Before I begin, let me make a disclaimer that numbers for populations are according to Realmpop, which retrieves data from Blizzard’s Armory. While it is fairly accurate, it is not Blizzard’s internal data. In addition, the numbers that I bring up for the populations themselves are for characters, not players. I’m sure plenty of us have more than one character per realm, so numbers may be inflated somewhat. I’m also talking in context of EU-English realms for the most part.
One of the more welcomed features of the MoP/WoD transition was the introduction of new hardware from Blizzard’s part – the merging of realms in order to aim to boost realm populations to be at a stage where servers didn’t feel like ghost towns. Most realms that got this treatment were paired up with a single other realm, but some were connected to make a conglomerate of up to 10 realms.
How Blizzard decided who should be mixed with who is still a slight mystery as that large merger brought the meta-realm up to the 7th biggest realm in the EU region, according to Realmpop, with the only realms larger than that one are the behemoths that are single realms anyway: Outland (~537k), Stormscale (~455k), Silvermoon (~414k), Draenor (~380k), Kazzak (~379k) and Sylvanas (~370k). The 10 meta-realm sits closely behind Sylvanas at ~369k characters. Thanks to faction imbalance, Outland’s Alliance population exceeds Stormscale’s entire realm pop.
So if they can merge 10 realms together to rival the lower end of the behemoth realms, why are the rest of us floating in the 100-250k character range? That’s a big difference to see the majority of realms at that range, then to have scattered outliers between 250-350k, and then the select few mentioned above. My personal realm is in the vicinity of ~174k characters, with a ~2.2:1 Alliance:Horde bias. Our Horde population still outmatches Silvermoon’s Hordeside thanks to their hysterical faction imbalance, but for recruitment for mythic it becomes incredibly difficult to find new blood for Blizzard’s waning patch 6.2. At peak times the server itself barely breaches medium population, but for most of the day we’re low pop – the Hordeside being very reminiscent of pre-connections.
The main problem is that it still feels quiet. Whether or not those 174k characters are active or not, the biggest group of people I see are in front of Hellfire Citadel before a typical raid start time – but I doubt I could even fill a 40man group with those that hang out there. The above screenshot was when I hopped onto Kazzak to get a Huolon kill back in MoP, and I was told that was an average amount of people to see at places like the Shrines, in front of SoO before raid start, and of course farming rares on Timeless Isle. In comparison, Doomhammer-Turalyon makes you feel the entire world can be your garrison sometimes with how few people you see walking around.
It’s not a good feeling, and I would heavily suggest for Blizzard to continue the trend of merging realms again in the future. The main choke-points of larger realms are when new content is released, especially expansions, and people are forced to either wait in queue to get online or once they are online, are confronted with tons of lag and competition of mobs and doodads.
Four Realms to Rule Them All
One thing Blizzard could do is to simply merge all realms of the same type to one server. All PvE realms would be together, all PvP realms in one group, RP realms and RP-PvP realms – though I believe the latter is already the case.
With regards to faction balance, Blizzard have already mentioned that according to their internal statistics, Horde tend to venture toward PvP servers while Alliance populate PvE. With mega servers, you’d be looking at PvE realms having nearly 2.8m characters on Alliance side while Horde sits just under 1.7m characters. For PvP realms, Alliance become the underdogs with nearly 2.7m characters against the Horde’s 3.6m. What would happen to the PvP realms if this were the case? Many people prefer to be on the dominant faction when world PvP is concerned, so would we see mass exodus from the Alliance to go to the PvE realms (especially where places like Outland are concerned when they’ve been so used to outnumbering the Horde by so much).
One interesting statistic I saw was when I looked at the RP realms however: Currently there are 3 RP realms: Argent Dawn on its own, Darkmoon Faire/Earthen Ring and Moonglade/Steamwheedle Cartel/The Sha’tar. If they merged them all together, Argent Dawn would still make up just over half of the population on its own.
To look at a similar game that’s already gone through this, Wildstar originally started with separate realms. As the initial hype left along with more and more players, Carbine eventually merged the realms into a mega server and the Exiles far outweighed the Dominion. When they further created two servers – one for PvE and one for PvP – most people ended up moving to the PvE one and left the PvP one as a wasteland. RP-PVP realms in WoW seem to be unique to this however, as they are already all connected and their balance is ~162k Horde to 171k Alliance. Could the mega server work for WoW then?
