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WoW Archivist: A rolled-back history of realms, part 2

Scott Andrews
September 27, 2013

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WoW Archivist explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?

Last time on WoW Archivist, we talked about the early months of WoW, when the realms and the servers that run them couldn't handle the avalanche of subscribers that followed the game's release. The game experienced a population surge unprecedented in the MMO genre. Blizzard could not have predicted it and was not prepared for it.

The Broken 20

In early 2005, Blizzard was haunted by the number 20. At that time, 88 servers were operational. Of those, 20 of the original 41 servers had recently been moved to new, more powerful hardware, which Blizzard hoped would be able to handle those servers' extremely high populations. Unfortunately, a flaw in the infrastructure caused more problems than ever: severe lag, frequent server crashes, and even more frequent player disconnects. Blizzard's response was to lower the server cap by 30% until the flaw could be identified, greatly exacerbating the queue times.

Those servers became known on forums as the "Broken 20."

In those days, it wasn't uncommon to see players post statements like, "Our server isn't great, but at least our guild's not on the Broken 20."

It was perhaps all too fitting then that January 20 became one of the worst realm-performance days in the game's history. On the evening of that day, when player populations were at their peak, a bug involving flight-point travel caused repeated crashes across all Broken 20 realms. Eventually those realms were taken down completely for emergency maintenance at around 9 p.m. EST.

Complaints flooded the forums, which also struggled to accommodate player volume: 150,000 posts per day at the time.

Blizzard president Mike Morhaime issued another apology. He also offered the players on the Broken 20 a full four days of game-time extension. To this day it is the longest single extension Blizzard has ever awarded.

As Blizzard explained to Penny Arcade a few days later, "World of Warcraft delivers many complex features that are unique to MMOGs. Features such as the in-game mail system, auction houses, player inventories, flight paths, quest states, etc. use a lot of server bandwidth, which makes pinpointing problems on the server infrastructure much more complicated."

Part of the problem was that players had congregated to specific servers to join up with friends. Others, particularly the ones that had been added post-launch, were not nearly as populated. Subscribers begged for a way to transfer their characters away from high-population realms. As of January 2005, Blizzard had no such system in place. The only way to move realms was to start from scratch with new characters there. Many players rerolled anyway.

The empty shelves conspiracy

Despite all the bad press over the crashes, lag, and queues, the game continued to sell at a blistering pace. Throughout the first few months after the North American launch, game boxes were notoriously difficult to find. Players who wanted to purchase the game were reduced to calling stores in search of a miraculous remaining copy.

In the wake of the game's well-publicized realm performance problems, the rumor mill attributed the lack of boxes to a more sinister cause than a lack of supply. Gamers accused Blizzard of asking retailers to pull copies off their own shelves to curb the tide of players until more realms stabilized and more became available.

Blizzard denied the rumors.
WoW Archivist A rolledback history of realms, part 2 FRIDAY
Game of the year?

In late December 2004, Gabe and Tycho from the popular web comic Penny Arcade posted their top ten games of the year. World of Warcraft was their number one, edging out Half-Life 2, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, and Burnout 3. The only other MMO on their list, City of Heroes, ranked tenth. "The fact of the matter is that World of Warcraft is essentially the apex of the genre, and even those who are not proponents of Massive games should try it," Tycho posted. "When we were in Spokane, I constantly sang a song I had written about crocolisks to get me through the withdrawals. So I've got [the addiction] bad." It was one of a dizzying array of accolades for Blizzard's latest hit in 2004, including two other Game of the Year awards from Gamespot and ActionTrip.

Of these, Penny Arcade's award was perhaps the least surprising. Gabe and Tycho, had, after all, contributed 13 comics to the official strategy guide published by Brady Games. Their Game of the Year award was, however, the only one to be revoked. In the wake of months of laggy, crash-happy, and queue-locked realms, Penny Arcade "withheld" the award on January 17. In a post on the site, Tycho explained the decision:

Every week, there is some new calamity that necessitates some huge response on their part. Servers are coming down, but if you think that the servers coming back up again will represent an improvement in the basic functionality of the game you're mistaken. ... So, if I say, as I'm about to, that their emergency service amounts to parlor tricks, what evidence can they give to the contrary?

... The [Game of the Year Award] was given too early, and they have squandered it. It is now withheld. It will be released only when they prove themselves worthy stewards of it.

The announcement from Penny Arcade put an exclamation point on all the negative press resulting from the game's realm issues.

When World of Warcraft launched in Europe on February 11, 2005, players there experienced the same problems.

When you look back at it, the population issue was never really solved by hardware. Blizzard continued to add realms in every region the game existed. But realms still suffered from lag, crashes, and queues during periods of heavy play, such as immediately following the launches of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. The only thing that really solved the problem was us. With fewer people playing now, WoW's realms are more stable than ever, though some of the most populous realms still face the occasional queue.

Groups of battle

Another major issue rose to the forefront of player's minds with patches 1.4 and 1.5, which implemented the honor system and battlegrounds. Realm population balance became highly relevant. Queues for battlegrounds only included players from your own realm. On an Alliance-heavy server, Alliance players would face very long queues for battlegrounds, while Horde players had virtually instant access.

Patch 1.12 solved this issue by creating Battlegroups. A Battlegroup is a group of realms that share a queue. In the U.S., each Battlegroup has about 16 to 20 realms. Smaller groups existed at one time, but were merged in 2007. In Europe, Battlegroup sizes vary from 8 to 20, since the groupings are mainly determined by a realm's primary language. (This became a problem in 2008 when Blizzard merged several EU realms together.)

