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It's expected that Cataclysm will bring about a surge of activity as people check out all the new content immediately after launch. Having played World of Warcraft immediately after The Burning Crusade came out, I know during the expansion surge, it's very hard to get anything done as you're competing with everyone to do the same starting content.

How long does this initial surge last, and when does the game back to normal levels (in the sense that you can complete quests and access NPCs without much competition)? A week? A month? A few months?

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If we were to compare it to WotLK and you're inquiring about obvious effects of the surge, like queues, etc, I'd say a week to a month depending on the size of your realm. The more players on the realm, the longer the surge will last. However if you're referring to the crowding in the starter zones, e.g. Vashj'r or Mount Hyjal, that's already starting to dissipate as people spread out over them.

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Confirmed this yesterday. Gilneas was far easier to get through even 10 hours after the launch. –  user3389 Dec 8 '10 at 15:19

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