Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Population density

Virtual worlds need to manage their population density. If a zone is deserted, playing there isn't any more interesting than a single-player game. But if there are too many people at the same spot, players get into each others way, and the loading of all the character's textures causes lag. So game companies need to manage how many people are allowed on a server, and take measures to distribute them well over the different zones.

World of Warcraft gets the distribution part right most of the time. One reason for that is that unlike many other games, WoW can largely be soloed. The other big reason is that the quest system strongly rewards you for moving and seeking out all the different corners of the world. The counter-example, of how not to do it, is Final Fantasy XI. In that game you can't solo, but need a group in a very narrow level range. And there aren't many quests, so most of the time you are just grinding mobs to level. As a result people tend to all gather in one zone for a specific level range. For example everybody from level 10 to 20 is in the Valkurm Dunes. There is another zone of identical level range, Buburimu Peninsula, but it is nearly deserted. You can't go there, because you can't find a group there. So everybody is standing on each other's feet in the dunes, and never sees another zone of that level. Boring through bad game design.

But even World of Warcraft isn't perfect. One major distribution problem is between Horde and Alliance. Yesterday I did a census on my main server, a 2 year old European realm, and found 800 Horde players and 1800 Alliance players logged on at 6 pm. Alliance traditionally has a higher percentage of casual players (apparently attracted by being able to play humans and sexy elves), and the recent pre-BC raiding slump seems to affect Alliance less than Horde. Blizzard is trying to fix that, by giving the Horde sexy elves, but we'll have to see to what extent that works. Meanwhile the difference in numbers makes for long Alliance PvP waiting queues, and for more lag in Ironforge than in Orgrimmar.

Distribution becomes a catastrophic problem when there are world events. Everybody who experienced the opening of the gates of Ahn'qiraij saw major lag, and probably even a couple of server crashes. In Star Wars Galaxies players unhappy with some changes to the game tried to stage a protest march, and the GMs had to forcefully disrupt that and teleport the participants to other planets, because the servers simply couldn't withstand a large gathering of characters.

It is predictable that World of Warcraft will have big player distribution problems when the Burning Crusade comes out. More than half of the players of WoW have at least one level 60 character, and they all will want to visit Outland. But there is only one portal to go there, and only one zone to level up from 60 to 62, Hellfire Peninsula for both Horde and Alliance. Thus it is likely that we will see half of the population of each server concentrated in one single zone. That could cause crashes, but at the very least it will result in lag. And with players outnumbering mobs in the zone, doing the same foozle hunting quest as everybody else will be a pain. Blizzard is working on a "dynamic" spawn system, but in the beta it wasn't working well.

As long as a game is growing, distributing players among the servers is manageable. You can split overpopulated servers, or offer free or paid character transfers. Somebody is always tempted to leave a crowded server and start fresh on a new server. The population density issue becomes far more difficult to handle if the number of players is shrinking, which happens sooner or later in every MMORPG. Especially the lower level areas of a game tend to become less and less populated with age, leading to problems in finding groups. Also the player economy suffers when the player numbers fall below a critical size.

I wonder how World of Warcraft will handle the expected strong fluctuations of player numbers in 2007. I'm sure that the Burning Crusade expansion coming out will cause many people to reactivate cancelled accounts, with player numbers shooting through the roof in January / February. But I don't think that this increase will be permanent, and I'd expect that peak to pass after a couple of months. Blizzard will open up new servers simultaneously with the expansion coming out, and reportedly increases server capacity by 25%, argueing that the land mass also increased by 25%, thus the population density would remain constant. Personally I think that the old continents will be relatively empty, the new continent relatively crowded, and once the wave of new blood elves and draenei has passed, low population density in lower level zones will become a real problem.
I started my current main character on a brand-new server, so I know some of the problems when relative population density is screwed.

Since it was a new server, the overwhelming majority of the population was usually at the same level range and thus the same zones. While this made Durotar a nervewrecking experience (2 hours waiting for a chance to tag Zalazane..), it did make the rest of the leveling process much easier. There were always people around to play with.

Now that my server has matured, the overwhelming majority of characters are level 60. While the first two zones for each race have a nice amount of people, the population density tapers off as you get closer and closer to 60. Level 40-50 zones are practically empty.

