Patch 5.4 brought us the Timeless Isle, which is a new approach to providing content. Rather than a bunch of daily quests to lead you around the island by the nose, it went for a very open-world, sandbox-y approach. While there are a few quests to get you started, and a handful of daily or weekly quests you can do, the majority of the achievements and other things to do on the island are uncharted. You wander around and explore until you stumble across something cool. It’s a really interesting way to approach new content, and quite the reversal from the daily-heavy introduction we had to the Mists expansion. And frankly, on paper it looks like a lot of fun, and I was looking forward to it.
But, as it turns out, stuff that looks good on paper doesn’t always work.
Because in reality, I’ve had a miserable time on the Timeless Isle so far. There have been spotty moments of fun and the occasional neat experience. But the vast majority has been a frustrating experience that encourages me to avoid the new content rather than experience it.
And I’m not even talking about the ludicrous reputation grind that Emperor Shaohao represents. While I feel that reputation grind was a bit silly and poorly planned, it’s a minor footnote, not a major irritation. Sure, it’s annoying, but it’s also completely optional and not designed to be a 3- or 4-week grind; it’s an “insane”-style long-term goal, which is fine since it’s only awarding vanity stuff.
Nor am I complaining about the inconsistency of gear acquisition for alts. It is annoying that Burdens of Eternity, which are scarce enough as-is, aren’t account-bound. The four I’ve found on Theck are rotting in the bank because I have nothing to use them on, which is a shame. But I see the intent, even if I disagree with the execution: they want you to play your alt in order to gear it. Unfortunately, the reputation grind and achievements on the Isle encourage you to focus on your main if you’re working with limited play time, so the achievements and reputation work at cross purposes to the alt-gearing mechanisms. And all of that misses the larger issue that’s preventing many people from raiding on alts, which is the legendary cloak quest line. But while all of that is annoying, it’s not my major gripe about the Isle.
Because this post isn’t actually complaining about the Isle’s content. As I said earlier, I think the content itself is pretty solid. The problem is that the Timeless Isle exposes one of the core weaknesses of World of Warcraft: World PvP.
Now, before we go too far down this rabbit hole, let’s be completely clear about that pronouncement. First, I’m a total carebear in WoW. And despite that, I’ve been on PvP servers during my entire WoW career. I would probably choose to play on a PvE server if it were up to me, but it’s always turned out that the people I want to play with wanted to be on a PvP server, so I’ve quietly shrugged and accepted the consequences of those decisions. Living on a PvP server does means getting ganked once in a while, but the upside is that once in a while you get to do the ganking.
And to be fair, it’s not like I’m a pacifist. I played a fair amount of more competitive games in college (CounterStrike, Enemy Territory, Starctaft, WC2: BNE, and Diablo II PvP, just to name a few). I “get” the mindset of wanting to have spontaneous conflict. And I have fond memories of PvP in the early days of Vanilla WoW. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I value my time more and more because I always seem to have less and less of it. If I log on and want to make some PvE progress, and get held up for 30 minutes because “PvP happened,” it just starts to feel frustrating and no longer fun.
But even given all of that, world PvP can be interesting, and traditionally WoW has been one of the better games about keeping it interesting. I still remember the epic battles between Southshore and Tarren Mill back before Battlegrounds existed. Those could be incredibly fun, as could chance one-on-one encounters while leveling or questing. So this isn’t me complaining that open-world PvP can’t co-exist with PvE in the same game, because it demonstrably can, and first few expansions of WoW are one of the best examples of that.
No, the core weakness I speak of isn’t that World PvP exists. It’s that WoW’s PvP servers have a critical and fundamental failure mode that manifests itself over a sufficiently long period of time. To illustrate that failure mode, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
In the beginning, there was Vanilla WoW. And a rag-tag group of veteran Diablo II players decided to create a WoW guild. I was one of those players, and my group of friends decided to choose a PvP server under the assumption that there wouldn’t be a lot to do at max level other than world PvP (boy were we wrong!). We landed on Blackrock Alliance (chosen somewhat randomly from amongst the PvP server list) and started our WoW careers.
Blackrock was fairly well balanced during the first few years of WoW. It was a high-population server (often with nightly queues that made raiding difficult), but the population was fairly well distributed amongst Alliance and Horde. Keep in mind that at this point in time, there were no server transfers. If you wanted to move to another server, you had to roll a brand new character there. You also weren’t allowed to have a character on both factions of a PvP server at that time. Both of those made the concept of “Character Mobility” essentially moot, because there literally was none.
