I spent some time talking population balance for Warhammer open RVR, so it's only fair to bring the subject back up now that I've had some more time to play around with the Wintergrasp zone in WoW.
Company is coming to Wintergrasp
Last night, I would guesstimate there were at least 150 players in Wintergrasp during a peak hour siege. The Alliance had one full raid and two nearly full raids (ours had ~35ish, and the other was saying that they were LF5M in general), so that's 110 or so right there, not counting players not in any of the three raids. There were enough Horde to put up at least a bit of a fight in the Wintergrasp keep proper (I don't think they had like 30 stacks of Tenacity or anything) so it could easily have been 200+.
This has a variety of dicey effects on the actual gameplay. First of all, my FPS slowed to an understandable crawl. I certainly could turn down the graphics settings on my machine, but I'm not keen on doing so given that the game runs fine in any other setting, and I did spend a fair amount of money on a computer that could run the game with graphics set to pretty. Second, and more irritating from my perspective, having three raid groups made completion of the daily quests take three times as long - even a second round of fighting, with smaller but still massive numbers well past East Coast peak hours, wasn't enough for me to finish the basic daily quests for the zone.
It's worth noting that this is still EARLY in the expansion cycle. Many players are just hitting level 80 now. I would imagine that quite a few weren't seriously working on PVP until they got to the cap, especially since most of the rewards didn't roll out until yesterday (and some Wintergrasp specific rewards won't go live until 3.0.8 arrives). This could very quickly make Wintergrasp unplayable, especially when you consider that many gamers play WoW precisely BECAUSE their older machines can handle it.
Implications for non-instanced keep PVP
This problem is not unique to WoW. Warhammer has seen keep seiges bring down servers, and the performance issue is one of Mythic's top priorities.
I'm not sure which set of issues will ultimately prove more serious. Warhammer heavily bills their keep seiges as the pinnacle of endgame content, and also provides a bit more notice to help players determine what is under attack (at least, compared to Wintergrasp, which offers no advance notice unless you're in town or you actually go to the zone. In principle, Warhammer has three fronts for its Realm War, though I've heard that the Zone Control mechanic effectively dictates which Fortresses are vulnerable to attack at any given time. By contrast, PVP is a far less integral part of WoW, but there is only one Wintergrasp and it offers some very juicy rewards.
Despite the differences, the problems facing both are ultimately similar. The incentives direct all players to the same location at the same time (Wintergrasp's version is even - with some effort - a predictable time) for one great big slobberknocker of a brawl for the top slot. This may sound cool on paper, but putting that many players in a single location causes a lot of CPU stress for both the players and the server.
Can we tackle this problem with incentives?
I'd argue that this problem is where it is because the incentives favor a massive battle - you can't get any of the rewards if you don't show up. There's no incentive to stand and guard Warhammer's Battlefield Objectives, or WoW's Grizzly Hills World PVP zones. What if controlling these remote locations affected the big battle for the keep, and, more importantly, allowed players guarding the frontier to share in the rewards for the keep siege?
To use Wintergrasp as an example, imagine that controlling the lumber camps in Grizzly Hills allowed the forces in Wintergrasp access to Goblin Shredders (for those who don't know the lore, these are giant robots with saw blades) that can, well, shred enemy vehicles. Now say that players fighting for control of the lumber camps count as being in Wintergrasp for the purpose of bonus honor and marks of victory. Finally, make control of this location worth something to the players who are present in it to compensate them for not being in the thick of the keep siege. Perhaps there can be some task that can be repeated every hour or so for 100 honor, and maybe some daily quests for Stone Keeper's Shards.
None of these things will break the overall incentive scheme for Wintergrasp, or cause players to lose interest in fighting for the actual keep (which would still control the continent-wide buff). They would, however, provide an incentive to counteract the problem of encouraging everyone on the server to descend on the same location at the same time. Even if the result is a bit of inflation, the improved game experience for all concerned would be more than worthwhile.