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.

WAWK: Hellfire Citadel Part V

Black Gate

The Black Gate. While not as terrifying as its Lord of the Rings counterpart, it is the final step of our journey in Hellfire Citadel – and it isn’t even inside the Citadel itself! Chasing down Gul’dan and we find ourselves right where we started in this expansion: at the Dark Portal itself. Now just ruins, the orc warlock has tainted the ground around it while the fel roots shoot up to create a new portal to an unknown world or dimension, but through it strides the lord of the Legion, Archimonde. In our final episode of Who Are We Killing, we find out about Gul’dan’s final plan for Draenor.

Archimonde in Previous Games

Chronologically speaking Archimonde is one of Warcraft’s oldest villains, betraying the Eredar race 25,000 years ago alongside Kil’jaeden in exchange for immense power from the Dark Titan Sargeras. This act split the Eredar into two factions: the Draenei following Velen and the Man’ari following Archimonde and Kil’jaeden. Ever since, the two Man’ari leaders have sought vengeance against the Draenei for fleeing from the Legion, and have burned countless worlds to the ground in search for them. Talk about a grudge…

In terms of the franchise however, Archimonde has only been around since Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. While Kil’jaeden was the driving force behind the corruption of the orcs as cited in the Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness manual and prefers to work the plans of the Burning Legion through others, Archimonde heads the full attack of the Burning Legion, demons and all.

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In Warcraft 3, putting one grudge match against the Draenei aside for the grudge match against Azeroth, the Man’ari duo made their first return to Azeroth in 10,000 years with Kil’jaeden causing havoc through the Undead Scourge. Once the plague swept across Lordaeron and Quel’thalas the Scourge opened up a portal to the Twisting Nether to allow a full Legion invasion, along with summoning Archimonde to Azeroth.

The conclusion of Reign of Chaos ended with Archimonde fighting his way through the defenders of Kalimdor to ascend the peak of Hyjal. His goal was to absorb the powers of the World Tree Nordrassil as it held remnants of the arcane energy that filled the Well of Eternity – the power his master sought to absorb in the Legion’s last invasion. In the hour of his victory however, Malfurion had set up a trap. Using the spirits of the forest, the wisps, he called them all using the Horn of Cenarius to detonate once they surrounded the daemonlord.

In World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, players got to re-enact the final Reign of Chaos mission in one of the wings of the Caverns of Time instance complex. This Caverns of Time raid was unique at the time because there was no Infinite Dragonflight, the main antagonist of the dungeons, attempting to alter the timeways – there didn’t appear to be much difference at all between the RTS mission and the MMO raid. This led to popular speculation as to whether a mysterious group of adventurers had always assisted, as I’m sure many of us know that allowing the NPCs to defend without us leads to their downfall.

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Archimonde in Hellfire Citadel

Previously thought to have been completely vanquished at the base of the world tree Nordrassil at the end of the second Legion invasion, Archimonde made his grand return in Warlords of Draenor with a tweet from Afrasiabi stating that this Archimonde is the same as the one that got vapourised a decade ago. As he wasn’t killed within the Twisting Nether, he was simply banished back to there until he was strong enough to return. We’ve seen this happen many times before – especially with the Nathrezim such as Mal’Ganis or Balnazzar. It’s what stops there being an infinite number of Burning Legions from decimating worlds. There are many Eredar from 25,000 years ago that bore the name Archimonde, but as soon as they accept Sargeras’s gift they all merge into one Man’ari.

But knowing what happens in HFC, Gul’dan summons Archimonde into a Draenor that should already be conquered by the Legion. Whether through Kil’jaeden’s corruption in some timelines, or Archimonde’s brute force invasion of others, this timeline is the one that Azeroth’s defenders – the only planet we know of that has fought back the Legion not just once, but multiple times – is now protecting. What he does here is quite extraordinary however: he brings us into the Twisting Nether to confront him (in mythic, which is widely regarded to be the canon version of any fight). Likely to separate us from Khadgar, Grommash and Yrel, but I also imagine he’s stronger on home turf. Nevertheless, he is defeated and his body collapses… On Draenor’s side. We don’t see him fall within the Nether, we’re just treated to the same end cinematic that the easier difficulties enjoy – whether that’s laziness on Blizzard’s side, or there are plans for Archimonde in the future is up to their discretion.

