WoW Archivist: Bottlenecks

Gyrocopter jam

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?

Wherever thousands of players try to complete on-rails content, bottlenecks are inevitable. For Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard is trying to be proactive about eliminating them. Back in July, CM Zorbrix posted a "targeted feedback request" about bottlenecks in the beta. Given that the introductory experience is completely on rails before the expansion unleashes players into its less structured zones, this is a real concern.

WoW hasn't had the best track record when it comes to bottlenecks. As we help Blizzard loosen the bottlenecks of the future, let's revisit those of the past.

The great gyrocopter jam of 2012

Blizzard's server tech has come a long way since the game's launch. Lag and crashes are no longer rampant during expansion launches. But sometimes, other problems can prohibit players from progressing on Day 1. If we're talking bottlenecks, we have to start with the most infamous one in all of WoW, which also happens to be one of the most recent.

This was a problem that people saw coming. I found a thread on MMO Champion from September 2012 where a poster writes, "On Beta - everyone had to funnel through a single vehicle quest to proceed on the Jade Forest quest line. I'm a touch concerned that this is going to be way worse than any other expansion..."

And this guy was totally right. OK, maybe Mists wasn't as bad as The Burning Crusade overall, but the ironically named Unleash Hell was still the biggest -- and most dramatic -- bottleneck ever caused by a single quest.

Unleash Hell was the first quest that wasn't just "reporting" to someone. It was literally the first real quest that Alliance players had to complete upon arriving in Pandaria. The quest put you behind the controls of a gyrocopter to destroy two Horde ships on the coast of Jade Forest. Your copter flew in a large pattern shaped like the number 8 while you fired rockets at the ships.

It was an easy quest to complete, if a bit awkward. The problem was, the targets on the ships didn't respawn nearly fast enough for the hundreds of players competing for them. As more and more players arrived in their gyrocopters, that number 8 pattern became a living thing, like a snake in the air made out of whirling blades. See the screenshot above for a nice view of it.

Blizzard responded quickly and hotfixed the quest on launch day so that anyone on the quest would get credit for the targets. By that point, however, the damage had already been done. The issue ruined the hopes of many for a Realm First! Level 90 feat of strength. I suspect problems like this are part of the reason Blizzard ultimately did away with such achievements.

An interesting addendum to the gyrocopter fiasco is that the original version of the Jade Forest zone -- before it was taken down from the MoP beta and heavily revamped -- had its own excruciating bottleneck. A quest asked you to meditate with Lorewalker Cho, but Cho could only meditate with one player at a time. Hundreds of players had to compete for the chance to meditate with him. It certainly wasn't the ideal setup to reach an elevated state of mind, although I've heard reports that beta players eventually worked out a "wisdom line" to get the quest done.

Edict of congestion

The scroll you couldn't burn

Jade Forest isn't the only starting zone in Mists. If you rolled a panda on the first day, you probably shudder at the mention of the Edict of Temperance. It was a scroll you had to burn for one of the first quests on the Wandering Isle. Naturally there was but one scroll, and everyone had to burn it. Players converged on the object and only those with the fastest clicks (or a working spammable macro -- hint: the one in the video isn't) could get credit and move on. Everyone else was stuck at level 2 indefinitely.

Before you could even do that, however, you had to "snatch the flame from the master's hand." This part was bugged early in Mists, as the clickable object appeared closer to his head than his hand, if it even appeared at all. Months later, the problem was hotfixed so you just received the flame item upon accepting the quest. By that time, many sad pandas had been bottlenecked here.

Blue crush

Unlike Mists, Cataclysm had the benefit of two leveling zones at launch. Though many opted for the more standard questing of Hyjal, a lot of players wanted to see what this crazy underwater zone Vashj'ir was all about. The earliest quests tend to be the worst bottlenecks, as more and more players arrive at that quest in the chain while the first players are still working on it. For Vashj'ir, the worst that I encountered was a pair of collection quests that you received at the same time: Girding Our Loins and Finders, Keepers. The Alliance had equivalent quests: To Arms! and Stormwind Elite Aquatic and Land Forces.

The quests asked you to salvage equipment from the shipwrecks nearby. The problem was fourfold. The objects, especially for the Loins/Arms quests, were tiny and tough to spot. They were guarded by gilbin mobs who could prevent you from looting them. You needed to find three different types of objects, which made the quest much more complicated to complete. (I got stuck on breastplates alone for about an hour.) Finally, there just weren't enough of any of them for all the players. The gilbins also dropped the objects for Loins/Arms, but you still needed the right kind, which was pure RNG.

Naga attack

The follow-up to all this was something of a self-bottleneck. Blood and Thunder!/All or Nothing asked you to defend your faction's base of operations from a naga assault. Endless waves attacked. If you stood your ground and fought them, the quest never completed. Many players eventually died, or else spent a long time fighting them, confused and annoyed. To complete the quest, you actually had to flee from the battle as the NPCs suggested -- a move that goes against every instinct most gamers have. The long completion times for this unintuitive quest meant a cascading bottleneck for the next few quest chains in the zone.