The faction balance persisted pretty well throughout the Burning Crusade and the majority of the Wrath of the Lich King. Or at least, I don’t remember a time when Alliance felt massively outnumbered in world PvP or PvE content. If there was some slight balance drift, it was small enough to not be noticeable, likely in large part due to the lack of character mobility. Character server transfers became a “thing” in 2006, but for some reason it didn’t cause any sort of severe imbalance. It could be that the 6-month lockout period and $25 fee had a chilling effect that kept things stable, or it could just be pure luck given that other servers had already succumbed to severe faction imbalance.
Either way, near the end of Wrath of the Lich King, things changed. A guild named Adept, who was ranked world #2 at the time according to WoWprogress, transferred to horde side on Blackrock. This was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back, tipping the first domino as it were. Horde already had several strong, competitive raiding guilds at that point, and the addition of Adept just made that faction even more appealing. Ambitious raiders (or would-be raiders) flocked from Alliance to Horde, figuring that their chance of getting into a strong raid team (even if it wasn’t Adept) was much higher just due to the higher concentration of serious players.
By the end of Wrath, Blackrock was already starting the downward spiral into a single-faction server. Leveling in Cataclysm was frustrating because for every Alliance at a quest-giver, there were 3-5 Horde. It was very difficult to level outside of dungeons unless you got ahead of the pack by starting at midnight or stayed behind the pack by starting significantly later. It was a really good thing (for me) that Cataclysm didn’t encourage open-world play very much, because Stormwind was one of the few places in which you wouldn’t get ganked every 10-15 minutes (in this case, I use “ganking” to mean “overwhelmed by horde”).
Leveling in MoP was similarly frustrating, because by this point the ratio had tipped to 10:1 or higher in favor of Horde. My guild was literally one of the only raiding guilds left on Alliance. Between recruitment issues, the difficulty of leveling from 85-90, and the increased focus on open-world content in Mists, we agreed that we’d quit in frustration if we had to continue to play on Blackrock.
So after the first week of Mists, we transferred. A large portion of the guild still wanted the flavor and atmosphere of a PvP server. So we chose Tichondrius based on a few criteria, the foremost of which was that it had a roughly equal (though slightly Alliance-leaning) faction balance. And for the first month or two, things were pretty good. I can’t imagine doing those Golden Lotus dailies on Blackrock, but on Tichondrius it was pretty painless. There were enough of both Horde and Alliance in the zone that it felt like a proper PvP server – that feeling of uneasy truce that spontaneously erupts into world PvP once in a while.
Sadly, it wasn’t to last. Unbeknownst to us, a large chunk of the active PvP players on Alliance had decided to switch to Horde in early Mists. And that tipped the scales just enough to start the same sort of population shift that occurred on Blackrock. Throughout patches 5.1 and 5.2, the Alliance population steadily dwindled while the Horde population grew. Doing dailies on the Isle of Thunder became more and more difficult as we became more and more outnumbered. The focus shifted from worrying about stomping 75 roaches to worrying about dodging the roving bands of 5-10 Horde indiscriminately killing any Alliance players.
By the time 5.3 rolled around, we were thoroughly outnumbered once again, just as we had been on Blackrock. Even though it’s not as numerically imbalanced as Blackrock was (if WoWprogress is to be believed – more on that in a second), it’s arguably worse because there’s also a distinct play-style difference involved. The remaining Alliance are biased towards PvE content, while Horde is biased towards PvP content. So we’re not just outnumbered, but those Horde also tend to be wearing PvP gear.
As entertaining as that story was (or wasn’t), the point was that there’s a distinct failure mode for a PvP server. When the factions are fairly balanced, a PvP server can be very enjoyable, and both factions can thrive, often to the benefit of both. In vanilla WoW or Burning Crusade, it wasn’t hard to round up four or five Alliance players to help clear a group of Horde out of the entrance to Serpentshrine Cavern. As Blizzard would put it, there was a “PvP solution” to that situation, and by taking advantage of it we’d often meet new people or build up relationships with people from guilds we already interacted with. These “team up to survive” type experiences built up a sense of respect and pride in your faction and the people on it. And I think that the solidarity it built up was unquestionably a good thing.
However, there’s a limited range of faction imbalance where this condition holds. If you exceed that range – if the balance tips so far that you can’t feasibly grab a few people that happen to be in the zone and build a respectable counter-attack – bad things happen. The players on the numerically inferior side tend to get frustrated when trying to take part in open-world content, because it’s hard to feel like you’re making any progress when you’re getting ganked every 20-30 minutes (or less). And that feeling of solidarity, of being able to team up and overcome adversity, just breaks down into trolling.
