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'World of Warcraft' battles server problems

As online game draws more than 6 million subscribers, players find that it's going through growing pains.

With 6 million subscribers, each of whom pays $15 a month, Blizzard Entertainment's online game "World of Warcraft" has become a billion-dollar enterprise.

Now comes the hard part: Making sure WoW is always up and running. Some players are angered by ongoing server problems that have led the game to crash without warning while they were playing. Complaints have also surfaced about long lag times and frustrating waits to even play.

Despite Blizzard's contention that it's been keeping WoW customers informed of system problems at all times, some players contend that the company has been slow to react to complaints and reluctant to offer support when problems arise.

According to players, the problems have been especially acute since Blizzard implemented its last major patch to WoW, in late March. At that time, the company acknowledged it had some temporary server problems but said they'd resolve themselves within hours. But some players say that ever since then, they're routinely encountered "urgent maintenance" that can result in being booted from the game at any time.

"Being a system administrator myself, I have some understanding of what goes on in a corporate data center," said Evgeny Krevets, a sometimes-frustrated WoW player. "I don't know Blizzard's system setup. What I do know is that if I kept performing 'urgent maintenance' and taking the service down without warning for eight-hour periods, I would be out of a job."

Blizzard blames some of the problems--such as the disconnection, for several hours on Friday, of players linked to several servers--on AT&T, its network provider. (AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.)

It also argues that online games like WoW that have to manage hundreds of thousands, or millions, of accounts, are simply prone to network issues.

"Due to the complex nature of massively multiplayer games like 'World of Warcraft,' technical issues such as the ones some of our players have experienced recently may occur on occasion," Blizzard spokeswoman Lisa Jensen, said in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "Our commitment to our players is to provide effective solutions as quickly and carefully as possible whenever any such situation occurs."

WoW is what is known as a "sharded" online game. That means the game's many players are divided up among a large number of servers, or "shards," because no individual server could handle the full player base. This is common in the online games space.

As a result, players can usually choose which server they wish to play on, and each server can take on its own characteristics due to the specific guilds that play on them. In some games, like "EverQuest II," different servers can even have different operating rules.

Certainly, WoW is hardly the first online service to be hit by network and server problems. Over the years, services like eBay, Amazon.com and E*Trade have all dealt with various forms of outages.

And even some WoW players who are frustrated by the inconsistency of their game acknowledge that providing constant uptime is tricky, especially considering how fast the service has grown.

"I don't know how much I fault (Blizzard), since many of my own companies have had scaling problems," said Joi Ito, a venture capitalist who has put money into well-known online outfits such as Technorati, and who runs a WoW guild--or team--filled with other tech executives and well-known bloggers. "However, the uptime is really not (at an acceptable) level for a real commercial service, so I hope they get better."

Ito said the server problems have been particularly frustrating for him and his guild members because of the particular flavor of virtual "quests" they often run in WoW.

"Difficulty logging in (and) servers going down--it's become a normal part of our lives," Ito said. "It really does suck for us because we're running higher-level (quests) where it takes us a few hours to get to the (goal) and sometimes the server suddenly goes down right near the end before we finish. And they are unannounced (and) you just see people on the server--guild list--start dropping off."

Another member of Ito's guild said he too had been having problems with the WoW servers, though of a different nature.

"I have waited to get online the last couple times I have played," said Eric Haller, a San Francisco blogger and investor. "We moved (servers) because the old server was doing that, and now the brand new server is having the same issues."

Haller said he attributes the wait times--often about 10 to 15 minutes--to WoW's growth being so fast. He joked about how long he has to wait.

"When you live on Internet time, 10 minutes can seem like an eternity of delayed gratification," Haller said, "so it can be pretty frustrating."

Not all WoW players have experienced the server problems, and even some who have complained note that the issue may be slowly resolving itself.

"I decided to switch to another server over a week ago," Krevets said. "The amount of issues and problems I experienced were just too much for me. The new server that I've been playing on has not experienced any log-in problems or queues, so I've been quite happy so far."

In any case, with no shortage of massively multiplayer online games, such as "EverQuest," "City of Heroes," "Ultima Online" and others, on the market, some might wonder why angry WoW players don't just walk away.

But some say WoW has reached its 6 million subscriber threshold--no other American massively multiplayer online game has even broken a million--because its game play is easier to grasp for mainstream players. And because there are few other practical options for many such players, they feel Blizzard should take the performance problems more seriously.

"The thing is, there is no other real alternative" to WoW, Ito said. "So they sort of have a natural monopoly, and that's why people are so mad, I think. They can't vote with their feet. They just have to wait. And 'Blizz' has to realize that they have millions of hours of people's time hostage and should feel that responsibility."