Anybody who has created a new toon in WoW the past several years knows that with a few exceptions, the starting zones have been empty of life. Sure, there was the surge in Goblins and Worgen the first few months of Cataclysm, and there was the Death Knight invasion at the beginning of Wrath, but in general you simply don't see a lot of activity in the starting zones.*
The situation is so bad that Blizz is considering a specialized form of server merge to make the intro zones seem more active, on the premise that Blizz is losing potential new subs because "there's nobody on WoW".
The funny thing is, among the MMOs I've played, WoW is the deadest game at the low levels.
Sure, you could argue that the F2P nature of some games like Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan means that you'll see higher numbers of people trying those games out. In the case of AoC, detractors will point out that the Tortage intro area is the best developed part of the game as well. LOTRO has the benefit of name recognition among non-gamers, and has a more developed F2P area than AoC.
Then we come to a title like The Old Republic.
Sure, it's got that name recognition, but so did Star Trek Online. It's also got its detractors, saying that the game is dead and a failure.
Then why are the intro and lowbie zones so busy?
When I tried TOR on one of the free weekends a month or two back, I found the intro zone for the Trooper and Smuggler filled with people (>100). This was before any talk of server consolidation became a reality, and according to some statistical analyses contains the least played class (Smuggler) in the game.
After hemming and hawing about it,** I picked up the game last week, logged in to get access to the Smuggler I started, and found over 100 people in Coruscant alone. Each planet I've been to since (Taris and Nar Shaddaa) has had a similar population level in the (late) evenings. These aren't twinks, but people leveling actual toons.
When was the last time that you saw 100+ people in (Ashenvale + Northern Barrens) or (Loch Modan + Wetlands) that didn't involve a holiday event? Outside of the first month after 4.0.1 dropped, I can't think of any the past 3-4 years. Hell, the past month or two the population in Stormwind in an evenly divided server (Ysera) has been averaging 45-50 people a night. That's right: the big central home for an entire faction is averaging less population than a lowbie leveling zone in TOR. Is it the end of an expac? Sure! But do you expect more than 50 people in your home city on an average night, even at this late date? Yes! And the week after D3 dropped, the population plunged to 20-25 people before recovering.
Getting back to the low level zones, perhaps the maturity of WoW hurts it the most in these areas, since the entire MMO is geared toward endgame.
Look at it this way: how many recent posts geared toward Mists are talking about endgame already? How many are saying "well, if your guild wants to raid you have to be at L90 by XXX date after launch, so you'd better get ready"? How many are plotting out all the class changes for Mists, so you'll be ready to get to L90 and raid as soon as you can?
To me, this means that the focus of the two MMO populations is completely different.
Design intent or not, the TOR population's values are different than WoW's. I could make a very successful argument that WoW's population is big enough that you can't make any generalizations, but at the same time the focus of WoW's expansions and content are mostly on the endgame. When they did attempt to rework the Old World in Cata the results were incomplete at best, and Blizzard took a PR beating from people who complained there wasn't enough to do once they got to L85.
TOR suffers from the "there's nothing to do at L50!" stigma, so maybe the leveling activity is part of a desire of people to explore all of the Class stories. I tend to doubt this, however, due to one other item: Gen Chat itself.
Unlike the other MMOs I've played, I've noticed a lot more basic MMO questions in TOR's Gen Chat. Yesterday, I fielded a question about using the word "drop" in MMO parlance, and I could tell by my conversation that the person on the other end was completely new to the game and MMOs in general. People were less inclined in Gen Chat to say "L2P noob!" as well, in an almost LOTRO level of tolerance. That doesn't mean that TOR is free of spammers in Gen Chat; on Taris there were enough Chuck Norris jokes I quipped that "Barrens Chat has been reborn in Taris."***
Does this mean that TOR is better than WoW?
No, it doesn't. It just means that TOR is different than WoW. Pronunciations by the suits and pundits aside, TOR caters to a different sort of player than WoW does. Sure, the mechanics are similar, and most of the 'under the hood' character development is similar, but TOR seems to have taken over the mantle of "the first MMO you'll ever play" from WoW.****
Blizzard knows what it is good at --endgame and an expansive world that somehow works (if you ignore the story continuity issues)-- and if it sticks to that for Mists, it will do well. If it tries to somehow 'outdo TOR' to lure those new MMO players over, it may be making a Cataclysm-sized mistake by trying to turn a game with a high intro cost into something it's not. Mists is set to drop probably by October at the latest, and we'll see what Blizz has in mind with their marketing campaign.
Until then, I guess it's safe to say that if you want peace and quiet in your leveling, go hang out in Azeroth for a while.
*And lowbie zones. Of course, when 4.0.1 dropped and all of the quests changed, the lowbie zones were a hive of activity for a month and a half until Cata dropped, then they almost instantly dried up.
**And running the numbers for the budget.
***I got several LOLs from Gen Chat on that quip, which made it worth my while.
****Although for my money, I'd suggest people try LOTRO first. It's F2P, after all, so you're not out of money if you don't like the concept.