On Bottlenecks and the Start of Expansion Rush

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World of Warcraft, despite its recent years, is still a pretty big game. One that always gets a surge of interest right at the start of expansions. It’s up to Blizzard to try and make sure that the starts of expansions go as smoothly as possible because as with any game, creating a bottleneck right at the start (or toward the start) of expansions with result in a lot of negative backlash. For the current expansion, Warlords of Draenor, it hit multiple national news sites such as the BBC when the garrison technology either trapped people inside their garrisons, leaving the rest of the world a phased husk with no NPCs outside of the garrison walls, or the exact opposite where trying to get into the garrison left that empty.

However, there was a bottleneck even before then that created the actual bottleneck and caused a lot of rage within the community. As the Alliance, you had to place a flag into the ground, but it could only be done one at a time. Even on a quiet server such as Emerald Dream, you still had to compete with ~100 other players to stick their flag down into the ground. I don’t know what the situation for Horde was like, but from what I hear it had something to do with looking through a spyglass that had the exact same issue.

So it got me thinking, and I’m sure Blizzard have had the same thoughts going into Legion. What can Blizzard do to try and ensure that we don’t have these bottlenecks going into the next expansion? How can they make things go as smoothly as possible, once they know their hardware can handle the mass logging in of thousands of players across multiple realms? With previous expansions, we’ve always been split up to try and even the load of people going to different areas, so that a local spot isn’t overwhelmed with people trying to get one quest objective done (and in their boredom, spam AoE spells and eventually crash the server).

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In vanilla, where the hardware was the shakiest, we still had 8 areas where people were split up – every race’s starting zone – that was easily the biggest and best spread we’ve had. But that goes without saying for a fresh new MMO that its starting roots should be the largest, with expansions having less areas for people to flood to. In The Burning Crusade, both the Horde and the Alliance at level 60 flooded into Hellfire Peninsula, with the two factions splitting off into their own questing hubs. Rerollers had the opportunity to also level up the new Draenei or Blood Elves, with particular emphasis on the new Shaman and Paladin classes that were previously unavailable to Alliance and Horde respectively. So here we had 4 bottleneck potential areas for people to get stuck in, yet here again was more simply keeping the servers as a whole up

Going ahead to Wrath of the Lich King we had the first new class introduced to WoW, the Death Knight, where people flocked to en masse. For those at level 70, they had the choice of two entry level zones: Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra, and again split into Horde and Alliance questing areas. This split the playerbase up into 5 local areas. In Cataclysm another two new races were added: the Worgen and Goblins, as well as another two new zones for high level people to go into: Hyjal and Vashj’ir. Although Vashj’ir splits the Alliance and Horde up, in Hyjal (and arguably the more popular zone in hindsight) puts both factions on the same rollercoaster ride through the zone. Again, that’s 5 bottleneck local areas for people to get caught up in. However, new race/class combos were introduced and with the revamp to the 1-60 questing experience, I’m sure the smaller minority spread themselves over the 8 starter zones for other races (for those that didn’t readily race change anyway).

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Mists of Pandaria brought us Pandaren that had a notorious quest to set a banner on fire, again with only one player being able to do it at a time, with the banner respawning a while later for the rest of the people in the “queue”. Level 90s were pigeon-holed into the Jade Forest, with the two factions having their own hubs once again. Similar to Cataclysm, there were a few that levelled in the rest of the starting zones, this time to level non-Pandaren Monks. Though with how small the Monk population already was anyway, I doubt that this had much of an impact to the bottlenecks, especially in the Wandering Isle as well as taking several rounds on a helicopter vehicle before even getting an action bar to complete the quest… At least instance servers were stable for at least half an hour to filter people around. Realistically, people were bottle-necked in MoP into 3 areas, and the game definitely felt it as questing technology increased faster than the capabilities of the servers handling it large-scale.

