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.

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Spoiling the End Boss

garrosh_by_hipnosworld-d6gvty1I won’t lie, I like my spoilers. I also kick myself when I realise that the spoilers I’ve gone out to find has overall spoiled the entirety of a story for me. It’s partly why I ignored any forum thread or any article concerning Christie Golden’s War Crimes novel recently before I had read the book. Though the outcome of the end was still spoiled, because I knew of the events to come in Warlords. It was a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I can guarantee that some of the plot twists would have been much more surprising and enjoyable had I not known what eventually happens to Garrosh. Please note, there will be spoilers in this article, especially in the final sections where I talk about Warlords of Draenor.

The journey on which he gets there was good to read, and I imagine it’s why a lot of Game of Thrones book readers continue to watch the TV series (other than some parts of the TV version not being in the books) is that although they know what’s eventually going to happen a lot of the time, they still enjoy where the producers of the show take the books and present it to us as we sit on our couches and watch the epic fantasy unfold. Personally, I feel that knowing the end result kind of nullifies a lot of the twists and turns that many stories make, and looking back on the story of Mists of Pandaria I feel that this expansion was a prime example of that.

We’re greeted at the start of the expansion with the pre-expansion event of the Destruction of Theramore, Garrosh’s plan to get all of the Alliance’s generals and leaders into one place and them drop a devastating mana bomb on the city, further separating the Horde and Alliance ties, especially severing any kind of diplomacy Jaina had with the Horde. Shortly afterwards, a massive continent was discovered in the mists south of the Maelstrom in the Great Sea when Horde ships were attacking Alliance ships – one of which carrying Anduin Wrynn.

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The first couple of months of the expansion was us, both Horde and Alliance taking part in a small task force set out to explore this new continent. Of course, with residual animosity between the two factions, we recruited the Hozen and Jinyu,clashed and caused the ancient horrors of Pandaria, the Sha, to resurface on this new continent. The rest of the first few months were to clean up after ourselves and defeat the six prime sha that the last emperor of the Pandaren Empire locked away many years ago.

Once the bulk of Horde and Alliance forces made landfall a couple of months after the players had, a small chain of events followed concerning Garrosh’s attempts at creating a weapon capable of crushing the Alliance – pretty standard follow-up to what he attempted in Theramore. To this, he tried to use the Divine Bell, fabled to have increased the strength of the user’s warriors by fueling their hatred and anger while also striking fear and doubt into its enemies. The Alliance got their hands on the Bell before Garrosh, but that didn’t stop him from sending agents into Darnassus and stealing it for his own use. Anduin Wrynn ended up stopping Garrosh in this particular path of conquest by shattering the Divine Bell with an artifact known as the Harmonic Mallet.

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A secondary plot started in the Jade Forest of the Mogu returning, a powerful race that had enslaved the Pandaren over 12000 years ago before being defeated. This storyline continued through most zones in Pandaria, alongside a renewed ancient alliance with the Zandalar trolls. In Kun-Lai Summit, players are sent on a wild goose chase across multiple mogu tombs and ruins, only to find that the Zandalar have resurrected the first emperor of the Mogu Empire, the Thunder King Lei Shen. After several months in the Pandaria campaign, after the sha were neutralised, this Thunder King had returned to his island stronghold known as the Isle of Thunder and had gotten to work uniting the scattered Mogu clans, enlisting the aid of his ancient Zandalari allies, and re-awakened the horrors his people had engineered in order to re-conquer and crush Pandaria (with a Zandalar secondary plan for taking on the rest of Azeroth).

After the assault on the Throne of Thunder, both Alliance and Horde came away with artifacts and powers that strengthened both factions – the Horde made use of the anima technology and the Alliance gets to empower Jaina’s staff with the powers of the Thunder King. Now imagine that we didn’t have the leak from BlizzCon ’11 that Garrosh was the final boss of Mists. After all of this, it would have been very interesting to see in patch 5.3 to see events such as Battlefield: Barrens, Secrets of Ragefire scenario, the digging up of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms and Dark Heart of Pandaria scenario. We could have assumed that the Horde and Alliance would continue to come to blows, as that’s what we’ve essentially been doing since the Wrathgate event back in the Lich King expansion, but for the Darkspear to go in all out rebellion against Garrosh and end up causing civil war – that might have been an interesting surprise to see.

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Had we not known that Garrosh was the end boss of Mists, would we be even more up in arms right now that there’s such a long span of no content? Could it have given Blizzard a bit of opportunity to have created an extra filler raid (as much as we adore them) to explore races like the Yaungol in more detail, or chase off some more Zandalar trolls after the defeat of Lei Shen? Knowing that he was the final boss just left me feeling throughout the entire expansion “So what is Garrosh going to do that gives both factions the desire to kill him, not just the Alliance?” Segregating Orcs from the rest of the Horde in Cataclysm wasn’t enough. Trusting Magatha Grimtotem, silent enemy of Cairne Bloodhoof, to enchant Gorehowl in his mak’gora against Cairne and ending up killing him wasn’t enough. Going against honourable combat – the very foundation of morals most of the Horde follow – in the destruction of Theramore wasn’t enough. Attempting to assassinate Vol’jin in 5.1 wasn’t enough. Killing off anyone and blowing up Razor Hill’s inn because people spoke against him as outlined in the Shadows of the Horde novel wasn’t enough. All of these slowly built up into the rebellion in 5.3, but the real kick that got Alliance, Horde AND Pandaria’s participation against the Warchief was the destruction of the Vale and consumption of an Old God’s heart. Ever since BlizzCon 2011 I’ve been following the story on both factions, just trying to piece together the different clues that ultimately led up to the big picture we all knew to expect in the Siege of Orgrimmar.

