When Mists of Pandaria goes live later this month, players will all begin leveling in the same zone for the first time since 2006. In Cataclysm and Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard gave us two zones to choose from at the beginning of our adventures. Wrath split players up on either side of Northrend with Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord. Cataclysm's starting zones put players on different sides of the planet with Mount Hyjal and the less popular but unique underwater saga of Vashj'ir.
In contrast, The Burning Crusade's Hellfire Peninsula put us all on opposite sides of the street. That is not a joke. It is literally true -- see the image above! As you can guess, this led to problems. Let's look back at the Hellfire experience and try to gauge what we're in for when we arrive at the Jade Forest shortly after midnight on September 25.
The other side of the portal
Before the launch of The Burning Crusade, players parked their characters at the Dark Portal in the Blasted Lands. It was the gateway to the expansion's new world of Outland. We wanted to jump right in as soon as the servers came online.
I'll never forget that moment when I first stepped through the portal. Immediately you are greeted with a fierce battle, complete with hulking pit lords that could just sit on you to death.
Turning around, I remember being amazed that the portal on Outland's side was so much larger -- a dizzyingly tall gateway that made the one in Blasted Lands look like a dollhouse door by comparison.
It was an awe-inspiring first step. As we made our way via flight point to our respective Horde/Alliance outposts, we were all excited to begin our adventures in this new world.
The NPCs roaming the wasteland of Hellfire Peninsula had no idea what was about to descend on them. Neither did we.
If you look at the screenshot of Hellfire at the top, you'll notice two locations: Honor Hold on the left and Thrallmar on the right. Between them is that street I was talking about -- it's actually called the Path of Glory. At midnight, right there, the majority population of every realm were all trying to complete the same quests at the same time.
Think about that for a moment. Imagine everyone you see in Orgrimmar or Stormwind at peak times. Now double that for the other faction. Add at least another hundred players just for good measure since this is WoW's first expansion, after all, and people were incredibly excited for it.
The biggest immediate bottlenecks were Fel Orc Scavengers and Waste Not, Want Not. The quest area was directly between Thrallmar and Honor Hold. Both factions had these same two quests to complete. You could, in theory, work on them at the same time. If you'll notice, that first one requires twenty dead orcs. Twenty. So for each player questing, minus the few that were smart and grouped into parties, twenty orcs had to spawn in that area before that one player could move on to the next step in the chain.
There was no phasing back then. It was nearly an entire realm's worth of players attacking a few dozen orcs and trying to steal their stuff strewn on the ground. Needless to say, completing these quests on that first night was extraordinarily difficult. Combined with widespread lag and repetitive questions in the zone's chat, the Hellfire experience was likely not what Blizzard envisioned when they set out to design it.
Some players were distracted by the new Blood Elf and Draenei starting zones, which had their own troubles, but Hellfire was still a mess. I was on a PvE realm. I can't imagine the mayhem that must have gone down on PvP realms as players fought to the death over loose planks and scrap metal.
The Zangarmarsh strategy
Fortunately, Hellfire didn't suffer from the same linear questing that Cataclysm introduced. There were a few other areas that you could quest in, and people gradually fanned out to those hubs. As more people gave up on the orcs and scavenge, however, each of these other hubs soon became almost as crowded.
Some people (like me) decided to skip Hellfire altogether and start with Zangarmarsh. This was viable but not ideal. The enemies were a lot tougher, because the devs assumed you had some Hellfire quest gear, which was a huge upgrade over the gear most people wore through the portal. Also, the quests you could do were limited. You ran into a lot of grayed-out punctuation until you hit 61. Though there were fewer players, Zangarmarsh still had its own bottlenecks with a ton of quests to kill a single named mob. Finally, you couldn't get some of the quests for the Hellfire dungeons unless you progressed through that zone a bit, so you were missing out on some really great rewards.
From time to time that first week, I'd return to the Path of Glory and try to finish those early quests. I could only play in the evenings, though, and the area was overrun with eager questers every time. I'd be able to tag a few here and there, get lucky with a metal scrap spawn, and eventually I completed them. Still, I don't think I've ever had that much trouble completing a quest in my nearly eight years of Warcraft. Hellfire was hell.
Blizzard learned from that experience, and they specifically set out to avoid repeating that scenario in Wrath and Cataclysm. For the most part, it worked. There were still a few bottlenecks. Landing the Killing Blow in Howling Fjord was a notable one. Overall, though, it was much easier to complete objectives in those expansions on Day 1.
Now, however, Blizzard has once again given us only one zone in which to begin our leveling. Unlike TBC, there is no Zangarmarsh-style alternative. It appears that you can't skip the Jade Forest entirely unless you level to 86 by grinding in Cataclysm zones.
I'm hopeful that Jade Forest won't be like Hellfire. For one thing, having the factions start on opposite ends rather than at the same quest hubs will alleviate launch congestion. Also, the zones are less linear than Cataclysm's. That kind of flexibility will be important during the first week.
New technology will also help. With phasing, Blizzard can make sure you get a private area when you absolutely need it. The ability for multiple unpartied players to fight the same mob and get credit -- as we saw with certain Cataclysm quests -- will also cut down on frustration.
The zone will still be overrun on that first night, however, and probably throughout the first week. Bring some friends along to help tag those mobs!
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