Cue Warlords of Draenor, with its launch bringing sub numbers back up to 10 million again, and Blizzard used technology extremely well with the Assault on the Dark Portal scenario, allowing small groups of people to go into the entry experience in Draenor. Even though I was on a quiet realm anyway, I never saw more than 10 people in one area, though I believe that the scenario split people up into packs of ~50 to ease up on lag. The only problem was that once you left this scenario, you were put into Shadowmoon Valley or Frostfire Ridge, and as I outlined earlier, a similar problem to the Pandaren fire banner quest occurred: only one person at a time could click on the spyglass or flag in order to set up your garrison – this was outside of the problem of having to keep on returning to this solo phased area to update missions, pick up new breadcrumb quests to lead and fly you to new zones and update buildings and work orders… all for it to become an extremely unstable place to be for several days after launch. With no new races (thanks to the art team being busy updating the pre-Cata races) and no new classes, people had very little reason to start at a lower level, so the vast majority of people levelled from level 90 in the two new zones – the smallest range of bottlenecks to date! Because of the problems of filtering people outside of the garrisons, it’s hard to tell where else there were problems, but once people started catching up to the lucky few that got out, you certainly noticed the increase in server lag.

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In Legion, Blizzard are trying out a new style of levelling – allowing the zones to level around you while you play through the story of different zones. With current pacing, it’ll take around 2.5 zones to get you to level 100, and it takes around the same amount of time to get through each zone’s full story. Without access to beta, I’m not entirely certain how factions will be split up in each zone, but I know for sure that Stormheim splits Horde and Alliance up, while Val’sharah has a similar Hyjal feel of keeping everyone together in one place (though with less rollercoaster questing as you get to choose which hubs you want to go to). The biggest bottleneck that I fear for however will be that as soon as the expansion launches everyone will start in the new Dalaran. I don’t know if you remember how laggy Wrath of the Lich King’s Dalaran was at the best of times, but if everyone starts off here as soon as the expansion launches in order to get their artifact weapons… Let’s hope that live servers will be more stable as even in videos I’ve seen in alpha, it sometimes took a while for the emissary to lead you to your artifact took a while to even turn up (despite them spamming your chat log that everything is urgent).

Blizzard have done fantastic with everything leading away from it, as long as instance servers can be found in order to do your artifact scenario, as it will lead people away, initially, into 36 different areas, to group up into class order halls (note, not your own personal garrison) of 12 different areas dotted around the world, to then filter out into 4 levelling zones of at least 5 concentrated areas of action. Demon Hunters will be introduced as well, though pre-orders can play their starting experience and play around in HFC between 7.0 and Legion’s launch. It all depends on if Lagaran has become more stable in its new incarnation for Legion’s biggest bottleneck. One of the bigger problems will be for those that are classically fast levellers: they will continue seeing plenty of players levelling with them even if they’re one of the 5 people that are 108+. No more hiding away in Nagrand, Dread Wastes, Twilight Highlands, Icecrown or Netherstorm lag-free and continuing your dominance to server first level X.

Time will tell if Blizzard have finally hit the nail on the head on how to keep a game’s launch stable.

Fun Speculation: The Final Boss of WoW

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Good morning people! Hope you had an awesome weekend.

WoW is an expansive universe, reaching out across not just Azeroth, but many other physical plains in the Great Dark Beyond, and especially in the non-physical Twisting Nether. As we near to the end of Mists of Pandaria where we strike down another expansion’s final boss, it got me thinking as to what else could serve as the final point of an expansion. As we’ve seen with Garrosh, even characters created within the WoW section of the franchise can don this title, but it does require more than just one expansion to flesh someone out.

With that said, who else do we know of in Warcraft that could be threats to our homes and our lives? What else stands out there, taunting us with purple (or otherwise) end-of-expansion weapons?

Old Gods

It’s not a secret that I love Old God lore. Although their M.O. is usually the same: to instill chaos and disorder, it’s interesting to see how each of the Gods go about it. C’Thun was the god of chaos – the Qiraji of Silithus revered him as their god, and twice he attempted to take control of Azeroth post-Titans, failing. more recently, in the comics he empowered Cho’Gall to what we see him as in Bastion of Twilight, so even after heroes defeated him in patch 1.9, he was still able to empower, manipulate and sow chaos to the world. Yogg-Saron is dubbed as the old god of death, responsible for the Curse of Flesh and having the ability to manipulate and control even his own jailors, the Titanic Watchers of Northrend.