That gives players a strong incentive to avoid content (both PvE and world PvP) rather than experience it. Many players will just give up on that content and sit in town, only doing content they can queue for. And that’s bad, because it means they feel like that open world they were promised by MoP has been taken away from them. One method I abused heavily for Isle of Thunder was to use cross-realm groups to “borrow” someone else’s server while I did dailies. That gives you the best of both worlds, but it’s a hassle, and I hate feeling like I’m inconveniencing a friend by shackling them to a party.
Eventually, all of this leads to an exodus of players from the weaker faction that can rarely be recovered from. After all, nobody will want to transfer to that faction without a good reason, like a strong raiding or PvP guild. But as those guilds and teams get frustrated and leave, that happens less and less.
As a physicist, this phenomenon isn’t unfamiliar to me, because there’s a perfect physical analogy to what’s happening on a WoW PvP server. What we’re seeing is a case of unstable equilibrium in action. To illustrate, this is what we mean by an “unstable equilibrium” in physics:
An unstable equilibrium in physics. Image from http://nre509.wikidot.com/ball-well-diagrams-feedback-and-equilibria
Here, we have a ball sitting on a hill, perfectly balanced such that it doesn’t move. We say that the ball is “in equilibrium.” Which means that the ball will stay in that position – it’s at rest. But it’s an unstable situation – the slightest breeze could push the ball enough that it starts rolling down the hill, and is therefore no longer in equilibrium.
And this is exactly what happens on a WoW PvP server. Even if the server starts out balanced, all it takes is a small event that breaks that balance to start a cascade in one direction or the other. And once you head down that slope, it’s nearly impossible to recover – it’s far more likely that the server just bottoms out until it essentially becomes a one-faction server. To put it in physics terms, there’s no “restoring force” here that encourages the ball (population) to come back into a balanced state.
The ideal case would be the opposite situation: a stable equilibrium:
A stable equilibrium in physics. Image from http://nre509.wdfiles.com/local–files/start/StableEquil.GIF
In this case, the ball starts at the bottom of the valley, in perfect balance. If you push the ball slightly in one direction, it will climb up a little, but eventually roll back down and settle in the middle. There’s always a restoring force that encourages the system to return to a stable (balanced) state.
And this is the fundamental problem with WoW and world PvP – there’s just no incentive to keep the factions balanced. Once one faction gains an upper hand, it just gets easier for them to do everything, while becoming harder for the underdog faction. There’s nothing to make being the underdog attractive, so there’s no restoring force. Instead, PvP servers simply degenerate into being essentially single-faction PvE servers rather than being “true” PvP servers with constant (but balanced) inter-faction conflict.
For proof of that, let’s take a look at some data. This is what we get if we look to WoWprogress for realm balance information for US servers:
Faction balance according to WoWprogress.
It’s not hard to see the problem here. Out of the first 6 servers, all of which are PvP servers, none have less than a 2:1 faction imbalance. Some of them are very extreme (Mal’Ganis, Illidan, Sargeras, Stormreaver) while others aren’t as bad (Frostmourne, Kil’Jaeden). But I doubt the Horde on Frostmourne or Alliance on Kil’Jaeden feel like the server is close to a balance point, either.
Extending this to the top 10 or 20 servers shows that this isn’t just a problem affecting PvP realms. In fact, out of the 30 realms shown, only a handful (Kilrogg, Caelestrasz, Turalyon, Ner’zhul maybe? all PvE realms I should add….) come close to having true faction balance. Prominent PvE realms, like Stormrage and Area 52, also suffer from a very lopsided faction balance. I suspect it’s less apparent in day-to-day play on those servers because you don’t end up eating dirt every 5 minutes thanks to the other faction. And the imbalance is less likely to be caused by frustration than simply due to concentration of player talent. But it’s still not an ideal situation, even on a PvE server.
I should note, however, that I’m not completely trusting of this data. For example, WoWprogress suggests that while Blackrock really is in the 30:1 ballpark (it’s only gotten worse since we left), Tichondrius is only about 2.4:1. But I don’t think that’s an entirely accurate reflection of world PvE content. A large chunk of the remaining Alliance players never leave town, simply queuing for battlegrounds or arenas. Whereas I think a lot of that Horde population goes out to see new content. In any event, this sure as hell doesn’t look like being outnumbered by only a factor of two to one:
Two to one faction imbalance my ass.
