Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 22, 2007
How will WoW handle falling server population?

No, this isn't a "WoW is doomed" post. But XFire reports that the number of hours played by US and European WoW players dropped by 18% from August to September. This is due mainly to school starting again after summer. We don't know exact subscriber numbers for the US and Europe, as Blizzard doesn't publish them any more since they started to decline. They still have robust growth in China, where The Burning Crusade was only recently released. So the only thing we have is a range of annecdotal evidence that WoW user numbers in North America and Europe are shrinking. No death spiral, but a significant drop from the peak in February.

Which raises the question how World of Warcraft is going to handle falling server populations. There is such a thing as an ideal number of people playing on a server. More than that and you get into problems of lag, which Blizzard prevents with login queues. But if the population is significantly less than the ideal number, other problems occur: It gets more difficult to find groups, the less popular zones become deserted, the player economy suffers. And from a financial point of view, Blizzard is paying for server resources that aren't fully utilized.

One of the disadvantages of having a game with hundreds of identical, but separated, servers is that the system is less flexible than lets say the server setup of EVE, where everybody is on the same server, and growing population is dealt with by shifting capacity to where the players are. Games with strictly separated servers can only adjust to falling user numbers by merging their least populated servers. That usually causes problems with people having chosen the same name, one of which will have to change his name, while the other guy starts receiving lots of tells from people who wanted to talk to the first guy. In a MMORPG your social existence is mostly based on your name, that is how people find you and talk to you, so a name change can be a big deal.

Blizzard's other option is to keep all servers running with sub-optimal population numbers, and count on the inevitable next spike of resubscriptions when Wrath of the Lich King comes out. It helps that while total numbers are falling, the population nowadays is very concentrated in the TBC zones. That makes traveling old Azeroth a bit sad, but at least with their level capped characters it is still easy enough to find a group. Patch 2.3 will help even more here, by adding daily quests for specific dungeons, which should lead to many more people wanting to go to the same dungeon at the same time. I really have to give Blizzard credit for patch 2.3, although I'm not happy with all the changes, they at least are obviously trying to put something for every sort of player into that patch.

So, tell me, how is your WoW server nowadays? Does it feel overpopulated, underpopulated, or just right? What would you propose to do against underpopulation of servers? There are still millions of people playing this game, Blizzard just needs to come up with a good way to bring them together.
Well, currently, the only place where the numbers seem less than optimal is sub-60. Which has been the case for quite some time now, and there doesn't seem to be much Blizz can do about just the lower levels. =/

Orgrimmar still seems fairly well populated, and I avoid Shatt because of lag (slow comp on my part = bad fps); so I guess if Shattrath every stops being even slightly laggy, then I'll know something is up. Or down rather, pardon the pun.
AD-Euro Hordeside is significantly down in population. It's very noticably in the economy when semi-rare items are booming in price due to low availablity. I also notice it as herbalist that finding herbs is very much easier now. Groups I don't know, stopped doing those a while ago. We're in BT now and I don't get much from going 5mans.
My server went from "full" in February, to "medium" currently.

It doesn't actually feel empty unless you level in certain level brackets. But it is also felt at level cap where finding groups for certain places (non-heroics) can be hard. No surprise that Blizz announced that they lower rep for heroics in the next patch.
I have a 70 lock on my server EU Twilights Hammer and there is always enough people to play with and my guild is great.

Refreshingly I started a shammy alt that is lvl 11 now and there were a lot of other people as well. Some first timers, others also running alts. I realised how great old Aseroth still is and how great Blizzard made the zones, me being in the Barrens now.

Cant wait for 2.3 and love the Horde!
The really interesting question for me is how Blizzard will handle their huge staffing levels when WoW starts to shrink, if the replacement product is not yet ready. At a recent Austin GDC talk, Mike Morhaime gave some insight into how Blizzard has had to grow to accommodate WoW. Pre-WoW, they were a large but normal sized developer, by 2005 they employed some 1500 people, and by 2007 this was up to 3000.

That's a huge number of people, and illustrates that they are now effectively a service company. It also means they are hugely dependent on WoW's continued success, and will be planning for its eventual replacement, but if that replacement fails or underperforms a lot of people will be out of a job. It's the flip side of their huge success, I suppose.
Disturbingly quiet, except for weekends.

It'd be nice to be able to port cross-server, join and remain in cross-realm chat channels (including LFG), and solve the name problem the way it is solved for battle groups now, using the 'home realm' designation.
The problem could have been rather easily avoided by creating a global namespace (that is, global in terms of server farms - one for the US, one for EU and so on) where names would have been unique. That way, Blizzard could at any time merge two servers without seriously interrupting the virtual life of any player on both of these servers.

If they'd taken this concept even further, they could have created some kind of central character repository, where all WoW characters would be stored. The player could then dynamically choose a realm to play on, even choosing a different one each day would be possible, or easily migrating a complete guild to a new realm. Though this idea would bring its own problems (like the missing money Blizzard currently charges for server-to-server tranfers ;-) ), it would certainly open up some fantastic possibilities for people to play together more easily. Cross-server trading would certainly be a very cool thing for all the virtual merchants out there who like to make their gold by playing the auction house.

