Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 09, 2010
World of Warcraft overloaded

Due to their slow production cycle, World of Warcraft expansions very much suffer from a phenomenon of players unsubscribing after running out of things to do, and resubscribing when the next expansion adds content. Cataclysm having come out this week, resubscriptions are coming in fast and heavy, and servers are beginning to feel the load. During prime time their are queues on many servers.

Unfortunately that load isn't even. People who resubscribe usually want to continue playing on the server where their characters are parked. Thus for any given server the number of people coming back is roughly proportional to the number of people that unsubscribed previously, and that is roughly proportional to the age of the server. As the server I'm playing on is one of the original release servers, the volatility of player numbers on my server is higher than on one of the latest servers. Not only is the server full now, but it also tends to drop in activity between expansions more than younger servers do.

Except for games playing in space, it appears that the technology to have all players on the same server in a MMORPG doesn't exist yet. Many problems of server population have been solved by server clusters, which at least allow players from different servers to fight each other in PvP, or together in PvE instance groups. But that still leaves important barriers between servers. Changing servers costs money, takes time, and cuts social links, as you can't chat or guild with people on other servers.

While obviously it won't be possible for Blizzard to completely change their architecture to switch World of Warcraft to a single-server system, I still wonder if there aren't some improvements possible. Why can't server changes be automated to a degree where Blizzard can offer them for free, and happening within minutes? And why can't we have chat and guilds that span at least a server cluster? If changing servers were easier, population would automatically even out between the servers of one cluster, and there would be less problems of queues and population volatility.
The queue problem could be easily fixed if Blizzard would automatically transfer any character to a lowly propulated server that haven't played in the last 3 months. If you haven't logged in for 3 months, you either won't come back, or if you do, you won't even remember which server you were. And definitely no one will remember you anyway, so no social ties are severed.
I agree completely with you Tobold. I believe that realm transfers should be free and quick. There are so many reasons why this would be a good thing, not least of all population balance.

I find it hard to believe in this era of highly flexible IT infrastructure that there are any major technical limitations.

More than anything I feel let down by the fact that Blizzard are still charging for this service. Come on Blizz, throw us a bone, please?
I doubt that the restrictions currently in place on realm transfers are predominantly technical. Given previous developers comments on the existence and price of realm transfers, I think they have preserved the server architecture as much out of a wish to cultivate local server communities/identities. Allowing free and easy transfers would further dissolve those communities as well as what little social responsibility is tied to their existence.

Blizzard's position here is somewhat outmoded as most newer MMOs have highly instanced server architectures with shared hubs that allow friends to find and play with each other easily. I personally appreciate the compromise Blizzard has made and value the community on the server I play on. I would enjoy the game a little less if it became just "Server #012" with fewer of the long term players and guilds that make my server what it is.
I think there is an assumption here that, given the choice, people will move from high-population servers to low-population servers. Frankly, I think the opposite is true: given the choice, people move from low-population servers to high-population servers.

Consider the many benefits of being on a highly populated server, like a bustling economy, more endgame opportunities, potential faction imbalances (leading to the new matchmaking system in Tol Barad). What benefits would someone get from moving from a high-population server to a low one besides smaller queue times?

I predict that if server transfer were free and quick that we would have a couple highly populated servers and then many more low population servers.
With the upcoming Cloud technology allowing file storage across the internet, I wouldn't be too surprised if Blizzard was able to use it to allow larger server "clusters" for PvE and PvP...and or eventually just making multiple servers with communal areas.

Log into the communal area, and then go to your own realm, or even another less-populated realm, which you might only stay in for the time in which your own realm is overloaded.

Things will change. Look at how Google Chrome uses a cloud-like system to sync bookmarks and custom settings. Eventually WoW, or WoW 2 will have it.
I agree with Sean Boocock. I really miss the time before the cross-realm instances, when my server (small and insignificant as it may be) was a place I truly felt was my home away from home. I knew people back then, greeted my acquaintances when we ran past each other in SW, Shatt or elsewhere. Not so much now.

Call me nostalgic if you will, but for me it was a huge selling point.

Also, I couldn't disagree more with Gevlon. I have a very distinct sense of which servers are mine, even after long spells away.
It would be impossible for WoW to have a single server... Quest areas are crowded as it is now so in order to have 1 million players on one server the map would literally have to be the size of a small moon.

They could however modify the realm structure allowing players to move between realms on the fly as they did on DDO or Wizard101.

The other day I was in a group and we were waiting for a tank inside a dungeon and while waiting we decided to go out and quest. When we teleported out we could see each other on the minimap (we were all in dragonblight) but each was in it's own server...
Gevlon's suggestion borders on the offensive. I've taken multiple 3+ month long breaks and I still love returning to the server I rolled on day 1 of world of warcraft, and even after even a YEAR long break, I can rekindle ties with people I knew since they are still on my friends list.

Resuscribing and finding out that my characters were no longer on my server would probably be the only thing blizzard could do to get me to quit wow.
they'd have to make the zones a lot bigger but if scientists can recreate the universe in a supercomputer, there should be no problem constructing a single realm MMO.
I used to play on the EU servers and they seemed to have a very different policy regarding server transfers.
They had a very active/pro-active faction and population balancing scheme by continually offering free transfers. And the free transfer off or to options were listed on the login screen.
US WoW needs to adopt this same policy.
I think every Char should have a "home server" to change that paying like is done in the present is fine.

However, I think a player should also be able to visit any server that is the same type (PvP, RP, PvE)as their home server. When visiting a server you could do anything except use the auction house or trade with other players.

