WoW ghost towns: why Blizzard’s not helping

As I return to WoW, I’ve been adapting to their latest changes aimed at normalising player numbers: cross-realm zones. Now, I’m not a fan of CRZs for various reasons but they do at least help keep deathly-quiet servers from dying entirely. That’s not, however, necessarily a good thing. Azuriel from In An Age recently discovered that, in his absence, his server had gone from ‘quiet’ to ‘desolate’.

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has been solving all the problem elements of low-pop servers except the one that matters: the server itself. Play BGs with everyone else, run dungeons with everyone else, raid with everyone else, and now even quest with everyone else. Isn’t it about time you let us be with everyone else?

As Azuriel points out, Blizzard’s been putting a lot of work into normalising player populations, easing the strain on overcrowded servers and providing playmates for underpopulated servers. Unfortunately, it brings as many problems as it solves.

Silvermoon City - frequently a ghost town

Personally, I don’t like cross-realm zones because I like having the opportunity to farm for resources or rare spawns in peace, and because they’re fundamentally unnecessary. WoW levelling rarely requires the assistance of another player (unlike, say, GW2 dynamic events, RIFT dynamic events, SWTOR heroic quests, etc) so the lack of players in levelling zones isn’t a handicap. And, on the flipside, overpopulation is rarely a problem outside the two-week period immediately following an expansion. Cross-realm zones are a drastic solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist for 102 weeks out of every 104.

And they have costs. As others have pointed out, WoW’s model isn’t set up to accommodate lots of competition for mobs or resources. Guild Wars 2 highlights the opposite model, where everyone can harvest the same resource node and you can still get quest credit and loot from mobs ‘tagged’ by other people. In this model, cross-realm zones work fine; in WoW’s selfish “everyone get your own stuff” world, CRZs just make peoples’ lives harder.

Add to that the impact on the community. During the most recent Darkmoon Faire, Goldshire on my server was suddenly a hotbed of ERP and idiot epeen-swingers when it had never been like that before – because it wasn’t my server any more, it was a generic server with people from anywhere and everywhere. Talk about destroying one’s sense of community. CRZs really fall apart when you’re looking at areas where players stand around and chat instead of get on with the business at hand, because the more you weaken peoples’ ties to their community, the less incentive they have not to act like jerks.

Unfortunately, I think we’re out of luck. As Azuriel says, “Blizzard isn’t ever going to bite the goddamn bullet and put realms like Auchindoun out of [their] misery.” And we have ourselves to blame for that, because of the way that the MMO community reacts to anything other than constant growth. Server closures and server merges are the number one sign, in most peoples’ minds, that a game is struggling, and Blizzard can’t afford to be seen as struggling, given its position at the top of the pile. Most games are forced into server closures and merges anyway, by the necessity of providing a playable environment for their customers, but Blizzard have had the resources to develop technologies that prop up ailing servers without merging them. It’s logical that WoW would have some underpopulated servers, after eight years and waves of growth and shrinkage. In their case it wouldn’t actually be a sign of failure to consolidate lower-population servers; it’s fairly clear that WoW may not be the only game in town any more, but it’s not even remotely in trouble. But WoW has a special cachet as the constant success story in an otherwise marginal industry, and I suspect that Activision-Blizzard aren’t willing to sacrifice that for the sake of player satisfaction.

5 Responses to “WoW ghost towns: why Blizzard’s not helping”

  1. rori
    December 23, 2012 at 01:24 #

    It’s a shame that you seem to have nailed it.

    Heading back to get some of the cheevies, would not be something CRZs would make easy. Ah well. They will HAVE to merge at some point, might be 5 years from now though. Other things to do thankfully :)

  2. Scott D
    December 26, 2012 at 14:46 #

    If you ask me, CRZ is an exciting technology, but that perspective is at least in part due to my background. My career is in the IT world, and I’ve been watching how virtualization of first database servers, then other types of servers, have changed the way we handle user capacity, resiliency, and a whole host of other considerations. To me, virtualization of server resources, where physical hardware is pooled and represented as if it were a single resource is THE WAY FORWARD for systems with a large number of concurrent users. The gain for Blizzard is that they can add additional capacity more easily and efficiently, by adding additional hardware to a pool. A net benefit for users as well is that they can balance not only the load on the server, but balance the load on the user side. By spawning a new virtual server and splitting a realm, they can narrow the data stream and lighten the load on the user’s hardware (less player models changing the environment, less player models that have to be drawn)

    The problem I’m seeing is that it’s a really cool technology with a limited applicability in the current environment of dozens (hundreds?) of servers, paid server transfers, and instanced content. There are some neat tricks, like inviting a friend from another realm to do dailies with you, but it seems to me that all of the really cool possibilities of virtualization are out of reach. If Blizzard were willing to grow beyond those limitations, this technology, applied carefully and correctly, could start to rebuild that sense of community whose loss so many people lament.

  3. January 3, 2013 at 05:22 #

    Most of my experience with CRZ has come as a result of pet battles. Now, I feel that spawn rates of rare pets (or herbs or mining nodes) is a completely arbitrary number, and if Blizzard wants to lower it relative to the number of players looking then so be it. However, it is extremely frustrating to fly over a zone on your local server with the taxi service and see a multitude of the particular pet you are after, only to have them disappear the instant you land (and get shifted over to the CRZ server). When the technology leaves customers feeling like the game is making a joke at their expense, then there is a problem with the technology.

    And don’t get me started on the time a friend’s character plummeted to her death, simply because I was giving her a ride to Stormwind on my sandstone drake and the server shifted when we crossed the city limit…

    • January 3, 2013 at 08:27 #

      Yeah, I discovered that problem while questing with the boyfriend in MoP; I’m not at all impressed at the way CRZs make two-person mounts virtually useless, because you can’t rely on them not to kill you. That’s only cute when it’s gnomish engineer technology.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [Links] Links for the new year « Welcome to Spinksville! - January 3, 2013

    [...] Siha writes about cross realm zones in WoW and about the issue of low population servers. WoW does have about a zillion servers (109 EU servers alone, if I count correctly), something that I only ever realise when I look at the full server selection screen (rare) or the server forums on the official bboard (even rarer). So it wouldn’t be surprising at all if some of them have very low server pops. [...]

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