Sure, the "This name is already taken" message would be more common this way, and people would have to search longer for a good character name that isn't already taken. But they'd probably find one eventually.
Kilrogg seems fairly quiet, at least around Azeroth and the Eastern Kingdoms, although the Horde are still smacking around the Southshore Guards. I'm playing my high 40s Rogue at the moment and not seeing too many people around Feralas and Tanaris.
Since you've asked on US-Rexxar, I can't say that I see a reduction. I know some ppl who stopped playing because of school, but the guild is growing, and zones populations don't seem particularly low. Over the weekend I played a 70 in Outland, a 37 in STV, and a 19-21 in The Barrens, and everything seemed about average, except that the HH quest has SM covered over in level-70s (and yeah, I got my HH easy-epic ring).
I'm curious to know what about 2.3 you don't like...
Future games really need to get away from the idea of unique names, work on some other hidden unique key and the name just be a property of the character. (Yeah, I know this causes a problem with tell/whisper communications, but perhaps we need another way to do that as well.)

As for merging... Blizzard has technically already started resolving the issue with the Battlegrounds being shared by server groups. Next step is shared instances. The step after that would be implementing zone level population caps and zone instances, then share those zones. After enough work, you'd have a hybrid of WoW and Guild Wars. Different logins and character DBs, but playing in a shared space.
I play on Eldre'thalas Alliance side and the server seems to be pretty healthy. There are 2 alliance guilds in Black Temple and my main is in one of them, and one horde side guild in Black Temple, and tons of SSC/Eye guilds and a million Kara guilds. We seem to get alot of transfers lately, and I have been playing my alt Paladin who just got to 58 this weekend. Playing my paladin in the old world content was ruff to get a group(and I think the cross server LFG was the greatest I dea I have read about in a long time), but now that I am in outlands I find it very easy to get groups for Hellfire citadel and ramparts, not to mention any quests I did there were several others doing the same ones, which is nice with the wierd respawn rate in HH. I don't know if it is because I am tank specd or what but I have been on this server 2+ years and I don't feel any decline in numbers. So many people playing alts, working on their arena rating, stock piling badges for the new rewards coming out, and yes I agree 2.3 is awesome. Zul Aman 10 man with no attunment and pretty sweet rewards, plus heroic badges and an incentive for t5/t6 guilds to go back to Kara with 2 badges dropping of each boss. The shaman and Ret pally changes look really good, the battleground dailys, season 3 coming out, dungeon and heroic dailys, just lots to look forward still , and my engineering mount!!. Might be more of the same to many people but thats all your gonna find in any other MMO's that are trying to breakthrough atm IMO.

Shamlock, Eldre'Thalas Alliance
The server I'm on has a low Horde population and an average Alliance population. I of course am playing horde. At this point my friends have enough social connections that we can usually find groups, but the horde side player economy is absolutely horrible. With so few people playing there is very rarely much of interest on the AH, and when there is, its exorbitantly priced. I have a mid-level alliance alt on another server, and looking at their AH almost makes me cry. Its generally fully stocked with just about anything you could imagine. On my horde server it can be hard to even find consumables.

I'm not sure what to do to fix it, Blizzard caused the problem in the first place by offering free transfers to a new server shortly before BC launched. I'm guessing the alliance population was high enough to give the server that option to relieve load, but it was open to horde and alliance equally, and tons of horde bailed. My guild of the time was shattered by it as well, as the officers and their chosen few moved to the new server and formed a new guild and everyone else was abandoned.

I think the main issue Blizzard needs to address is not server population, but Horde/Alliance population. A server might have a medium population overall, but if the Alliance:Horde ratio is 4:1 then Horde is severely underpopulated. Rather than general server transfers and merges, they should look at allowing faction members on high pop realms to move to low population realms. The transfer should be capped at a certain number to prevent the abandonment of a server. For instance, allow the transfer of 1000 horde characters from a high horde server to a low horde server. If a server population is too low to sustain, pick 4-5 servers of moderate population, offer free transfers to the server from that list of choice, and force all characters on the low pop realm to move. If they don't move after 30 days they get automatically transferred to the realm that needs population the most. Keep doing this until most realms are at moderate population levels. When the next xpac hits and population booms again? Re-open the old servers and allow transfers to relieve population pressure if needed. Blizzard needs to keep their server population flexible, as the game design depends too much on healthy population levels.

These somewhat draconian measures wouldn't do much for Blizzard's reputation for customer service, but I wasn't aware that they really had one anyway.
I dunno. I gave up on Retail servers a few months back and I play on a private server.

Lvl 254 Mage =)
Tanaris is severely underpopulated. It always has been underpopulated (it came online too late to develop a good population base), but it's gotten much worse the last couple of months. It's not unusual to go for an hour or more without seeing another player in mid-level zones. I play late at night, but still...