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The Future For Gul’dan

Speaking of villains that last for more than one expansion, I’ve commented on this in the past that Blizzard tend to build up big bads within the game for us to only kill them in the final chapter of that expansion. Illidan (or Kil’jaeden) were never on our minds during vanilla – it was only until TBC came out that he popped his head through the door, and we slammed it shut. The same with Arthas in Wrath of the Lich King, and again with Deathwing in Cataclysm. It seems they heard mine and many other lore nerds out there that we didn’t really find these great “villains” very threatening when we killed them within a year of them becoming a threat – in Mists of Pandaria they decided that we were only going to defeat Garrosh, allow him to live for him to only escape and become the link into Warlords.

Only, this end-of-expansion villain was already killed before we even hit level 100 in some cases. It’s a start, I guess, and from what we know from Gamescom in August, it looks like that when Gul’dan was sent through the portal that summoned Archimonde, he ends up on our Azeroth. So here we have the final warlord left that isn’t either dead or now on our team who has again survived and links this expansion to Legion. However once again we appear to kill him off in the first tier – in our first real confrontation with him. Even in Hellfire Citadel where we’ve chased him and he’s been part of fights, we’ve only been up against his fel-infused Divine Shield while he resurrects demons and maintains Legion portals.

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It’s why my favourite villains in Azeroth have been Azshara and the Old Gods – especially N’zoth. These are villains who we’ve been up against and lost against: we’ve lost Neptulon, the elemental lord of water thanks to the former and we knew about N’zoth but couldn’t for whatever reason go ahead and end him. We had bigger fish to fry with Deathwing at the time and to stop the Hour of Twilight, though we’ll certainly be finding out more about Azshara during Legion, but it looks like once again we won’t be fighting her but her minions. Blizzard tried a deviation of this with Dragon Soul’s final two encounters being Deathwing – the only problem back then was that the first encounter was much more difficult than the second encounter (and final encounter of the expansion). But I would sincerely be interested for them to try this experiment again.

I would LOVE for Blizzard to prove us wrong by allowing Gul’dan to be the final encounter of Suramar Palace but allow him to incapacitate us and allow us to lose. Make us feel mortal again for us to realise that we can’t go headstrong into the thick of it. Let us regroup at our class halls and re-evaluate what we have to do. Will we see Archimonde or Kil’jaeden again on the Broken Isles? Or will they be villains ready for when we take the fight to Argus, if we ever do? At least for the former, if he really was killed in the mortal plane on Draenor, he’ll need time to regain his strength.

Highmaul: Who are we killing?

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Forever pushing this back, I decided to finally sit down in the twilight of Highmaul and write the article that a few have been poking me to write, or asking me things like: “So why are we killing this moss giant anyway?” Outside of purples and Abrogator Stones, there is a very good excuse for that, but we’ll get onto that later. For now, let’s look at why we’re entering Highmaul in the first place!

Highmaul

I always do love raiding cities when they’re well done. Blackrock Depths is a memorable first for many people to invade a city. With market quarters, entertainment districts and wealthy nobles walking around the raid instance, it really gives the place a lot of character and more depth that you can relate to as opposed to raiding a high fantasy fortress or something that doesn’t look like a place that is a home for its denizens.

Highmaul is the capital city and seat of power for the Gorian Empire, the nation-state of ogres that ruled Draenor before the arrival of the Draenei. In this timeline’s Draenor, it was the combined might of the Iron Horde that pushed the Gorian Empire back to their home continent across the Barrier Sea, however their leader Imperator Mar’gok has struck up an alliance with Grommash Hellscream, and so Highmaul stands as the bastion-city of the ogres, and they have certain items of interest to us.

