First and foremost, thank you to everyone who posted in the discussion thread about this difficult challenge. We’re going to use layering to address the most severe queues. There have been thoughtful posts there and elsewhere on all sides of this issue, and I want to take some time to talk about the most prominent concerns that were raised.
Considering the current population issue, both players and our co-workers on the WoW team have wanted to try many different solutions before layering. Some of these can be implemented in days, while others are more radical and come with unknowns, but the global pandemic is happening now, so we don’t have the time necessary for new technology to be developed, tested, and deployed. We have to use the tools we already have to address the overpopulation.
Free Character Migration
Our first efforts were to offer Free Character Moves off queuing realms. After all, if fewer people are trying to log into a single realm, then there won’t be a queue for that realm. This additionally carries the hope of adding players to realms with fewer players. Unfortunately, this service isn’t as predictable as we’d like it to be, so we can’t rely on it to do the job.
We’d like to be able to use Free Character Moves as a relief valve for players who just want to play, and aren’t concerned with which realm they’re on, but in practice, most players value their social connections with their guild. This means Free Character Moves aren’t as effective as we wish they’d be, and we’re trying to use these less frequently.
Character Creation Restrictions
A fairly straightforward solution is to prevent you from creating a character on a realm (unless you already have one there) or to prevent Paid Character Transfers to high population realms. The downside, of course, is that if you’re an established player on a realm, this prevents you from inviting a friend to come play with you on that realm. If you’re introducing a friend to WoW Classic, you have to choose a lower-population realm to play with them.
It also doesn’t solve the problem. At best, it prevents it from getting worse. We’ve been using character creation restrictions recently, but Paid Character Transfers represent a very small number of players. Most of the current population increase is due to returning players as well as all players playing more often. So while we’re currently closing Paid Character Transfers where necessary, that isn’t enough on its own.
Another solution would be to open new realms. Nowadays, a World of Warcraft realm isn’t limited by hardware as it would have been in the past. We could open one or five or ten new realms in each region if we believed that players would move to them from the overpopulated realms. However, the data we have suggests that wouldn’t happen.
In part, that’s because there’s sufficient space on the currently existing realms for all of the players who want to play. The social bonds that players make in game causes them to stick with the realm they’re on. We don’t believe that making more realms available would change that.
Adjusting Population Caps
Another immediate solution is to allow more players onto the realms, but this is more complicated than it sounds. While it’s true that we can raise the realm capacity, there are negative technical and design consequences, and those issues inform what we set the population cap to in the first place.
When players are all clustered into one area, the message traffic between them grows exponentially. This is a fundamental problem in computer science that has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, and while it’s a problem we’re always working to improve, it’s not the kind of problem that you can just throw hardware at.
There are also, as many have pointed out, game-economy concerns. It’s true that we allow more simultaneous players onto a Classic realm than were allowed in 2005, thanks to both hardware and software improvements, but this means that Black Lotus is more rare on a per-capita basis than it was 15 years ago. Merely increasing realm caps would only exacerbate that problem.
Could we increase realm caps? Yes, but only if we also added something like layering.
Focusing on the Cities
Some have suggested layering only capital cities, a technology in WoW we call “sharding,” like we use in Battle for Azeroth. Each zone has as many copies as its population demands, and there’s no guaranteed coherence across zone boundaries. With sharding, the enemies and objects that you interact with in WoW aren’t allowed to cross those zone boundaries, so this is not a solution for WoW Classic. WoW Classic has many things that are intended to cross zone boundaries, such as NPCs like Rexxar or the Forsaken Courier, and this is what caused us to develop layering in the first place.
Using Layering Today
To start, we’re not talking about all realms. We feel very strongly about thinking long term and avoiding using layering as anything more than a temporary solution for the most challenging queues. In the open discussion, we saw a ton of players from a handful of realms asking for layering. We believe it’s important to preserve as many servers as we can that reached a single layer last year, and we’re committed to returning to a single layer on all realms in this region as soon as possible.
We’re very sensitive to player concerns about the potential impact of layering. This is why we made many updates and improvements to it in September/October of last year when it was last active. Those improvements, such as an exponentially-increasing cooldown when a player repeatedly changes layers, addressed a lot of the downsides to the system.
Nonetheless, if the layered realms swell to fill this new capacity and stay that way, it will be very difficult to return to one layer later, so any layered realms must remain closed to transfers and new accounts. Ultimately, layering allows us to raise realm caps to address queues, but it won’t necessarily remove the queues entirely, and it’s a temporary solution. Still it’s the option we’re taking because our goal is to let more of the people who want to play WoW, play WoW.
A Work in Progress
Bringing layering back to select realms in WoW Classic is a big step that we don’t take lightly. We’ve been especially careful over the last five weeks, as 100% of our engineers and game designers (and community managers) have been working from home. We’ve put a lot of thought and analysis into doing this right. We will let you know what changes we make, and which realms are affected, as soon as we can.
Thank you for reading this. We’re glad that we get to share this unique time and experience with such a passionate community, and as always, keep your feedback coming!