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Why exactly is Lost Ark so popular?

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Lost Ark has launched in Europe and America like a bolt of lightning from a mage’s hand. Within 24 hours of release, the game had reached a peak of 1.3 million concurrent players, making it the highest played MMO on Steam ever by concurrent player count, and the second highest-played game in general by that same metric. It’s been so popular that many players have been struggling to get into the game, queuing by literally thousands to get into vastly overloaded servers.

The game’s sudden and immediate dominance of both headlines and lifetimes may seem to have come out of nowhere. But the truth is this explosion of interest has been building for a long time, and it’s worth taking a moment to break down precisely why. Below, I’ll cover Lost Ark’s long road to success, the causes behind it, why so many players are scrambling to play it, and why such a large percentage of those players are currently unable to do so.

What are Lost Ark’s origins?

Although Lost Ark has only just launched in Europe and the US, it has been actively playable in Korea for several years, and has seen staggered releases in places like Japan and Russia. It also has a long pre-release history too. The game began development way back in 2011 under the codename Project T. The first mention of it comes in the form of a news post on the Unreal Engine website, which refers to Project T as a “blockbuster action-MMORPG, armed with the stunning visuals that can be achieved with Unreal Engine 3”. Glimpses of the game’s world, combat and characters became available in the form of various dev diaries as early as 2014, but the game didn’t fully launch in Korea until December 2018.

Information regarding Lost Ark’s protracted development is scarce, but we do know that Lost Ark was a substantially different game when it originally launched in Korea. For starters, each character class had a unique, Dragon Age-style introduction to the game, providing an origin story for that class while guiding players from level one to level ten. This was replaced for the Western launch with a class-agnostic prologue that started players at level ten. Furthermore, in the Korean launch version, the player’s progress from level 10 to 50 was slower, with more involved questing and less streamlined zones.

We also know that Lost Ark was a big hit on its Korean launch. According to a report by the Korea Herald, Lost Ark drew “A record 350,000 concurrent users” on its national debut. As with most MMOs, this number dropped off significantly over the new few years, but the game saw a resurgence in players in 2021. According to the Herald, this was down to multiple  factors. Firstly, the f2p structure of Lost Ark is considered “soft” compared to other, more pay-to-win oriented Korean games. Indeed, Lost Ark allegedly benefited from several controversies surrounding MapleStory. another popular Korean MMO which, among other things, was accused of “manipulating the ratio of random cash items” resulting in players switching to Lost Ark.

What makes Lost Ark appealing to western players?

The answer is going to be subjective from player-to-player. In my review, I highlighted the things that struck me about the game, the spectacular combat, the creative character powers, the varied and exciting dungeons, and the wild swings the game’s central adventure takes. While the game’s story isn’t amazingly told, as an adventure it’s constantly taking you to new and exciting places, which can vary significantly in theme and tone.

But there’s also the persistent online side of the game that more MMO oriented players will enjoy, from participating in raids, completing daily challenges and grouping together to battle powerful zone bosses, to gathering resources in the world and using them to build out your home fortress, which is unique to every player. There’s a lot to keep you coming back, and if you’re the kind of player who likes to focus on one, all-encompassing game, Lost Ark does a good job of providing that.

The two sides of the game’s personality also complement each other in many ways, catering to both fanbases without either side of the game feeling too compromised. If you come to it as an MMO fan, then you’re getting all the stuff you normally see in an MMO, but with much more exciting combat. If you’re more of an ARPG fan, you get all the cool powers and character building of an ARPG, but with a massive world to explore. The relationship not always symbiotic. For example, the constantly respawning mobs in open zones, which only provide a tiny amount of XP, make combat feel somewhat redundant in these areas. But you’re only ever a few minutes away from an instanced zone or dungeon, which do a much better job of scratching that ARPG itch.

