It’s been just over a week since World of Warcraft launched its most recent expansion, Legion, and what a week it has been. I can’t recall the last time WoW’s player base responded so enthusiastically to new content; everyday the praise continues to show up in social media feeds and in-game chat channels with a regularity that has the game’s developers thrilled. During a stream from PAX, Blizzard had this to say about it:
“We knew this expansion was going to be something for the books, but reception has just blown us away. The early reviews are coming in, they’re really positive. Fan reception has been phenomenal. Concurrency – we’ve had to check and triple check our numbers, because it’s the highest they’ve been in recent memory. Several years, for sure.”
Here, Blizzard is referring to the number of players logged in at once, not the number of subscribers (which remains a mystery) but I wouldn’t be surprised if WoW has seen a significant jump in subscriber count.
In fact, more so considering the news today that Legion has toppled previous concurrent player numbers and matched sales numbers of Cataclysm with 3.3 million copies of Legion sold by its launch on August 30th.
There are so many reasons as to what makes Legion so special when compared to previous expansions. Each zone has been beautifully crafted to provide a really tight, story-driven experience filled with voice acting and cut scenes that add a level of immersion I personally haven’t felt since Wrath of the Lich King. Since the story of Arthas was the pinnacle for me, I don’t usually pay much attention to the story anymore but Legion has made me care. I feel like I’m part of something important, that there’s a good reason for everything being asked of me and that everything I do matters.
On top of that, each zone scales to your character’s level, meaning you can choose your own path through the Broken Isles, making pit stops at your class order hall and the new city of Dalaran for extra storylines along the way. In a game that had become all about hitting max level as quickly as possible, many players currently feel encouraged to take their time and enjoy the ride in Legion, which is quite a feat in itself!
With that said, players get to head into Suramar at level 110. If you think you’ve been enjoying yourself up until now, wait until you see this spectacular zone. Suramar is literally breathtaking and kicks Legion up another gear entirely. When I reached this zone, I watched the introductory cut scene with an open mouth before undertaking even more voice acted quest lines that introduced me to an entirely new race, civilization and story. I knew it was coming, I simply wasn’t prepared for just how much effort had gone into creating this zone.
I realize that all of this is coming off the back of a lackluster expansion, but this is more than just relief talking. Warlords of Draenor did lower player expectations, it’s true, with a lot of players refusing to jump aboard the early hype train for Legion, but this past week I’ve honestly felt like I’m playing an entirely different game. I don’t recognize this World of Warcraft, but I like it. A lot. The developers knew they had to make something great to win us all over, and they instead created their master work. We’ve, quite possibly, been given the best WoW expansion ever, right after (arguably) the worst, with Legion’s first content patch already lined up to be a doozy.
I could go on and on about what I love about Legion so far, but what I think is most fitting is that Legion’s launch was the smoothest of any expansion – maybe even in the history of MMOs – and the servers were definitely busy judging by the login queues a lot of us had to endure. There was a tiny bit of lag initially when waiting in Dalaran for Khadgar to send us off to do battle with demons, but then…everything was smooth sailing. Realms stayed up, lag was nonexistent and disconnects weren’t even a thing.
Without wanting to blow my own horn, I suspected this would be the case. I even wrote about it. But even so, there was still a voice in the back of my mind telling me not to be surprised if everything went haywire, because that’s just how it is with expansion launches. That’s how it was with every single WoW expansion previous. Except for this one. So what changed?
Simply put, Legion was cleverly designed to split the player base across many different instances and zones. After the introductory Broken Shore event, players were tasked with seeking out their class artifacts and establishing class order halls. This involved visiting old-world zones and entering scenarios and phased areas. After that was done (and as mentioned previously) players got to choose which Broken Isle zone they wished to quest through first, which again split up the player base rather nicely.
On top of all of this is phasing, technology Blizzard has been using since its introduction in Wrath of the Lich King, only now it’s far more impressive. We all saw just how well this tech worked during demon invasions, Legion’s pre-expansion event. Under heavy load, Blizzard can run multiple parallel versions of a single zone on the same server, so when a certain threshold of players in any given area is hit, another ‘phase’ is created in which additional players are entered, making for lag-free servers.
Comparing this new design strategy to that of previous expansions, the WoW developers truly have learned some important lessons. The Burning Crusade, WoW’s first expansion, sent everybody to the same zone at once, Hellfire Penisula, with catastrophic results. WotLK offered two starting zones to try and help with server load, Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord, but it wasn’t enough. Cataclysm inserted brand new zones within the old world, but many servers simply didn’t come online at the required time and experience gain remained off for those players who were able to log in. Mists of Pandaria is the one I remember with a hearty chuckle, simply because of the quest bottlenecks that brought player progress to a halt and servers to their knees.
Warlords of Draenor, however, remains a mystery to me. The hype surrounding this expansion was phenomenal. Coming off the back of a very long content drought (MoP’s final patch, Siege of Orgrimmar, lasted fourteen months) everyone was desperate for something new and when Warlords was announced, the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
I expected huge numbers to return to the game after the losses seen in MoP, and indeed this was the case, with WoW boasting 10 million players at WoD’s launch. Unfortunately, this was more than Blizzard had expected and again, servers collapsed under the strain, bottlenecks compounded the problem by halting player progress and everything just fell apart.
Assistant Game Director, Ion Hazzikostas, recently shared some ‘behind the scenes’ info on what went down during WoD’s launch:
“One of the biggest things that screwed up servers, kind of everywhere but especially in North America – but it impacted Europe as well – was on the horde side there was a spyglass that was needed to start the horde garrison. That worked just fine when we launched Warlords in Europe, however it was only interactable by one player at a time which caused a bit of a bottleneck.
“We looked at how it went in Europe and said ‘that’s not ideal, let’s hotfix that’ and make it interactable by multiple players at the same time to speed things up in Europe and smooth the launch for other regions.. A thing went wrong with our hotfix that made the spyglass uninteractable entirely by all players, so horde players in NA especially probably remember from midnight pacific through three-thirty in the morning – which, we were all at the office trying to fix this – literally everyone was piling up there.
“We started auto-rewarding credit and people started moving on but what that did was it actually took…people naturally level at different rates, but that took two hours worth of leveling speed differences and packed them all into one giant clump, that then all hit the garrison at the same time, and that massively, exponentially multiplied all of our server problems and created this hole that we were just trying to dig ourselves out of, because then everyone on the server was in Frostfire at the same time, which meant that Frostfire was so laggy that people couldn’t get past Frostfire…it was a mess.”
I was playing Legion from the minute it launched at midnight in the EU and it was absolutely the best launch experience I’ve ever been a part of. No doubt we shall see this strategy used again in future expansions, but right now it’s an exciting time for World of Warcraft players. The future is bright, but more importantly, the present is awesome.
Have fun in-game, I’ll see you on the battlefield!Related: Article, Expansion, Ion Hazzikostas, Launch, Legion, MMORPG, World of Warcraft