Horde and Alliance invade Highmaul to bring Khadgar magical gems called Abrogator Stones and to gather the Felbreaker’s Tome and Sigil of the Sorcerer-King in order to aid in finding Gul’dan. Cho’gall also invades the city with the Pale to claim the ancient runestones for his own purposes.

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Kargath Bladefist

One of the first Warlords we encounter in Tanaan Jungle is Kargath Bladefist, where he makes us kill 100 gladiators for his amusement as a macabre mirror to his own imprisonment in Highmaul’s Coliseum. Other than appearances in Bladefist Hold in Spires of Arak and at Mok’gol Watchpost, we don’t really see much of Kargath until we first enter Highmaul and he’s standing with the crowd while we battle Vulgor. Once Vulgor is defeated, Kargath jumps into the arena claiming the crowd deserves a superior gladiator, and challenges the raid group to make him the first encounter of Highmaul. Whether he challenges us for his own pride, to get back at the amount of times we’ve escaped him from 90-100, or at the request of Mar’gok/Hellscream, we don’t know.

Once defeated, he makes a reference to the arena in Tanaan Jungle, where killing him is the 100th orc slain for freedom in the arena. So he gets the honorable Orcish death, which is a nice way to see out one of the Warlords! Cho’gall also arrives to start his siege on the city, and for the rest of the raid the assault of the Pale is notable throughout.

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The Butcher

Hidden away in the underbelly of Highmaul, the Butcher was beaten and abused from his early days. That only served to strengthen his body and weaken his mind, right up to the point where he no longer remembers his own name. Most give him a wide berth as he hacks and slashes away at carcasses left in the pit. We have no real reason to kill him lore-wise, other than the fact that Khadgar claims it would be wise to defeat every last of the ogres within Highmaul, to ensure they don’t become a threat. He also drops Abrogator Stones, so he likely picked those up from a nobleogre that ventured too far into the ghetto of the ogre city.

In Mythic, the Pale assault on Highmaul continues where Night-Twisted Cadavers attempt to slay Butcher as a last resort. They are extremely volatile however, and explode on contact. Why he’s a target of note to Cho’gall and his forces is also a mystery, but we’ll just have to chalk it up as just being a very powerful ogre who’s managed to pick up some interesting items in his mindless craze, and we have to kill all of the ogres in Highmaul

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Tectus, the Living Mountain

The Pale continue to invade Highmaul, and have managed to create a ritual to summon the primal earthen furies of Draenor, and attempt to bind it under their will to lay siege upon the citadel itself. However, like Wilfred Fizzlebang in Trial of the Crusader, they ended up with a trio of earth elementals Oro, Lokk and Rokkaa that decimate their summoners upon arrival. Once all three are defeated, the Living Mountain itself is angered and Tectus arrives.

The raid group must then attempt to break Tectus down into shards, and again into motes before finally breaking him into dust before the Pale attempt to overwhelm the raid and break his mind. Essentially, the only reason we’re killing him is to stop Cho’gall from having an elemental superweapon that he can bend and enhance to his master’s will. An unfortunate death.

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Brackenspore

With the Iron Horde juggernaut moored off the shores of Highmaul, Brackenspore became enraged. Driven by his primal instinct, he now wishes to eradicate any sign of civilization above the surface of the waters. If left unchecked, his fungal growth and moss quickly envelops the cliffs below Highmaul, and while the Iron Horde were barely holding him back, they ended up falling back to the safety of Highmaul, and it is up to the raid group to pick up the flamethrowers left behind and to combat the hostile fungus and encroaching moss to fight against the walker of the deep.

As the only area of the city that Cho’gall’s presence isn’t made known, it could be speculated that Brackenspore’s ultimate master is the same as Cho’gall’s. Nevertheless, even with just his primal instict kicking in, it’s clear that once the moss begins to envelop the coast, it can quickly go out of control. Defeating Brackenspore is an interesting sideline to the main story arc of the raid, and opens up opportunities as to what else could lurk within the Zangar Sea.

