So Trion, the folks behind Rift, are merging some of their less populated servers into the more populated ones. Or, rather, "not merging" those servers, but simply "suggesting" that everyone on the underpopulated servers transfer to the populated servers so the underpopulated ones can be converted into trial servers for upcoming promotions.
Population consolidation does make a lot of sense. MMORPGs are more fun when the populations are "massive" so leaving players spread thin across a number of servers isn't as good as having everyone clustered together. I suppose, in an ideal world, you'd only ever have one server (EVE Online), if the technology made it viable. In the case of Rift, as with most "classical" MMORPGs, multiple servers are a necessity. However, unlike most of those other MMORPGs, Rift offers free server transfers to its players, so they can already (and often already do) solve low population issues by transferring to more populated servers on their own.
From a technical standpoint, this is why Rift doesn't have to do a server merger. The whole point of a server merger is to merge players who cannot transfer on their own. In fact, despite the hint of "mergers", players still don't have to do a transfer, they can technically keep playing on the trial server. As Trion explains, Trial Servers are like normal servers, so subscribers with characters on trial servers can technically keep playing and leveling up and all that, they just can't create new characters on the trial server or transfer characters to the trial server.
Of course, news of converting underpopulated servers coming at the same time as even deeper subscription price slashes with service offered for as little as $8.25 a month, all the MMO doom-sayers are coming out of the wood-works (again) to, well, say that Rift is doomed. I disagree. Want to know why?
Well, first of all, it's $8.25 a month on an annual subscription. Month to month is still the $15 it's always been. It shouldn't come as a tremendous surprise that Rift is aiming to lock players in to long-term subscription packages, as such deals ensure potential players can log in and play, even casually, for months to come.
The other reason is that, even if Trion "only" has a few hundred thousand subscribers, down from the "million" at launch, the game is still very profitable. I've seen a lot of people pointing at the recent F2P relaunches of games, like Turbine's DDO, followed by claims of doubling or tripling revenue. I'd point out that DDO, prior to the transition never peaked past 75,000 subscribers. It's easy to double very small numbers.
I think WoW's well-over-a-million numbers have skewed perceptions of how many users a company needs to run a profitable MMO. But I don't think anyone thinks EVE is unsuccessful, and they only recently breached the 350,000 mark. The trick is sustainable numbers and sustainable growth, in my opinion. And I think that, in that area, Rift stands a chance.
On the one hand, I can see that the F2P market is growing considerably. There's a lot of people who are tired of the old model and want to try something new, or people who don't have the time to commit to quite as deep an experience as Wow-like MMOs can offer. On the other hand, I know there's still a sizable market interested in premium MMORPGs, like Rift. So long as Rift continues to focus on that market, I think they have a quality product and something that will remain profitable for many years to come.