The economy on the horde side is a mess. Unexceptional green armor for low/mid level characters lists for 5 to 10g (easily 10x what it's worth). Materials prices can fluctuate by a factor of 4 or more - depending on who is trying to corner the market on any particular day (the economy is easily small enough to allow such manipulation). It's gotten to where there's really not much point in visiting the AH.

And just try to find a group. You can do it in the Outland, but forget about it anywhere else.

It's a classic example of the low population problems that you described. I'd love it if Blizzard implemented cross-realm play outside of battlegrounds. I know it doesn't fit their architecture, but with the money they're raking in, isn't this a problem that they can solve? It's only code. Barring that, how about dropping the fee and cooldown on realm transfers so that people can take "outings?" It seems unreasonable to charge people to play on a realm with systemic problems and then charge them to move off.
Capn John said...

Kilrogg seems fairly quiet, at least around Azeroth and the Eastern Kingdoms, although the Horde are still smacking around the Southshore Guards. I'm playing my high 40s Rogue at the moment and not seeing too many people around Feralas and Tanaris.

Funny coincidence! We've had this druid wandering around TM lately just killing guards... not quite sure what he's up to, lol. (kilrogg)

There's still a rather large twink community playing the game, the problem there though is that these twinks never leave the cities, since they really don't want to level. I feel a bit like a broken record, but if they didn't have to worry about leveling, we might see more real groups running low level instances for fun.
Lately I've experienced it like this:
Instances below 60 don't exist anymore. Everybody has at least one Char on MaxLevel he can use to get a friends' twink through the instance. The Rest of below 60 gaming is soloplay. The majority of players are between 60 and 70, so thats the part where you stop leveling and start actually playing.
This goes well for some time, you will find groups for all instances from 60 to 70 and if you're good enough, you will find nice people for heroics in that time. Don't even try pickup-groups, every time I tried I experienced either bad players or ninjalooters - or both.
The real problems start when it comes to raiding.
I have experienced endgame on two different servers now and its always the same:
There is a minority of good players who possess the skill, the time and the social capacities to raid and a vast majority of players who don't. Sooner or later raiding guilds will need new people because someone quitted WoW, got a new job with extended worktime or something like that. But whatever they try, everyone lacks at least one of the three points mentioned above. So they get frustrated, hear from another server where < insert famous guild > plays and then the complete guild switches server. Well, most of the guild. There are always some left behind, but those poor guys will probably never find another raidgroup and some time later quit the game or something like that.
The drama, part 2:
The guild ist on the new 'famous' server, everything goes well because like them, a couple of other guilds switched to that server. So the pool of skilled players is big enough and raiding is fun. And then some of the more social players of those switchers probably log on an alt on the old server. They chat a bit around with some left behind friends, probably some of which found a new raid.. a raid with the same problem as the first raid we looked at. Same environment, same problem, same solution. Guild Nr.2 hears from Guild Nr.1 who is all happy raiding on the famous realm, so Guild2 also switches.
The drama, part 3:
Serious raiding has concentrated itself on some few realms then. The left behinds on the old realm gather, they fill the spaces with some more or less skilled friends and they do their best. Which is not that much, because the few existing raids only have a minority of experienced raiders left.

Last point.. example from my server.
If I ignore karazhan and look at the 25man-raids, our server has about 5 left. None of them has ever entered Black Temple, The best has just gotten through The Eye. I for myself am stuck in Karazhan, our raid consists of 4 people who have seen all classic raid content (including Naxxramas) and a rest of people who are nice, but have mostly never raided before. Perhaps they will become raiders. Rome wasn't build in a day and so on. But now they are doing things we did a year ago and its tormenting to watch. And I know we will never be more than 10 people. I'm fed up after teaching those, the pay is much too low ;)

i can emphatize with you because your story reflect my own story too.. and losing a guild/community is pain. the only thing holding me to WOW was friends in guild. when the guild broke up and some transfer out then its over for me.
Drenden-US on Alliance side is medium population and doing nicely pretty much any evening hour.

We've got lots of max level types, but even more mid and low level people. I've never had a problem finding a group - in fact I sometimes have the opposite problem, If I'm trying to do a little short quest on a low level alt I am more often than not asked for help on someone else's quest.

After having "listened" to you all chat about things, I think I've got an algorithm for checking which realms are bustling and which are dying. If the population of ironforge is greater than that of stormwind, you are dealing with a server that is past its prime. Sure during the holidays that sometimes changes because blizzard has stuck some of the events way the heck out in ironforge, but for most of the year most of the newer players call stormwind home. On such a server Tanaris is heavily populated along with STV and the hinterlands. And you can usually find a few people in any given zone. Most of the lower level instances are also pretty easy to find a group for - sometimes by just hanging around the entrance till a group shows up with just four characters.
separated servers provides redundancy and varied game play as well as way for little Timmy to get the character name he really wants. and whats to say that some of the servers aren't utilizing the same hardware resources dynamically.
strange, but my server (Stonemaul EU) became overpopulated. And it seems to me it's population continues growing.
Half a year ago there were no queues at all. Now during peak hours queues may consist of 600-800people.
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