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The Art of War(craft): Is Wintergrasp too successful for its own good?

Zach Yonzon

Zarhym recently took to the forums defending Blizzard's recent tinkering with Wintergrasp on the test realms when one a poster threw the accusation that rather than optimize the servers to handle Wintergrasp lag, Blizzard instead chose to make the zone and games less rewarding to play. Although that's not exactly how Zarhym would describe it, the changes are clearly designed to reduce the number of people in the zone.

Crygil's post about the change from Daily quests to Weekly ones -- conceivably a first for the game -- note that the changes were being explored "In an effort to better balance the amount of players that are in Wintergrasp at any given time". No matter how Blizzard tries to spin it, they're trying to dissuade players from participating in Wintergrasp. This is a bad idea. There's something epic about Wintergrasp, and it's not (just) the lag. Considering it's obviously one of their most popular game features in Wrath, it's ironic they're taking steps to curtail its success.

There's something to be said for the ambitious concept of scaling battles. Apprehensions about Wintergrasp's appeal were quickly quelled when the zone quickly filled up as more players hit max level. It was something that we'd never seen before in the game. But while the game is fun, but the rewards are phenomenal, too. The Honor gain from playing a short game of Wintergrasp are extremely good, especially if you factor in the daily quests. Almost too good, in fact, that Blizzard expressed concern that it was taking away interest in instanced Battlegrounds. I understand the goal of reducing Honor, but the move from Daily quests to Weekly ones is just plain bad.

With respect to the Honor gain, it would have been simple enough to reduce the Honor reward from Daily quests from a generous 1241 Honor per quest at Level 80 to something more reasonable, perhaps a third of that. Reducing the Honor gained from other Wintergrasp objectives, as they are doing on the PTR, seems like a step in the right direction. Limiting Honor is fine, but actively trying to reduce the number of people playing the game? That sounds like a really bad deal.

Zarhym notes that there is "an overabundance of players" in Wintergrasp, "resulting in poor realm performance during peak play times." It's sad and ironic that Blizzard has to take steps to control something so successful. Before we start to examine things, though, let's get one thing out of the way: Blizzard underestimated Wintergrasp. Between hardware capacity and how much data is communicated from server to client, there are a lot of opportunities for performance to bog down. And Blizzard simply didn't seem prepared for what happened.

Without having to understand the intricacies of just how servers handle load, it should be noted that excessive player activity concentrated in one area can lead to realm crashes. Blizzard knows this, which is why the response is so unexpected. City raids and other massive player-organized events have been known to crash entire realms before, so how can a non-instanced Battleground with ambitions of hosting multi-raid battles be a surprise? Admittedly, the requirements of something so massive might just be too much, even for Blizzard's top-of-the-line machines. They've also explained that upgrading everything is no simple matter, a process that takes several months and entails meticulous planning.

So where did it all go wrong? From the onset, Blizzard already had scenarios with hundreds of players. They said as much at the Worldwide Invitational last year. Even though they said they expected anywhere from 50 to 200 people in the zone at once, the success and popularity of Wintergrasp still caught them with their pants down. One of the problems is the design of the zone, which concentrates most of the activity in one place, Wintergrasp Keep. During games, for example, it's possible to escape lag by concentrating on the Southern objectives.

Unfortunately, despite the changes to gameplay, participating in the battle for the Keep proper still grants the most Honor owing to the sheer number of Honorable Kills players can soak up through sheer proximity. By extension, it makes it easier to complete the kill quests and is the only way to complete Defend the Siege. Even though dispersing activity won't eliminate lag entirely, it will certainly help. If I experience lag during a game, I usually escape it by having the Spirit Guide port me to a Southern graveyard.

Having multiple objectives all over the Battleground would help disperse players but also run the risk of diluting the epic feel of the zone. As bad as lag can be, there's something truly amazing about having hundreds of players take to the battlefield. It's one of the things that make Wintergrasp so amazing and exactly the thing that makes it so terrible. Would it be as fun if there were numerous points all over the map (not just the South) where the game can be won? I don't think so. Not only that, low population servers with low PvP activity will almost certainly suffer from the additional dilution.

It's not a simple problem, and Blizzard seems to be taking an extreme approach to solving it. It's hard to imagine there being no other way to fix the problem than to discourage players from participating. Will enabling aerial battles alleviate the problem or make it worse? Players who enjoy Wintergrasp are looking forward to the next iteration of the zone, and these changes aren't very reassuring. It's one thing to tune the zone's gameplay, and it's another to disincentivize it. Weekly quests? Does Blizzard really want players to visit Wintergrasp that much less?

That doesn't give much confidence for further development of the zone, does it? Introducing new, cool elements such as flying machines might just encourage more players to play Wintergrasp. The way Blizzard has tried to make solutions on the PTR, you'd be inclined to think that that would be the last thing they want. This is a case of success gone all sorts of wrong, and it's unlikely that there'll be further refinement to Wintergrasp itself in the near future. Not with the focus on a new Battleground and efforts to improve instanced Battleground participation. Blizzard is intent on ushering player traffic back into instanced Battlegrounds.

The one bright spot in this whole thing is that we know Blizzard is learning. Wintergrasp is the culmination of years of learning from Alterac Valley and other world PvP objectives. This is merely another lesson learned. While Wintergrasp will quite conceivably plateau from hereonforth, the successes of the zone herald a much more interesting and equally massive world PvP objective in the next expansion. Blizzard proved it can work -- a non-instanced Battleground as massive as other zones in Northrend that probably sees more traffic than any other zone save perhaps for Icecrown and The Storm Peaks. Considering Blizzard's keen pursuit of improvement, it's almost a sure bet that we've got something grander in store. Let's just hope the hardware matches the ambition.

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