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest downfall of merging everyone together would be in major content patches or even just at prime time when you’re confronted with a queue screen. When you do get online, you probably won’t be able to get anywhere as either the lag will be insane or the things you need will be missing or dead. Blizzard has made improvements to this with areas like the Tanaan starting zone at level 90, where packets of people were phased at a time, but once choke-points like setting up your garrison occurred, that’s where things broke down. Majorly.
Aim for High Population per Realm
This is where Blizzard would probably know more on the matter than what you or I could. Because of the data that we know, we can’t tell for sure how many of those characters belong to a single player, and we don’t even know how active or what activities they partake in. I largely take part in the crowd most influenced by the Massively Multiplayer side of an MMO, the raiding side, but constantly each week we’re struggling to fill out our mythic raid team to its full 20, and the 15-18 of us are getting tired of heroic HFC but feel like it’s an uphill battle to find people capable of mythic.
There’s only 3 Horde guilds on our realm that’s progressing in mythic HFC, and the only two have plenty of people happy in their current guild, and we get on well with them enough to not want to poach from them, and the rest of the Horde’s guilds have yet to kill Mannoroth on heroic, let alone Archimonde. 6.2.3 will help a ton with us being able to sell the Grove Warden mount, and to be able to finally regularly raid mythic with crossrealm raiding from the patch’s launch, but in that space of time where we can’t field enough players for mythic from our own realm, it feels utterly crippling.
So instead of the mega realms suggested previously considering even the realms with 350k+ characters are struggling with prime time play, perhaps merge realms together to aim for around 300k characters. This would be easy for the sub 150k realms that are already merged, but the challenge would be for those between the 150k-300k mark. As it stands you could safely merge the twosome and threesome RP realms together from above, and keep Argent Dawn as its own realm and call it a day, but what about for all the PvP and PvE realms?
Faction balance would always be an issue: for PvE realms at least out of 21 realm groups only 3 have more Horde than Alliance, but on a PvE realm that’s not much of an issue anyway – I’d just like to have more people to play with, not necessarily caring much about if the other faction has a monstrous size in comparison. I’m not going to be activating PvP much for it to matter! Ignoring realms with over 250k characters, Doomhammer/Turalyon is the 3rd quietest Hordeside PvE realm according to Realmpop, so connecting us with the Horde 3rd busiest will merge us with the Kilrogg/Nagrand/Runetotem group of realms, bringing us to a huge 413k mix of realms – around the business of Silvermoon but hopefully with a ratio of ~2:1 Alliance/Horde (instead of 22.7:1). I don’t know if that will help at all, especially considering even with the quiet/busy merge brings the total population to those of problem prime time realms, but during the quiet drought between patches it will definitely help a lot.
For PvP realms, there are only 5 realm groups that have less than 250k character, but none under 200k. I feel that Blizzard probably did as best as they could with those realms, but their problem is that all of them are Horde dominated. The Alliance are going to feel very quiet and farmed on those realms, and any mergers are going to bring them to Stormscale’s level of business. I’d probably suggest to merge Al’Akir/Skullcrusher/Xavius with Bladefist/Frostwhisper/Zenedar to make a 428k size realm group, and let the smallest realm be a size of 214k until Blizzard’s engineers can update the servers to handle more people on a single realm. Of course, staggering these mergers is always going to be rocky until we can turn into a mega realm described above, as you can’t split these realms up later on down the line – it’d be like saying the Undead are removed from the Horde and have to fend for themselves!
The Bottom Line
The MMO genre is a “dying breed”, going the way of RTS’s, construction games and alternative sports games. With the way that people generally want quick games that they don’t have spend hours pouring into (unless they can safely leave and re-enter again later), it’s easy to see why MOBAs, FPSs, CCGs and casual games are rising to the top of Twitch consistently. It’s also why MMOs that people have said will be “WoW Killers” end up not. WoW is still a great game and is one of the best at what it does in the genre, it’s just that genre isn’t where gamers are going any more.
With these gamers leaving the genre, it’s imperative for those of us left behind to still feel that MM part of MMORPG. Blizzard may not want to spend the big bucks to improve the servers on a game they know is in the twilight of its life, and they may want to invest more money into Hearthstone, Heroes or Overwatch, or even into their new esports division. One thing that could bring WoW back into the limelight will be the changes that Legion bring to WoW PvP, but until then we need to have those empty spots on our realms, on our raid teams filled.