their games to bring them to market. Further, since there's no physical product being sold, there's effectively no limit on how many copies of a game a developer can "produce" for sale.
Except when there is.
Enter Guild Wars 2, which NCSoft released merely a week ago last Tuesday. It's made headlines the past couple of days because both the game's official site and many of its distribution partners have sold out of keys for the game. Obviously there's no literal shortage, so NCSoft and/or Arena.Net must be artificially limiting the number of keys out there in the wild. The question, then, is "To what end are they doing this?" And then there's the broader query: When is limiting the number of players of a game a better idea than not?
The first question is tackled by the game's site itself, which offers the vague explanation that the developers are doing what they can to ensure a quality experience for all of those who are playing their game. We can put this together with a few of the facts we know about Guild Wars 2: It's an MMO and, as such, relies on servers to keep everyone who wants to play connected to each other and the game's world. These servers are not unlimited in their capacity. Further, there were initial reports during the game's launch that the demand on the servers was such that players often found themselves stuffed into "overflow" zones, which are sub-servers of given zones created when those original zones are filled. At this point, people are still finding themselves in overflow servers fairly regularly.
The point is, it seems that NCSoft and Arena.Net want to be able to meet the current player demand before they load down the servers with even more players, which would potentially cause the sorts of crashes and sever downtimes that MMO launches (and those of any game with an always-on internet connection *coughDiabloIIIcough*) have notoriously suffered in the past. Which is smart. It's really smart, in fact, as it presents a few obvious benefits and some that are perhaps better hidden.
Farah (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Most obvious: The developers garner goodwill with the existing player base. Those who have already paid for the game are able to continue playing it, uninterrupted. Their experience is in no way hindered by massive server queues and unanticipated crashes. Less apparent is that, among the gamers who are interested in Guild Wars 2 but haven't yet picked it up, there are those who find the sudden scarcity of the game enticing. The fact that they can't play it makes them want it all the more—anticipation is built, appetites whet. Even sneakier is that this provides Arena.Net with what amounts to a round of paid play-testers, allowing them to see what in their game needs to be fixed pronto and what they should build upon in future updates, while making it easier for them to detect, single out, and excise the rogue elements that make games with online social components a living hell for everyone else.