Y’shaarj is the most recent Old God that we’ve come into knowledge of, who was slain by the Titans in their second re-ordering of Azeroth. With his death, he cursed the land and corrupted it with the Sha, who pop up and wreak havoc if you were to have any of their associate negative thoughts. Y’shaarj is the revered god of the Mantid, who hold no secret as to where their loyalities lay should the Old Gods return – even shown in Siege of Orgrimmar where the Klaxxi Paragons have allied with Garrosh, who has “resurrected” the heart of Y’shaarj using the mystical waters of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms.

If the Warcraft III manual is to be believed, that leaves us with two more Old Gods who we’ve yet to fight against. One of which we have no idea on their whereabouts (although signs point to Tirisfal Glades, Blizzard have also mentioned it isn’t there), and the other being N’zoth. N’zoth was the Old God responsible for a few things, we’re led to believe of:

  • The corruption of Neltharion/Deathwing;
  • Empowering Queen Azshara when her city went below the tides and turned her and her people into Naga;
  • Using Lord Xavius as a pawn to create the Emerald Nightmare

So he’s not a good nugget to be around really. And he’s still out there, rumoured to be at the bottom of the ocean somewhere – either below Vashj’ir or near the Rift of Aln/Nazjatar. Chances are as a result that we’ll see him soon, and if he has the ability to manipulate and empower forces such as those above, what kind of fight do you think he’ll end up being?

I’m pretty sure perma-MC is going to come into play, as is what seems to happen with a lot of Old God fights. He’s also linked with sleep and empowering people too – perhaps something to do with the Emerald Dream or us getting big, fat buffs in the fight? Is he end-of-expansion content, or will he be, similar to C’Thun and Yogg-Saron, a boss we have to lock away for another day?

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Queen Azshara

Mentioned above, there is still other threats below the surface of Azeroth’s oceans. When the Sundering first occurred, a lot of land surface went underneath the Great, Frozen and South Seas. The naga have been a consistent threat throughout WoW’s life (I believe Pandaria is the first expansion where they don’t show up) and their war with the Kvaldir, the story for Neptulon and more importantly, the threat of their leader, Queen Azshara are still major points that need to be addressed.

She is thought of as one of, if not the, most powerful mortal mages ever to live – more powerful than Jaina, the Guardians of Azeroth or even Rhonin(!). As I’ve mentioned above, she’s been working in the background for a little while now, having her story built up over multiple expansions… But we’ve never really taken the fight to her. Largely because the only time she’s ever really been a threat in the past 10,000 years is when Deathwing broke the world and the waters of the world did most of the work for her. Even Lady Vashj seems to have threatened us more than Azshara has, and she was doing it on another planet, sucking up the waters of Zangarmarsh!

While I would like to see Azshara come to the limelight, as she most definitely is end-of-expansion quality as raid bosses go, I have a feeling she will be another enemy that will suddenly rise up out of nowhere, and we kill her in the same expansion. Sure, she’s got the whole Neptulon and Vashj’ir storyline to continue from Cataclysm, but this was more background-villain than what I was complaining about last week with having the main villain last multiple expansions. Cataclysm was the story of Deathwing and the elemental planes, with Vashj’ir giving the Abyssal Maw some background before we were due to go raiding in there (before the idea got scrapped) – Azshara gives a good hook for that, and if we had the Abyssal Maw and saw more of her in Cataclysm, I would have been content.

The Burning Legion

Speaking of non-mortal planes such as the elemental planes, there is also the case of the demonic plane in the Great Dark Beyond (or outer space) called the Twisting Nether. Here is a absolutely massive wealth of content that is simply yet to be tapped into. Draenor was obliterated by Ner’zhul’s portal creations to other worlds, and leaked into the Twisting Nether and wholly exists inside of it now, but other than that, there isn’t really THAT much information known about it. Demons are created there, with magics of arcane, fel and certain types of shadow spells originate from the Nether, but most importantly, the Burning Legion is the most likely faction you will find out there.