The battle of evermore

If you got frustrated in Vashj'ir and decided to roll a worgen until the level 80 zones cleared out a bit, it was a trap. Gilneas had its own bottleneck in the form of one the buggiest quests of modern WoW. The Battle for Gilneas City was a great idea on paper: you accompany Prince Liam Greymane through a long battle sequence to liberate Gilneas from the Forsaken. The quest is definitely one of the most thrilling of the worgen starting area.

But it's bugged, and it's always been bugged, in several different ways. Some have been fixed. Some haven't. The posts on Wowhead claiming to encounter these bugs stretch across years -- from July 2012 to three weeks ago. Early in Cataclysm, players spent hours trying various tricks to get Greymane to cooperate and complete the battle. Even when it works perfectly, the quest is very confusing, with the prince running around willy-nilly and a lot of enemies zooming around while NPCs shout vague instructions at you. And then, even if you managed to complete it, you could be stymied by the untimely death of the NPC you needed to complete the quest.

You couldn't proceed through the worgen area -- or even leave it, if you wanted to quest elsewhere -- until you completed the entire worgen quest line. Modern WoW would have turned this into a scenario, and it could have worked great as such. But as a quest, the Battle for Gilneas was a long and frustrating campaign.

It kept on giving

Gothik's gift

Of all WoW's expansions so far, Wrath of the Lich King had the fewest bottlenecks. Considering The Burning Crusade was the worst overall, Blizzard tried to do the opposite. Instead of flooding the first leveling zone with players from both factions, Blizzard not only gave us two zones, but they also split up the earliest quests by faction. With four different starting points, players were less likely to get in one another's way.

One starting zone, however, had no such divisions: the death knight starting area. On Day 1 of Wrath, during the height of the game's popularity, the Lich King had thousands of new servants per realm. It could have been much worse without the quest line's heavy use of phasing.

The part that seemed to trip up most in those early days was the mine. Gothik the Harvester sends you there to turn Scarlet Miners into ghouls with Gift of the Harvester. You needed to bring him five converted ghouls. That doesn't sound like very many, but then consider that the gift didn't have a 100% chance of converting a miner. In fact, early in Wrath, the gift seemed bugged and actually had a very low chance of working. The ghouls you did manage to collect actually became NPCs that fought for you -- which meant they could die if you weren't careful. Combine these things with limited miners and a whole crowd of DKs-in-training and everybody wanted The Gift That Keeps on Giving to just stop.

Hellfire hold-up

The Burning Crusade had one starting zone for everybody. Aside from a few early quests, both factions had the same objectives. Thus, the entire zone was one big bottleneck -- and even the fel reavers couldn't unjam it. Combining the bottlenecks with lags and crashes, the first 24 hours of TBC were an unplayable nightmare. Hellfire didn't really clear out for a solid two weeks.

After a few days of trying to level there, I finally gave up on it and moved on to Zangarmarsh. Fortunately, that zone had a number of quests you could do at level 60, and leveling to 61 and 62 unlocked even more. Zangarmarsh wasn't exactly deserted, but it was a vast improvement over HFP. Many players didn't realize you could start questing there at 60, though.

I've already covered the Hellfire problem in its own Archivist column, so I'll just leave the link here and move on.

Bonechewers in Hellfire Peninsula

Vanilla's necks

Classic WoW's starting experiences weren't terribly bottlenecked when the game launched. That's not surprising given there were three different starting zones per faction. Also, the spawn rates on mobs were insane early on. As popular as the game was then, WoW didn't have anywhere near the numbers it achieved during its first two expansions.

The bottlenecks occurred later, when Blizzard added new content. Early quests in the Tier 0.5 quest line, for example, featured bottlenecks with heavily camped mobs that you needed to kill. Hunting for Ectoplasm was a rough one in the first days of the patch, with three dozen mobs to tag in three different zones at the farthest ends of Azeroth.

Perhaps the worst in all of vanilla occurred during The Burning Crusade's pre-expansion event, when the Burning Legion invaded Azeroth through the Dark Portal. A quest for the event required players to kill six invading demons. Everyone on your realm needed to kill these specific mobs at this one spot.

They came through the portal in waves, so the quest devolved into an AOE spamfest. The Burning Legion never stood a chance. If you didn't have a spammable AOE spell (most specs didn't), you had little choice but to group with someone who did, or give up and try later.

WoW has had many other bottlenecks, big and small, throughout its history, but all of the above were the worst in my experience. What were the worst that you encountered?

It's heartening to see that Blizzard takes this issue seriously, particularly after Mists left so many players bottlenecked for hours. If the devs are smart about quest design in Warlords, we will flow smoothly from bottle to bottle on November 13.

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.