I can’t go for more than about 5 minutes without getting attacked at peak hours, and easily see 4 or 5 horde (or more) for every one alliance on the Timeless Isle, suggesting WoWprogress’ data isn’t the entire story. Even if that data is accurate for raw player numbers, it says nothing about how many of those Alliance take part in world PvE content, or for that matter how many are simply alts of Horde players that are never taken out of town.
And the Timeless Isle is really the worst-case scenario for a server like mine. At least during the majority of Mists of Pandaria, the factions were spread out over a fairly large continent. The Isle of Thunder concentrated those players in a smaller area, exacerbating the problem, but the Isle of Thunder was still pretty huge, so there was room to spread out. The Timeless Isle is nowhere near as large from a functional standpoint, because it funnels all of those players into a few more densely-populated areas (especially the Celestial Court) and has a number of choke points (the bridges on the path to Ordos). And the Shaohao reputation grind, which further concentrates players into two or three small areas to farm Yaungol, makes things even worse. Add the Emissary of Ordos mechanic, and you’ve got a giant mess on an unbalanced PvP server.
At this point, it may be tricky to reverse the process and force faction balance. Blizzard certainly has the tools to do it with connected realms, but that’s also of limited effectiveness. It won’t help high-population realms, for example, where it’s just not feasible to cram together two full servers worth of Horde and Alliance for the sake of faction balance.
But I’m optimistic that it can be done, and not just by a large, arbitrary, and game-breaking shake-up. Just as in physics, sometimes all it takes is a little nudge in the right direction. In this case, there just has to be some incentive or combination of incentives to play the underdog. There has to be some sort of restoring force at play.
You could imagine all sorts of mechanisms that may work. A reliable method, if harsh, would be to disable transfers to the higher-population faction on heavily imbalanced servers. For example, if the imbalance was larger than 2:1 in favor of Horde, then players would simply not be allowed to transfer to Horde on that server. And maybe even unable to start new characters there, unless they already have an existing character (thus, alts of existing players aren’t inhibited).
That gets into some sticky territory, though – if a new player wants to play with a real-life friend who happens to be on that server, they’re out of luck. Cross-realm groups may alleviate most of that problem, but it still introduces an artificial barrier to entry for new players, which isn’t necessarily in the game’s best interests. The whole point of this exercise is to construct an artificial barrier to prevent attrition, but if we lose more new players than we gain in keeping existing subscribers, that’s not an effective way to do it.
As an alternative, they could just make server/faction-specific transfers much less costly. Blizzard is frequently offering free transfers from high-population realms to low-population realms (ironically enough, there was a free Tichondrius->Blackrock transfer available a little while ago…which was amusing given Blackrock’s traditional motto: “Blackrock’s full, GTFO”). For example, since Tichondrius Alliance is heavily outnumbered, transfers from Horde to Alliance would be automatically free, as would transfers from other servers (either faction) to Tichondrius Alliance. Transferring to Tichondrius Horde would still cost the full $25. That puts an artificial monetary barrier in place, but doesn’t inhibit new players from rolling a character and leveling it.
I think this sort of system would probably work. Consider, if you’re a guild and you’re thinking of transferring to another server. You think Tichondrius might be a good fit, but are hesitant to ask your entire guild to pay for a transfer given the size of the imbalance. But if the transfer is free for everyone, what do you have to lose? The whole guild could transfer there, set up shop,and try it for a few months. If it’s not a good fit, maybe you pay the $25 to transfer elsewhere, but you’re no worse-off than if you had done that in the first place. It introduces a natural bleed valve in the population flow, such that it’s easier (and cheaper) for population to flow in the direction of balance than in the direction of imbalance. It may not be enough to fix the realms that are really far gone, but it might stem and reverse the tide on realms that still have a chance of recovering.
For the really bad servers, something more drastic would be required in addition to the monetary solution. For example, incentives for prominent guilds on one faction to move to the other. Maybe by doing that, they get some nice free perks for a year (or until balance is restored, whichever is longer); free or cheap consumables for raiding, increased experience and reputation gain (XP bonus disabled during the first week of a new expansion, naturally), discounts on heirlooms, or special bind-to-account items that provide significant perks for alts. Ideally nothing that gives a strong advantage during the progression race, but something like nearly-free flasks and potions would be great for a guild that’s not fighting for top-100 status and is willing to help balance a server.