Twin Ogron

Twin Ogron

Pol and Phemos are the two massive Ogron that serve as Imperator Mar’gok’s personal guard, stopping anyone unwelcome from entering the citadel’s main halls. What they lack in intelligence, they more than make up for in brute force, size and strength. They want to stop us from getting to Ko’ragh and Mar’gok, and will die for their master before letting us go through. Fortunately for them, the grand Imperator does aid slightly in placing an arcane barrier at the stairs to prevent us sneaking past the dim-witted Ogron, and in Mythic he also periodically enhances them in their combat against us – by causing Pol to replicate himself whenever he shield charges, or by making Phemos’s whirlwind also create a vacuum, dragging in enemies toward his flailing axes. Imperator also negatively enhances the raid by overloading them with arcane energy, causing them to explode with great force upon peak energy.

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Ko’ragh

Interestingly, one of the few single-headed ogres to have an exceptional grasp on magic, Ko’ragh gets his exceptional abilities initially by luck mainly. He was the only ogre to survive direct exposure to an unearthed runestone in an excavation in Nagrand, that granted him an interesting immunity to all forms of magic – fel included. Taking the runestone back to Highmaul for research, Ko’ragh begins to teach other ogres various methods of Breaker rituals. Ko’ragh holds the Felbreaker’s Tome, a key item in locating and defeating Gul’dan. The pages of the tome appear blank however, so we have to obtain the Sigil of the Sorcerer King from Imperator himself in order to aid Khadgar.

Story-wise, nothing much changes in mythic, we just get to see more of his Breaker magic work in the form of mind control and fel magic usage. We’ve had a short break from the Pale with them not appearing in this encounter either, but we’re far from seeing the end of them as the trash between Ko’ragh and Mar’gok has an epic battle between the Pale and Ogre forces.

Imperator Mar'gok

Imperator Mar’gok

The current leader of the Highmaul, Mar’gok descends from a line of sorcerers who have ruled the Gorian Empire. At a far cry from the ogres we know on Azeroth, the grand Imperator is both cunning as well as brutal, while having an excellent understanding of arcane magic that surpasses even Khadgar to some extents. Allying with the Iron Horde, there is a clear reason why he is a threat to the Horde and the Alliance without even holding onto the Sigil of the Sorcerer King that is required for Khadgar to use the Felbreaker Tome acquired from Ko’ragh previously.

In mythic, Cho’gall arrives when Mar’gok gets low health and ensnares him in a field of dark magic before absorbing the power of the runestones through Mar’gok, ultimately killing him.

Cho'gall

Cho’gall

Although not a boss encounter in himself as more the final phase of the Imperator fight in mythic, this guy still deserves his own subsection. Why? It’s obvious why we want to kill him, he’s gone mad already and wants to kill us! Purely in defense of our own hides, we also find out some interesting tidbits from him that I’m looking forward to Blizzard expanding upon.

Firstly, alternate Cho’gall appears to have the same world-ending agenda as the Cho’gall in our universe did, he just has less eyes and looks more like an ogre here. He betrays not only Mar’gok, but in Nagrand he also betrays Gul’dan when he absorbs the void powers of K’ure. With the void powers, he is able to subjugate the Pale to assault Highmaul and gain the powers of the Sorcerer King’s runestones. However, assuming you don’t fail the raid team defeats Cho’gall, but not before he leaves an ominous and cryptic warning that his new master is drawing close to Draenor.

Between the Pale speaking a language very similar to the Old Gods of Azeroth, and the questline on old Outland involving the C’thun lookalike, it will be interesting to see who Cho’gall’s master is – the Burning Legion (but wanting to outrank Gul’dan), Dimensius or some other void god, or explore whether or not Draenor has its own set of Old Gods waiting to burst out of their ancient prisons. The Arakkoa certainly seem like they could be descendants of titanic watchers, no?