Late last night, the 5.4 Public Test Realm patch notes were released. In amongst all the typical class changes was this little bit of information.
New Feature: Virtual Realms
- Virtual Realms are sets of realms that are fused together, and will behave exactly as if they were one cohesive realm. Players on the same Virtual Realm will be able to join guilds, access a single Auction House, join arena teams and raids, as well run dungeons or group up to complete quests.
- Players belonging to the same Virtual Realm will have a (#) symbol next to their name.
Now, admittedly, we don’t have much information about Virtual Realms at this point in time, nor do we even know if this will make it through the PTR process to make it to live. But why let a silly thing like logic stop my speculation? ;)
It seems to me, at first glance, that Blizzard has managed to come up with technology to essentially merge low-population realms without actually merging them. Merging realms would, after all, be like admitting defeat, that some realms are ridiculously unpopulated. Currently, on US realms, the most popular is Tichondrius, a PVP/PST realm with over 222,000 characters (as per realmpop.com). According to the same source, the least-populated US-based realm is Chromaggus, a PVP/CST realm with about 17,000 characters. Do you see a difference? ;)
TIME FOR MATH. (Crap.)
Assuming the numbers provided by realmpop are correct, there are approximately 17.5 million characters on 246 US-based realms. The average is, then, around 71,100 characters per realm. Now, of course, that’s just characters and not players, but you can see that if the average (the mean, of course) is around 71,100 characters, realms like poor Chromaggus are woefully underpopulated.
So why not actually merge realms? Why come up with Virtual Realms which, to quote Blizzard, “will behave exactly as if they were one cohesive realm”? Well, there were some problems with the idea of realm merging. Such as what? Such as names. If you’re on one realm with the name, oh, I don’t know, Kurn, but someone on another realm has the same name, which one of you is Kurn and which one of you is forced to use something like Kurnmogh? (Yes, when I first made my toon, Kurn was taken and so I became Kurnmogh.)
Guild names are similarly problematic.
Further, does merging realms actually solve any problems? Temporarily, yes, but maybe not in the long term. Say that the bottom 20 realms are merged into two realms. Apart from all that craziness going on with names and such, say you were on the server Auchindoun, which, in my example, would be merged with Blackwing Lair, Haomarush, Blood Furnace, Detheroc, Jaedenar, Dethecus, Ursin, Rivendare and Coilfang. So say you’re on Auchindoun and get merged with those other 9 servers. That’s up to 10 different Kurns or 10 different Apotheosises (Apotheoses?) that would have to be organized in terms of names alone. Then, what if this NEW merged server starts losing people? What if others go elsewhere or quit or whatever? Would THAT server be merged? If so, you’re now looking at a second merge upheaval, basically. Merging realms is just not a solid, long-term solution for low-pop servers.
Virtual Realms, however, has solved all of that problematic “upheaval” crap. No need to shut down a server when you can stick people together anyhow. And everyone can keep their own names! I could be Kurn of Eldre’Thalas and have another Kurn on Skywall and if those two realms were part of the same Virtual Realm, there’d be no conflict. Bam. There goes the biggest single headache that comes with the idea of consolidating servers. People can have the same name on the same Virtual Realm and what will distinguish them is the server they’re on and a little # symbol.
Further, Virtual Realms will mean you can join a guild on any of those servers, raid with anyone from those servers, basically do anything with that group of servers the same way you currently do server-only activities. This is kind of interesting. Multi-realm guilds? “Hey, we’re Apotheosis of Eldre’Thalas (and Skywall and Ursin and etc)…”? How’s that going to work, exactly? I’m not against this at all, just wondering how a realm-based thing like a guild is going to be accessible from other realms. Actually, in terms of recruitment, you’ll suddenly have access to something like five or ten times the population you normally do. And all those people could join your guild without paying transfer fees. Good Lord, could advertising your guild in Trade chat actually be worth it???
Virtual Realms will also mean sharing one Auction House. As someone who was quite enjoying the gold-making aspect of the game at the launch of Mists of Pandaria, that’s interesting. A more active Auction House almost certainly means the prices for everything are cheaper, because there’s more of whatever it is you’re trying to buy. For low-pop realms, this may have the repercussion that someone who makes gold reliably by farming hard-to-find materials (like past-expansion herbs and ore — Goldthorn and Fel Iron Ore, I’m looking at you!) may be out of luck because supply will rise and demand will drop. Similarly, if you have the market cornered on a certain kind of item, chances are that you will no longer be the dominant person on the AH with that item. Even if you are, you may be forced to cut your prices significantly to remain competitive.
I think Virtual Realms will be huge for improving the game experience for thousands of people out there, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions:
1) How many realms will be in a Virtual Realm?
2) With which realms will others be connected? Are they going to tack Chromaggus on to Tichondrius, for instance? Or will they do it by lumping together five to ten low-pop realms to be one large Virtual Realm?
3) Will Virtual Realms have names?
4) Will players be able to transfer to a Virtual Realm (and then get randomly dropped on a server within that VR) or will they continue to transfer to individual servers?
We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess, but this is certainly one of the more interesting things I think Blizzard has ever done.