The dungeon finder took advantage of the same Battlegroup queues when it launched in patch 3.3.

Early in the Cataclysm era, Blizzard began merging regional Battlegroups together so that the queues could draw from more than one Battlegroup at a time. The process has rendered Battlegroups less and less relevant, but in 2006 they were a godsend.
WoW Archivist A rolledback history of realms, part 2 FRIDAY
Realm to realm

In 2006, Blizzard finally offered players the option to transfer to a new realm for a $25 fee. The service had some heavy limitations at first. You could only bring 5,000 gold with you. You couldn't transfer from a PvE to a PvP realm. And if you wanted to transfer again, you had to wait six months.

Of all the limitations, players resented the PvP restriction most. Blizzard wanted you to level in a PvP environment -- they didn't want you to level in total safety and then transfer at max level so you could gank lowbies on a PvP realm.

Blizzard broke their own rule a couple of times, brewing controversy. First, Blizzard allowed PvE players to transfer to two new PvP realms, Black Dragonflight and Dalvengyr, in 2006. Then, in 2008, Blizzard had a realm in crisis. The Oceanic PvP realm Thaurissan had a 14 to 1 Horde imbalance, and no Alliance from a PvP realm wanted to transfer there. To solve the problem, Blizzard allowed three PvE realms to transfer to Thaurissan for free. It didn't fix the issue, however. Thaurissan remains one of the most unbalanced realms in WoW.

Today, most of the transfer limits have been relaxed. PvE to PvP transfers became available in 2008. The limit on gold has been increased according to your level and now caps out at 50,000g. The cooldown on transfers is now 3 days.

In 2011, realm transfers for entire guilds went live.

Crossing over

Cross-realm technology launched in 2011 as a feature that allowed you to group up with your Real ID friends via the Dungeon Finder. Blizzard hinted that such a service might only be available if you paid an extra "premium service" fee on top of your subscription, but ultimately they decided against that. Later, cross-realm battleground queuing with Real ID friends also became available. Raiding eventually joined in the cross-realm fun late in Cataclysm, although Blizzard does not allow cross-realm raids for current tiers on normal and Heroic difficulties. The cross-realm feature has birthed several independent services that connect players for cross-realm raiding and other activities.

Though the game still supports a healthy overall population, it's no secret that WoW's diminished subscriber base has left some realms as virtual ghost towns. Blizzard has been aware of the problem for a long time. Indeed, if you look at the history of MMOs, it's a very predictable problem to anticipate.

While Blizzard has occasionally merged realms, they haven't done so in a long time. Instead, they've been looking at more technical solutions. We saw the first phase of this process in 2012, when Blizzard used its cross-realm tech and merged Battlegroups to give us cross-realm zones, or CRZs.

CRZ tech draws players from multiple realms to populate underused zones. Blizzard wanted the game world to feel, in their words, "livelier." CRZ attempts to match players in a zone by realm type, time zone, and language.

As with most new tech, Blizzard had a few wrinkles to iron out. Players were able to participate in other realms' Wintergrasp and Tol Barad battles, which was never intended. Also, players could game the fishing tournament by fishing in one realm's contest and then moving to a different realm with a later time zone. They could turn in their fish immediately once the contest began.

The cross-realm technology has also resulted in some nifty player-driven events. In March 2013, the Thundering Hammer Clan of Feathermoon-US brought together players from 120 different realms for a roleplaying event and dueling tournament.

Curiously, two realms have remained CRZ-free: Venture Company-US and Ravenholdt-US. Both are RP-PvP. The inhabitants have touted their immunity to CRZ and welcomed players who dislike the system as a refuge from it.

CRZ certainly has its detractors, who claim the tech makes it more difficult to quest, find rare spawns, and gather crafting materials. Some prefer to level their characters in peace without any interference from others, which was the norm on many realms prior to CRZ. Others argue that MMOs should never have empty zones. They like to see players out in the world no matter where they go.
WoW Archivist A rolledback history of realms, part 2 FRIDAY
Our powers combined

CRZ was only the first step in Blizzard's long-overdue plan to help low-pop realms. Earlier this year, Blizzard announced "Virtual Realms." A few weeks later, this label was amended to "Connected Realms." (Personally, I would prefer "Voltron'ed Realms," but I know that raises copyright issues. "Gem-panthered"?) Connected Realms act like a single realm, combining the populations without the hassle of transfers or name changes.

On September 25, 2013, Blizzard gem-panther'ed two realms together for the first time: U.S. realms Bloodscalp and Boulderfist. As I write this, it remains to be seen how well the system will work or what problems may arise. Assuming that Blizzard can continue to link realms, this new system should solve the low-population problem once and for all.

Have realms reached the end of their evolution? It's conceivable that Connected Realms will be the final change that the game needs. Blizzard always seems to have something up their sleeve, however, so this may not be the realms' final form.

We've come a long way since the days of rampant loot lag, crashes, and the dread of rollbacks. Loot lag still happens once in a while, but for me it's a moment of nostalgia rather than aggravation.
After months of surveying, WoW Archivist has been dug back up! Discover lore and artifacts of WoW's past, including the Corrupted Blood plague, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands, and the mysterious Emerald Dream.

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