Currently the subscriber count for World of Warcraft is around 7.7 million, a significant drop from the peak of 12 million Blizzard saw in 2010. That's still a huge population of customers – around 334K less than the current number inhabiting Israel -- who are gladly forking out a nice fee per month to tromp around in a digital world. Yet some of the realm's servers are now feeling a little less populated during the long stretch between expansion packs.
"Over the years, World of Warcraft players of all kinds have naturally migrated to different realms to play with their friends, find new guilds, strive for Heroic boss kills, search for the most competitive PvP experiences, and otherwise try to find the right place to call home," the company said. "Over time, these shifts in player population can sometimes create a less-than-optimal play experience for those on less popular realms, making it tougher to find guilds, conquer group content, and get what they’re looking for from the Auction House and in-game economy."
To address this, Blizzard plans to introduce Connected Realms in Patch 5.4. This will supposedly present the appearance that the population has increased without actually merging the low-level servers. Using the company's existing cross-realm technology, a set of two or more standard realms will be permanently and seamlessly "linked" and behave as if they were one cohesive realm. Thus, players will have access to a single Auction House, join the same Raids and Dungeons and more.
"Our goal with Connected Realms is to give players on lower-population realms more opportunities to group up, compete, and connect with other players to take on Azeroth’s bigger challenges," Blizzard said. "That sort of interaction is a big part of what makes World of Warcraft fun, and this feature will help us deliver that experience to even more players."
So why not just merge the servers? Blizzard said linking is less disruptive to players, as merging would require forced name changes if there were conflicts. Merging would also confuse returning players, as there's a good chance their realm would be missing from the realm list. Some players also feel strong ties to their realm's name and history, and Blizzard doesn't want to disrupt that.
"Our cross-realm technology has continued to evolve since it was first developed for joining players in dungeons," Blizzard said. "It’s now at a point where we can create seamless worlds made up of multiple individual realms, and we think there are some really positive benefits to that."
Currently Blizzard hasn't decided which realms will fall within a Connected Realm umbrella, or how many, but they will be of the same type as in PvE to PvE, PvP to PvP and so on. Blizzard also indicated that there will be multiple Connected Realms that will be different in size. So far there's no set date as to when the first Connected Realm will be established, but it will be some time after the launch of Patch 5.4.
"Our goal is to create a vibrant and fun online experience where you can join guilds, access an active Auction House, and band together to take on group content," Blizzard said.