On the subject of scratching the ARPG itch, perhaps the main reason behind Lost Ark’s success is that it caters to an audience that hasn’t been especially well served in recent years. Diablo III is ten years old this year, and while there have been a few good ARPGs released since, such as Path of Exile and Grim Dawn, the last decade hasn’t exactly been a bumper period for the genre. Hence, Lost Ark is landing at an opportune time to fill that gap in the market, hoovering up all those fans who have exhausted Diablo III and want a change from Path of Exile.

What are Steam reviewers saying about Lost Ark?

At the time of writing, Lost Ark’s Steam reviews are mixed, although this aggregated rating paints a slightly misleading picture. There are currently around 76,000 Steam reviews , 67% of which are positive. The positive reviews praise elements like the combat, class design, and the variety of activities to do. “The most enjoyable combat system in any ARPG I’ve ever played” says one example. Another states “It’s a game where your first few skills look cooler and have more substance than every skill in other isometric ARPGs combined.”

In the negative reviews, the most common complaint is that players cannot access the game due to the servers being overwhelmed. “No oceanic servers forcing all Australians onto a single server for stupidly high queue times to play” says one. “No server-to-server transfers and populated servers have 4-6 hour queue in EU servers” explains another.  I’ll talk more about this issue later, but it is definitely the biggest gripe affecting the game’s overall metric.

There also seems to be several issues surrounding the Founder’s Pass and various player packs made available for purchase prior to the game’s release. The Founder’s Platinum pack currently has “Mostly negative” reviews with users complaining about how the pack is locked to a single server, which is causing access issues now that the servers are flooded with players. The Vanquisher Starter pack also has mostly negative reviews, with players claiming that its listing of the character skins available in the pack is “misleading” and “deceptive” as you only get to unlock one of the skins listed. Amazon has recently updated the text on the pack’s Steam page to clarify this, but this hasn’t resulted in an adjusted rating so far.

In short, most Steam users rate the game, but server issues and poor communication regarding the various passes and content packs have negatively impacting the overall rating.

How are the server queues affecting the experience?

As mentioned above, the server queues are currently the main bone of contention surrounding Lost Ark. Amazon and Smilegate seem to have substantially underestimated the anticipation surrounding the game, and as such many players are stuck in server queues ranging from a few hundred players to tens of thousands. Many players cannot even get into a queue to begin with, instead confronted with the message “Cannot Connect Due To Heavy Traffic”.

The sheer demand on Lost Ark’s servers is also causing instability within the game itself. Many players are finding themselves either kicked out of queues or kicked out of the game entirely, as the servers struggle to cope with the constant influx of new players. The situation is particularly bad in the EU, where interest in the game appears to be way beyond what either Amazon or Smilegate expected.

Amazon and Smilegate foresaw a potential issue in the days before launch, as early adoption of the game via the Founder’s Platinum Pass exceeded expectations. In response, they announced 15 new servers across North America and the EU. But this effort was evidently insufficient.

The obvious solution is for Amazon to add new servers until supply meets demand, but apparently the problem Lost Ark faces is more fundamental than that. In a news post titled “Update on Current Top Issues” Amazon states they can only expand regional capacity to a certain extent “due to limitations with Lost Ark’s architecture”. What exactly this means is unclear, but Lost Ark was originally built on Unreal Engine 3, so the problem may be related to the game being based on older tech.

On February 13, Amazon announced it was setting up an “entirely new region” of servers in Europe to cope with the especially high demand. While this will undoubtedly help relieve the pressure on the servers, it will cause other problems. As a distinct server region, players won’t have cross-play ability with other regions, meaning certain region-wide features like Crystal and Silver balances (two of the game’s currencies) won’t be accessible to migrating players. But Amazon claims this is “the only way to accommodate more players in Europe”.

No date is given for the new server region, but Amazon say they’re working with Smilegate “24/7 until it’s live.”  Meanwhile, attempts to increase general server stability continue, with Amazon and Smilegate issuing regular hotfixes to keep players online. But it’s likely that it will be several weeks before the current server demand is fully alleviated.

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