The closest that any end-boss has come to being one that fulfills my hope that Blizzard creates an enemy that lasts more than a year against us, is Kil’jaeden. In Sunwell, he was partially summoned into the world by Kael’thas and his followers from Outland, and we pushed him back into the Well and banished him from Azeroth… Temporarily. There’s also the case of Mal’ganis that we have to deal with – wasn’t he meant to kill the Lich King for us? Sargeras, Kil’jaeden, Mal’ganis, Mephistroth are all major names we already know of, and I’m sure there are more leaders in charge of  for example the Annihilan (Pit Lords) now that Mannoroth is dead – I’m sure that there is a new Burning Legion General out there somewhere at least.

Plus, there’s many other species of demons that will have leaders in their own rights that we can slaughter – The Burning Legion can be multiple expansions where we start off by fighting against them on Azeroth, then moving onto realms such as Xoroth, Xerrath, and if they have survived and operate as Legion HQ: Fanlin’Deskor and K’aresh. And of course there’s Kil’jaeden, Archimonde and Velen’s homeworld, Argus that is there to be explored. That’s up to five planets to be explored for just the Burning Legion alone – look at how long it’s taken us to explore Azeroth’s dangers!

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Other Faction Leaders

We’ve already put some war back into WARcraft in this expansion, and we can see that Blizzard aren’t averse to killing off important faction leaders by giving us a stick and allowing us to poke Garrosh with it. However, there are other morally grey faction leaders still in important roles within their factions. The obvious one I’m talking about is Sylvanas Windrunner, who’s been running around taking control of the northern end of the Eastern Kingdoms, becoming more and more like a Lich Queen in the process.

For those that haven’t seen the Garrosh kill cinematic, just take a look at the image above. This is the face she pulls when Varian does what she wants. Now I know this is Blizz-level ingame cinematics, but that face is such a manipulative, scheming face that will just snap one day and we end up going into patch x.4: Siege of Dalaran. Either she’s going to be a main supporter of the Alliance-Horde war effort (alongside people like Vereesa and Sky Admiral Rogers… What is it with Alliance women lately and their sincere hatred of the Horde?) or she will go too far and we have to deal with her.

An Underlying Problem

Now with all these big bads mentioned, there does need to also be some intermediary bosses within the expansions – either as pawns to the final mastermind, or if they have Old God syndrome and seem to pop up in the middle of expansions when they could perfectly be end-expansion bosses… In that they just don’t have enough back-story to them to warrant being on the box art. But they do need to happen, otherwise there is going to be an underlying problem of there simply being too many levels in the game.

A new WoW player at the moment has to buy five games in order to reach that level cap, but even then they may look at the 90 levels and wonder if they really want to go through all of that just to fight the guy that their friends are talking about. A solution to the first problem of the amount of games to buy, is to consolidate them into battle chests again like what Blizzard had done with vanilla/TBC, or have certain multi-buy discounts where if you buy MoP, you get the rest for free or at a heavy discount.

For the sheer amount of levels, I’m not sure what they could do. There’s several options such as a level squish, similar to our item squish that’s occurring soon: Azeroth could go up to level 40; Outland 45; Northrend 50; Cata 55 and MoP 60. It would feel weird to veterans of the game to suddenly be killing Vrykul at level 50 instead of 70+, but to bring new players in as we’re closing in on triple figure levels, it might help rejuvenate WoW slightly.

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Another way to combat the level problem is to simply not have any levels next expansion: with the item squish we could “unlock” questing zones through quests, and just increase our iLvls going into future expansions. I’d personally not prefer that method myself, as artificial gates won’t suit a lot of people, especially if it’s through quests (thinking about alts and doing the lines more than once – some people don’t even do them the first time!).

My final suggestion would be to implement something in between, of having something similar to Paragon levels, or to keep in lore with WoW (and this post) Titan levels – having a level cap at a nice, round 100, then having something happen to us as players, and we continue levelling through these Titan levels.

Who do you guys think the end of WoW will be? Will Blizzard just try to hold off the classical big bad, Sargeras, potentially bringing him back Kael’thas style for multiple expansions? How many expansions do you think WoW could withstand before thinking about WoW 2, or even just ending the story and finishing up with us slaughtering each other? What would you do for new players to make sure that the big level wall has at least some steps along the way?

I’ll see you on Wednesday, have a good start to the week!