You could also imagine a Wintergrasp-like system that makes each player stronger when their faction is outnumbered in a zone. While I don’t think Tenacity itself is the right call here, it would certainly make open-world content more accessible to the underdog faction. If I did +200% damage, took 200% less damage, had +200% health, and perhaps most importantly had 50% reduction on crowd-control duration, I wouldn’t worry much about taking on 3 or 4 horde at a time. Ten might still be a tall order, but at the very least I’d stand a fighting chance if I played my class well. But we’ve sen in the past that this sort of buff is hard to balance properly even within the confines of one zone, so I’m skeptical that the devs would want to try and employ it server-wide. It would also make PvE content sort of strange; the bonus damage and damage reduction could easily only apply to players, but the health increase would be weird. Perhaps without the health increase, it would work though.
And that’s just a few of the ideas that one could suggest. There are many others, but those three are enough to show that there are viable solutions to the faction imbalance issue. It’s just a matter of choosing which ones to deploy and in what magnitude.
It’s really a shame that this failure mode exists, because it’s the sort of thing that must have come up in other games before. And if not, any scientist who’s studied population dynamics (animal or physical) could have predicted this behavior. In fact, I suspect Ghostcrawler is probably familiar with predation and population dynamics if the results of a quick Google Scholar search are any indication. That’s not to say this is his fault, or his decision, just that there are smart people on the team who are definitely capable of identifying this problem, as well as its potential solutions.
But it’s sad because it’s very clear from all of this that I’d love the Timeless Isle content, if I was only able to play it. But instead, every time I go to the Isle I get frustrated by my inability to make much progress. Nowadays, when I log on WoW I want to get things done efficiently, because there’s a pile of work, blogging, coding, theorycrafting, and so on that’s lying around vying for my attention. And I simply can’t do anything efficiently on the Timeless Isle, not because I’m on a PvP server, but because I can’t fend for myself against the sheer number of Horde I have to contend with. WoW is pretty questionably-balanced even for 1v1 play; it’s definitely not balanced around one hero defeating ten (or even two) players from the other faction.
Which means that almost every time I go to the Timeless Isle, I end up thinking to myself, “Why am I wasting my time on this?” I don’t need Shaohao rep or any of the gear or achievements to raid. I was only doing them because I generally find those things fun. But they just aren’t here, because I spend more time watching my back than enjoying the content.
Maybe I’m just old now, or something. Or maybe I’m just the wrong type of person for a PvP server. I don’t (and really never have) gotten any satisfaction from making other people feel bad or ruining their experience. I almost never pro-actively attack another player anymore, because in the back of my mind I can always see myself on the receiving end and think about how irritated I would be at the inconvenience. And I don’t want to inflict that on someone, so I don’t. I’m not the sort of kid who enjoys ganking and then /spitting and tea-bagging the corpse. That’s just not me, and never has been.
But my guild, my friends, are on a PvP server. And while I play this game for a lot of reasons, one of them is to play with that group of people. Switching to a PvE server and leaving them behind is likely to just lead to disillusionment with the game, and eventually to me quitting and finding something else to do with my time.
But it’s a bit of a catch-22, because heading to the Timeless Isle is having the same effect. After the first few times I have to make a graveyard run, I start thinking about all of the other things I could be doing. I’d rather be finishing up one of the many games I have for the PS3 (and even a few ancient PS2 titles) that I haven’t gotten around to yet, or spending some more time playing X-COM, or finally getting around to playing BioShock (any of them – I haven’t played a single one in that series, even though I own them all).
So the Timeless Isle is, more than anything else in this game, actually driving me away from the game. Turning me into one of those players that logs on only for raid nights, and does the bare minimum to keep their character up-to-date the rest of the week. And that’s sad, because to me that feels like I’m entering the twilight (not the movie) of my WoW experience. Rather than looking forward to logging on as soon as I get home so I can raid, explore a new continent, or try out a new feature, that enthusiasm is turning to apathy.
And I wonder how many other players feel the same way for the same reason. WoW is an old game, it’s bound to have a slow decline in subscriber numbers. But I wonder if that decline is being hastened, at least for players that enjoy PvP servers, by the fact that almost none of them can have a properly-functioning world PvP experience anymore.
Just to be clear: I don’t think this problem is killing WoW. The long-term eventuality is just that every PvP server will end up being a one-faction PvE server, and world PvP will die out. Guilds like mine will eat the player attrition, and probably eventually transfer to the dominant side of another server if there are no balanced PvP servers left to choose from. That’s a far different thing than WoW collapsing. But I do think it will hurt WoW’s numbers, and it definitely hurts the world PvP experience that WoW has traditionally offered.