Marc Jacobs, ex-CEO of Mythic and developer of Warhammer Online, once famously and somewhat prophetically said that server merges were the death knell of an MMORPG: “Look at us six months out. Look at us six weeks out. If we’re not adding servers, we’re not doing well.”
Adding servers is a sign that your game is growing, so surely the merging servers is a sign that it’s declining?
Yes and no.
With a mature product like WoW, players congregate in zones according to how much time they have played. After 1 week of heavy grinding or 2 months of relaxed leveling, most gamers will reach the level cap. From this point on, they have little reason to return to the early zones in the game.
The experience of missing the ‘big wave’ can diminish the enjoyable aspects of an MMO: being a part of a populated world, communicating and collaborating with other players. This may be one of the factors which lead to players take early starts and launch day events so seriously – the game is different once you have been left behind by the rest of the group.
Merging servers has traditionally been seen as the only way to address these empty areas, besides introducing incentives for end-gamers to go back to the starter zones (which has its own benefits and disadvantages – a topic for another day).
Blizzard’s announcement of new cross-realm zones has put a spin on the whole topic. This “new tech” will extract players in the same zone across multiple realms and pool them together. Seamlessly. In effect, it allows pre-90 WoWers to experience populated zones and find other people for group content without merging the servers. Furthermore, this system should offers dynamic scaling according to the population of a particular zone, rather than loneliness at low populations and performance issues if lots of people return to the realm.
If I have a couple of requests that would support this system even better, they would be the following:
1) Blizzard goes back through the leveling content and add a world boss to each zone. The early zones are trivially easy and the benefits of having other players around you diminishes if there is nothing interesting for you to do together.
2) Improved grouping technology is introduced, emulating what has been done in GW2.
All in all, these changes are far more exciting to me than pandas.