In the Cesspit

In the Cesspit you go when you are stuck in a degrading situation with no light at the end of the tunnel. World of Warcraft servers are collapsing. This isn’t a news for who plays the game (I don’t have enough time) but it’s four months that these problems exist and the point is that the situation is worsening. What I expected in November now looks too optimistic even if appropriate:

The side effect is that Blizzard will have to face for the first time a bunch of “unexpected” problems, from lag, to collapsing servers, to exploits. This not just at release but also along its cycle. A lot of things will change in Blizzard’s attitude, both in how it works internally and outside with the community. Good or bad? We’ll see. It’s a huge mainland, before it settles down there will be some earthquakes.

And the earthquakes are still shaking. Blizzard made too many mistakes that every player with some experience in the genre largely anticipated. Problems too important to not be considered but that today are deep-rooted and perceived as “features” of the genre itself. They become commonplaces like the “grind”, the lack of depth, the infinite treadmills, the commercial non-viability of PvP and so on. Blizzard was able to discard some of these but it overlooked many other fundamental problems that were glaring. Both at the design and technical level. I ranted since August against their decision to have local servers divided by timezones in order to offer the 24h clock, proper GM support and plan the downtime periods. I repeated in every way possible that this segmentation would have aggravated the load balance between the servers and during the day. In fact this was the first action that Blizzard tried when the servers effectively started to die due to the load. Two weeks after the launch, with an emergency patch, Blizzard removed directly from the UI the display of the timezones and asked directly the players to log during off peak hours or log in servers from other timezones, throwing at the same time all their plans in the toilet.

It was only the tip of the iceberg. The problems seem at the root and way harder to solve than expected. Blizzard is justifying what is happening by saying that the game is still selling (which is true) so the load is progressively increasing. But the real situation isn’t about catching up with a growth. What is concretely happening is that, as the time passes, the servers suffer more and more. Each server is capped. When there are 3200-3400 players logged in the queues will start. This means that the load cannot exceed that limit. We are now four months after the launch, the actual load during peak time is decreasing. While the game is still selling savagely the players logged in at the same time aren’t directly increasing. This is a rule valid for all the mmorpgs. When the game launches everyone wants to play, in particular if you have the Christmas just the month after. Some players will cancel for many different reasons and the great majority will still play but more casually and for less hours. It’s not a case that Blizzard reached its “record” of contemporary logged in players at the same time exactly during the Christmas. Since then the load decreased. The problems with the servers not.

So what brings to all the problems that the servers are experiencing now? What I suspect is again a deeper problem. From my tests the caps are often lowered on each server instead of increased and this despite the continue efforts of Blizzard to optimize and restructure their network. But optimization toward what? There is no concrete improvement. The european servers, right now, seems way more healthy and stable. This is another sign. What is happening is not what Blizzard is telling the players. The performance of the servers isn’t lagging behind an increased use and more players logging in, the performance of the servers is degrading over time. There’s a loss. This is what is happening. All Blizzard’s efforts seem aimed to stop this erosion and not to increase their capacity.

The second element was noticed by Darniaq weeks ago. The servers aren’t independent, they seem clustered together. This means that if a server is under stress, this stress is inherited by all the other servers on the same backbone. If one of the servers has a major collapse it will ground also all the other connected servers. The situation is: or they work together, or they die together. Now this means that the problems lie at a level completely different than “optimizing” and “fixing bugs”. There’s something below that will “eat” all these efforts because it progresses on a completely different pattern. The servers do not die because of the stress of the load, the servers slow down over time. This is why the european servers, that are only one month old, are able to deliver a better overall performance. It’s an aging process, it doesn’t happen in a single moment of peak. The peak times just underline the problem but they aren’t its direct cause.

This just to explain that, if what I’m seeing is true, it will be really hard for Blizzard to figure out and solve the origin of the problem. Even if the game will stop to sell and the players will play less the benefits will be again temporary. The ease is brief and the servers will keep deteriorating, just more slowly.

The rest is obvious:

Our first step in trying to alleviate the situation was to offer character transfers to reduce the amount of players on these high-population realms. The character transfers did reduce the total amount of players on the shared infrastructure, and we noticed an immediate performance increase. However, this increase only lasted a few days.

World of Warcraft is an heavy elephant. As I feared, the problems arrived after the launch. The game is suffering from its “tonnage”. Commercially it was an incomparable success but a mmorpg has to be judged in the long term. It has value in the long term. Not only the servers suffer from an overlook about core elements of the genre, but this “weight” and lack of flexibility is inherited by all the parts. Blizzard is slow to react to the problems, it’s slow to patch new features, it’s slow to communicate with the playerbase, it’s slow to plan ahead what will be the game’s future (yes, the rumors about the explansion are obviously false). In general they are slow to understand their own creature. They planned a “release” but they didn’t plan its future and development. They used an old approach during the development cycle that was able to deliver a wonderful game but now it’s also its bigger problem. Blizzard isn’t ready to tame this situation. They aren’t organized to build on this to let the game grow as it should happen in this genre.

What made the success is also killing it.

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