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.
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.