This is why I’m so far looking forward to Warlords of Draenor. We don’t know who the end boss is: as far as the warlords themselves go, we’re already killing off Ner’zhul, Blackhand and Kargath Bladefist in the first few months of the expansion. Durotan is for the moment allied with the playable Horde. That leaves Kilrogg Deadeye (though I believe I read somewhere that we’ll be confronting him in the Bonetown scenario), Grommash Hellscream and Gul’dan. This leaves plenty of speculation as to where the expansion will take us, and what encounters we might end up fighting against. I’d imagine that with 5 of the 7 featured Orcish Warlords being taken care of in the first patch, that we’ll either see Grommash as the fourth boss in the final raid or that we’ll be taking care of the rest of them fairly quickly, with a side-raid concerning the Spires of Arak and then dealing with whatever Gul’dan has gotten us into.

Weekly Roundup: The Rift between expansions

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I’ll admit, I’m not feeling the drive to play WoW anywhere near as much as I have been, and with Warlords of Draenor on the horizon, I think I can safely say I’m in pre-expansion blues. I know that since I picked the blog back up a few weeks back it’s not entirely had the best WoW-focus anyway, but still I feel the pull loosening and loosening. Last expansion’s blues was filled with me trying to grab as many achievements as I could, trying to gear up alts through Dragon Soul raid finder, and progress through normal and heroic DS on those alts. We even set up a Horde counterpart guild so that we couldn’t be boosted by an assortment of differently geared mains and alts. With more hours at work taking me away from any kind of regular raiding schedule with the friends I’ve already made online (and they themselves finding less incentive to be ingame) I just feel that Mists is… Done. For me, anyway.

War Crimes came out earlier last week, and that’s largely cemented my feelings towards the gap between Mists and Warlords. I feel like I’ve finished my part in the expansion, even with 3 heroic bosses still to kill. I enjoy raiding, and I’m sure as hell going to still give it my all to my guild when we are making attempts on Blackfuse, but if we hang up the towel I likely won’t have sorrow that I didn’t complete the final bosses this expansion has to offer. The Cutting Edge achievement will completely be out of my grasp but I’m sure I’ll be able to pick up the boss kill achievements at a later date. I’ve got my staff heirloom from normal, and I can’t imagine having the heroic one to be THAT much of a difference while levelling, and I’m sure I’ll have as much motivation to get the mount as I do Invincible or Mimiron’s Head.

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Looking back even further from last expansion’s blues, and in the twilight of Wrath days, I remembered I was looking at other MMO’s to play. Rift was in beta at the time, and I checked it out. I can’t exactly remember much of what I experienced back then, as I was hopping to and from games like anything back then too, but I decided that with this apparent new patch massively improving the game that I’d check it out again. It’s free to play now after all, so what’s the harm? Of course, I don’t know what this new patch brought, or how it would have improved the game at all – I even struggle to remember what I played back then: I’d just started trying out Balance Druid for the first time in WoW, so when I heard that Druids were a DPS spec of Clerics I wanted to try that out. I also had some kind of Rogue tank on the other faction, so I tried to fire it up and join a friend who I noticed pop up on my Steam profile… Only to find out I was spammed with an authentication error whenever I tried to log in.

Oh well. Moving on, I still downloaded the update and decided to play as a guest for a while and ended up creating a new account irregardless. I have to say, I was fairly impressed with the changes to the game in the past two or three years. I wouldn’t say it’s a Reaper of Souls kind of improvement, but it certainly feels much more of a solid game, and has cycled into the free-to-play model pretty well, though I only say this as someone that’s spent roughly 2 hours or so in the past week and hasn’t seen anything much past level 10. From what I could tell from a brief look at the Rift Store, you could buy things such as mounts, companion pets, experience boosts, faction changes… Things that sounded a little familiar, and I contemplated what WoW could look like with this monetary model.

Upon looking deeper into it however, there were other things that you could purchase with real currency. Trion have a subscription model that you can purchase if you wish, that would grant bonuses such as bonus currency (both gold/platinum as well as dungeon or crafting currencies); bonus experience boosts; instant access to banks/trainers; bonuses to reputation/notoriety; discounts in the store; queue hopping to get onto servers, or shards as they’re known in Rift; loyalty bonuses for keeping subscribed for long periods of time, and more. When I looked at the subscriber bonuses, I quickly came to the conclusion that Blizzard could probably not get away with turning their subscription model to something similar to Rift. I can only imagine the outburst on the forums where people would feel “forced” to stay subscribed in order to stay competitive.

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At the end of the day, they’ll be the vocal minority and the pricing structure probably won’t be more expensive to what we’re paying each month now. However, because the free-to-play option is available, QQ will definitely ensue for people feeling that they’ll be nerfed in comparison to subscribers and have to pay Blizz in order to stay in heroic or mythic raiding. Personally, I’m happy staying free-to-play in Rift, just as I’m trying my best to keep real money out of Hearthstone, and if I ever get into Heroes of the Storm I’ll hopefully just be earning the gold and spending that ingame. The latter will depend on how quickly gold can be earned post-40 and when new heroes come out that I find out I want to play, but for now I’ll grind to 10k gold and get my Abathur and be happy. With my desire to main Abathur, I have no real need to buy mounts anyway, and unless I falter and end up buying Pajamathur, I won’t actually see much of my hero in any case in a standard match, so there’s not much need to buy skins on Abathur in my opinion.