When the level cap is increased to 70, it will indeed cause a surge of players to Hellfire Peninsula. Everyone wants to see the new content, and leveling up with pre-expansion content would be slow. But when the majority of players get past level 62 and can go explore more of Outland, the problems with inadequate spawns will go away. People will be divided over several zones.

Once the majority is again at max-level, the problems will start again. Netherstorm and Shadowmoon Valley will continue to be popular, but the former endgame zones (Silithus, EPL, Burning Steppes, Winterspring) will only contain a handful of Blood Elf and Draenei characters. Unless you have a good guild, getting from 40 to 60 with a new character will be boring.

When it comes to cities, I initially feared that Shattrath City will become the de-facto capital for both factions and thus will be extremely laggy. However, Blizzard knows that it could be a problem, so they didn't put an Auction House, Battlemasters, a Bank or all trainers into Shattrath City. If you want to get something done, you have to use one of the portals and go back to Azeroth. Shattrath City will be the ultimate Crossroads. Everyone will go there and many people will probably keep their hearthstones set there, but nobody stays there for extended periods of time.

However, I am somewhat concerned about the usage of the pre-expansion capitals. Since the Exodar and Silvermoon City are much better than the existing capitals, the majority of population will be in the new capitals. The only reason to go elsewhere would be to find a class/profession trainer. Orgrimmar, Thunder Bluff, Undercity, Stormwind, Ironforge and Darnassus will be ghost towns.

One more thing. The new servers Blizzard has been talking about might be quite interesting in terms of race and class balance. I predict that they will have at least 70% Draenei/Blood Elf population initially. People will want to try out a fresh server and the new starting zones at the same time, so they'll roll Blood Elves and Draenei. The few warriors (for Horde) and warlocks (for Alliance) on those new servers will find themselves quite popular when it comes to instancing.
> Since the Exodar and Silvermoon City are much better than the existing capitals

Shalkis, in what way are the new capitals "better"? I rate capital cities by the proximity of the mailbox, AH, vendors, battlemasters, and flight paths.
Exodar is well organized around a central hub, so everything is close. Silvermoon City is a horrible maze. I don't see Silvermoon City replacing Orgrimmar. Exodar beating out Ironforge, maybe, but players are creatures of habit, and new players usually just instinctively follow the old player's habits.
I plan on re-rolling on a new server for BC just so that I can get some clean BG's. The endgame raiding doesnt even seem fun to me since its pretty much zerging... and all the drama about who gets what is a headache.

Dranei Shaman is probably what Ill play. I like windfury, its alot like my reckoning pally i play now, but dranei are getting better healing passive skills supposedly.

My thoughts on how Blizzard will accomidate the floods of ppl going to the new areas, the current base of ppl that are 60 not everyone will upgrade to BC right away (i dont plan on buying it until a few days after the servers get the "ultraLag" if it calms down= ill buy). Also, the new quests could easily drag people around the map to other areas that you have previously been(mail delivery type quests, or assasinate mob quests). At the very least customizing the mob respawn rate could fix the overpopulation problems, or just making the new areas "nice to look at, but not nice to hang around in" type of places.
I was surprised by something last night - something I hadn't seen in months on my server:
A log-on queue.

I waited 6 minutes to log on.
Now I'm wondering if the BC will cause huge log-on waits, or if everyone is logging in now making preparation for the BC.

If the release of the BC makes it a long wait even to log on, then I will be most displeased.
Can't see it being any worse than 2.0.1, but perhaps going on for a bit longer.

Those who want to rush will have taken the time off, and will play all night and day to get ahead of the crowd.

I still wonder about this idea that the "old" instances will be empty. Won't people go back to experience content ? There seems to be this idea that you do something as soon as you can, do it to death, and move on. Perhaps that happens in guilds that want people to level up as fast as possible ?

I might be L60, but can still struggle in instances meant for 52+. Not going to abandon Azeroth just yet, would love to get to Molten Core, even if it is 2 years after everyone else !
I will gladly wait for the crush of players. I will miss being out there chasing down newb Alliance at the start, but my guess is there will be plenty of them around later for the killin'.
Lord, someone's crystal ball was off. Silvermoon overpopulated? Orgrimar a ghost town? It is to laugh.
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