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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Why I preferred my raiders to have PvP experience…

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… and why I think Ashran will help with this!

Back when I used to recruit for and lead a raid team, I will admit one of my vices was to prefer players that had experienced both PvP and PvE. If that wasn’t the case with new applicants, I’d be more than happy to take them in 2’s or in BGs to get them that kind of experience if they wanted it – it’s partly how I managed to get nearly twice as much guild participation as the person in second place. I felt back at the time that if raiders could get used to unscripted events that often happen in PvP, they’d be much more likely able to react to when things don’t go too smoothly in raids and some people didn’t follow tactics perfectly and having to make up for that mess up.

Since me stepping down from raid/guild leadership and having been in new guilds with different leadership styles since, I’ve seen plenty of cases where I’ve been proven right or wrong. The best Windwalker Monk I’ve ever known, and definitely one of the best raiders I’ve had the pleasure of raiding with in the past 10 years, has barely set foot in PvP whatsoever – he doesn’t even hold 10k HKs to a single character. In my current guild, there are certainly people there that are excellent at following what boss mods tell them to. Some people do however panic once something goes awry and find it difficult to recapture the situation. If it’s just the nature of the later bosses in Siege to be difficult to pull back the slightest of situations, I don’t know, as I haven’t done the later bosses with anyone other than my current guild. But I do still feel like if they had a bit more PvP experience (as far as I know, most of them have pretty limited exp on that front) that there’d be a bit more initiative to survive easier. I have on the other hand seen one or two people who focus primarily on PvP being brought in to raid, and failing either in terms of performance output or just generally not following tactics and causing one-shot wipes. So there are certainly boots for both feet, for sure.

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Regardless, we found out from the Warlords release date event this week that Ashran would have mechanics in place that you collect a currency while fighting or completing objectives – including whenever you kill an enemy, you can loot half of their Ashran currency! I don’t know how that’ll work out for groups of gankers in terms of who gets the loot, but it certainly brings a bit more of a disincentive to die other than being set back up to 30secs and placed in the wrong side of the map to prevent immediate combat re-entry.

You see, one of the main reasons why I tried to push for PvP is to try and get people to use all of their toolkit, bits that they wouldn’t ordinarily use in a raid setting, and I also saw on logs that one of the leading reasons why people died or took too much damage is because they weren’t using their defensives effectively, if at all. I will admit that after missing two seasons of PvP that I’ve gone back into bad habits and forgetting I have abilities such as using Cenarion Ward preemptively to quickly gain health after a big damage nuke comes in, or keeping an eye on healers mana to innervate them early to be able to cast it again later in the fight, or even just using a quick NS+HT on people at low health. Admittedly at this stage our healers have so much regen that it’s mainly GCDs that kill people off if it’s not one-shot mechanics (or silly DPS getting crit streaks on the pull and dying to threat), so the latter example there would likely end up being overhealing for either myself or the healers, and I lose the ability to instant res for a minute, but it’s still areas that I know I’m slacking on from my break in PvP.

Ashran also provides a great outlet to just smack some faces around. With the new faction hubs being on the outskirts of the zone (with stronger guards than what we currently see in Mists’ Shrines) it allows people to not only have easy access to world PvP, but also to have a safe refuge when you’ve had enough or have realised that the opposing faction is dunking you hard. As much as I dislike mixing PvP and PvE content together, I would love to see Ashran as one of the ways you can earn bonus rolls in raids. It’s no secret I have a large dislike for dailies, so I’m glad that won’t be one of the methods of gaining these bonus rolls (other than the weekly quest chains, but seeing as it’s reminiscent of 5.1’s dailies, I’ll let that one pass).

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I guess my view back in the day was largely jaded because of the ease that the top guilds on our server also happened to have the best of the PVPers too, and even when there was a PVP focused guild that managed to snatch many multi-glads as well as gain Grand Marshal ranks they managed to clear the hardest raiding content in a matter of a scant few weeks of first setting foot in the raid altogether. There are certainly exceptions to the rule as I outlined above, and I certainly won’t hearken that I’m an excellent player in either PvP or PvE, but I will certainly argue the fact that in order to play better with people, it’s good to play against them to really see how people react in different ways to different situations, or to certainly find out better ways to increase their own life expectancy. With Ashran and arena skirmishes being very easy ways to get into PvP next expansion, it’ll be a much better time than any to dip your foot into it… As long as class balance isn’t as terrible as it has been at the end of Mists.

I’ve certainly learned that the best way for me to increase my life expectancy in raids these days is to constantly yell out for MD’s, Tricks and Hand of Salvs so that I don’t pull threat mid-cooldowns.

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.