This way playes can visit and play with a friend on another server, or get away from the crowds. Visitors could have lower priority in queues. Simply type /visit or have a "special portal"
"Except for games playing in space, it appears that the technology to have all players on the same server in a MMORPG doesn't exist yet"

- Not exactly true. Perpetuum uses a single shard and is not a space game. There are also a few other MMORPGs that allow players to play on one server, like Guild Wars, Champions Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Runescape.
I would like to see Blizzard change the architecture so that your character and everything belonging to that character (items, accomplishments, currency, etc..) are completely separate from the realm where it resides. When you log in you would choose the toon you want to play as well as which server you want to play on. This would allow you to play on whatever server is most convenient and to play with whoever you want. I have a bunch of RL friends who play but since they don't know each other they all play on different servers. When I signed up I picked one server that had a few friends and then rolled some toons on another server with some other friends. It would really be nice to be able to play with any character with any friends I want without having to dish out money to transfer. With RealID coming into place you could see where your friends are playing before logging in.

A nice side effect would be less log in queues since you could just sign into a less populated server if your regular one is too busy.
City of Heroes has and uses the technology that would allow all players to play on the same server. When a zone gets too crowded, a new instance of it is spawned. I think one of the primary reasons they don't have everyone playing on one server is the availability of names.
@Sine Nomine: It's Gevlon. He gives trolls a bad name.
"Why can't server changes be automated to a degree where Blizzard can offer them for free, and happening within minutes?"

What and lose the revenue stream?! Are you nuts?!

EverQuest II Extended, which is being run as its own game apart from EverQuest II, runs on a single server. Not that I would necessarily recommend its instancing routine as the best solution possible, and I have no idea if it could run at Blizzard levels of usage, but somebody who is in the same market as WoW is trying.

@Gevlon - Not everybody views social ties as having a 3 month expiration date. But some of us make real friendships and not aqcuaintences of maximum expediency.
Aside from the revenue stream from charging players big bucks to switch servers, there's a hacker angle here. When an account gets hacked, the hackers will transfer the saleable toons to other servers as fast as they can. On your home server it's too easy to catch what happened, guildies and friends quickly realize that the person isn't the same. Automate and speed up transfers, and the hackers have a much better chance to sell those toons.
@Sine Nomine:

Gevlon's got the right idea, he's just missing an important detail. Characters transfered in this way should have the option for a free transfer back to their original server at the time the account is re-activated.

This has the downside of not completely solving the problem (since some percentage of people will surely switch back if given the choice) but it's an easy way to balance the population by relocating people who had no attachment to the old server. Blizzard could even provide some kind of in-game incentive to players for sticking with the server they were transfered onto.

Oh, and I do think 3 months is too aggressive. Maybe more like 6.

Like the poster above me, right idea, wrong implementation. I know more than a few people who cancel and come back 3+ months later who keep up social ties in between. It's relatively rare, but if it happens with the people i play with, i assume it happens in a larger degree in the casual playerbase.

Allowing a free transfer back seems like a decent compromise.

Overall, asa far as server transfers go, i don't think we'll see free transfers until WoW gets some real competition. I don't have numbers on hand, but at 20-25$, it's pretty decent cash, and pre Cataclysm i've heard of alot of people transfering off because some of the Older servers have become ghosttowns. In my old relatively hardcore guild, blizzard made out with atleast (i'd say around 50%) or so people transfering, either to a better server, or to the opposite faction, which dominates roughly 4:1. A large portion of the 'raiding' crowd suffered the same fate.

It was pretty saddening to watch the the server wither and shrink. It couldn't support 1 strong 25man raiding guild, and pugs weren't much better. At any one time, there were between 10 and ( i don't recall the exact number but it was around 50)80's during prime time. Somehow, i don't think Blizzard should be profiting off of poor server populations.
Im on an old server since launch and haven't seen any queues so far. The realm status is medium all the time it seems. I'm one of those super casuals who doesn't log in for long periods of time. In fact I don't even have a level 80 character, but still bought the new expansion... I'm kind used to the fact that I can log in after an extended period of time and still find my characters in place as they were. Btw the goblin starter section takes the theme park mmo idea almost will be a major turn of for players who think mmos are serious business. I liked it though:)
All the people crying about how they leave WoW for years and still remember server/friends are forgetting a crucial fact:

You represent a tiny fraction of a fraction of WoW's player base.

Yes, most of the "day-1 vets" who participate in the blogosphere are going to remember this stuff...obviously.

But the other 99% of WoW's players couldn't care less.
I'm with Oscar, displaying silly "social" characteristics... I've been on Eonar since March 2005 and taken long (many months to a year) breaks since then. Every time I resub I see familiar names and chat with a few e-friends; it feels like home.
1) every game uses many of what hardware people call "servers" in their cluster.

2) the technology exists, not game viable for WoW, to have everyone in the same realm, just not in the same instance. I.e., if there were Stormwind1, 2, ... 10000 and a million people logged into their chosen one but could zone into another area, that could work. It scales with the $ of hardware you buy. If I am in Doomhammer Stormwind, it does not matter computationally whether the million other players online are in Doomhammer Northrend or Undermine Stormwind - another computer is handling the computations.

But 400 people nearby fighting was not viable, as the original wintergrasp proved. or when TB recently tried to have several hundred lowbies meet in a zone.

But I think Blizzard is making too much money off transfer to be overly motivated to fix this. All they really need is battlegroup AHs.
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