This week has seen both Mythic and Blizzard hard at work to deal with a fundamental problem with the design of keep seige warfare in MMORPG's - the seiges are TOO popular. This would seem to be a good problem to have, since it means that people are actually chosing to use the content. Unfortunately, MMORPG servers are built with the assumption that players are going to be spread out over the entire game world, and they tend to develop problems when hundreds of players are fighting it out for control of a single room. How can we deal with this?
Mythic: Throw the bums out (first)!
Mythic's approach is to add a new system that throws under-leveled players out of the keep to make room for max level players as the area becomes overcrowded. This isn't entirely without controversy on its own, as much of the draw of the Warhammer Public Quest approach is that anyone can come as they are, even under-leveled, and contribute to the battle, but I suppose most people will agree that max level characters will contribute the most.
Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to clear out server-crashing crowds, so the system will eventually lock down the entire area, punting even max level late-comers to the nearest warcamp. Players are concerned about what happens when you die and need to run back, amongst other details.
It'll be interesting to hear how this works in practice, but it does seem that "open world RVR" loses some of its lustre if it has to be partially locked down, even if this stops shy of actually instancing the keeps outright.
Blizzard: End the battle, end the lag: destroying Wintergrasp to save it
Blizzard is outright blaming Wintergrasp crowds for general server lag. As someone who is almost always actually in Wintergrasp when the battle is on, I think Wintergrasp may be falsely accused here - some of the worst outdoor lag I've seen has happened when Wintergrasp was NOT up and running. That said, it's certainly a problem when 300 people show up in peak hours and you can't actually see anything that's happening - I've been feared during the server lag and had the server freeze up for so long that my character physically ran clear through the keep wall before the server recovered.
In response, Blizzard added some balance tweaks in the January 7th PTR patch notes that appear to be aimed at ending the battle more quickly.
Without delving too deeply into the nitty gritty, there are three outer courtyards that the attacking team can go after, from which they attempt to break through to reach the one central courtyard. From the central courtyard, the attacking side has to batter down the final door to the keep, and one or more attackers has to go in and capture the orb, a 10 second channel that breaks on any damage. Under the new changes, the keep door will become much weaker and the orb will be captured instantly upon being clicked by an attacker.
I understand the problem that Blizzard is trying to address here - the initial stages of fighting spread out the battle across (or even outside) the keep, but the last stand against the door and in the orb room really force all the players to pack into a server-crippling mob. Once that happens, it may be in the server's best interest to end the battle quickly, and Blizzard has a clear preference for ending battles in favor of the offense so that the keep will change hands often.
The issue is that these changes, coupled with an increase in vehicle HP (which favors the attacking team, since they need vehicles to break through the walls), are going to vastly worsen a balance of power that already greatly favors the attacking team. Simply put, they may be destroying Wintergrasp to save it.
Can keep seiges work without crashing servers?
A large part of the problem may be due to the lack of options; WoW has only the single keep (and it is attackable on a fixed, if hard to keep track of, timer), while Warhammer's zone control system clearly indicates to players which fortresses are currently available for capture. If players COULD spread out to attack multiple fronts and still maintain some of the feel of the seige campaign, perhaps they would - I suggested incentives for just such an approach the last time I wrote on Wintergrasp crowding.
The other side of the problem, the technical one, though, may sadly be unsolvable. There is a lot of room for server optimization, perhaps including code that renders things at a lower resolution when the going gets rough, but the servers have a limited capacity. Eve recently asked players to schedule their invasions in advance, but Blizzard already knows when the Wintergrasp battles will occur, and that doesn't seem to be helping them fix the congestion. If two of the biggest guns in MMORPG's today can't fix this problem, perhaps MMORPG technology is still too new to fix this problem just yet. That's a real shame, because a good seige can be a lot of fun.