Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Should Blizzard Add Legacy Servers?

Around a week ago, news broke in a big way when Nostalrius, a Vanilla WoW private server, was shut down due to Blizzard asserting their legal rights. In the wake of the announcement, support rallied around Nostalrius from people who enjoy legacy versions of WoW or certain other MMORPGs to people like myself who feel that the assertion of legal rights in this right comes off as a legal offensive instead of a more "pure-hearted" intention to protect IP. In addition, discussion of legacy servers flared up once again on the basis of Nostalrius's success and the like, indicating a potential market worth tapping into, despite arrogant statements from Blizzard employees on the matter. While it seems like most consumers are on the same page regarding what Blizzard should do based on the reaction to the Nostalrius takedown, in this article I will provide my two copper on the situation and whether Blizzard should add legacy servers along with why and/or why not.

Update: An official statement has been made. I may or may not analyze the pristine realms idea at a later date.

Clarity of Points

However, before getting into the main point of this article, if one were to look at my posting history (on Wowhead in particular), they may notice that I have a tendency to argue in favor of the live game when discussions about legacy vs live happen. It could be argued that this article coming out in support of Nostalrius is an attempt to pander or that my bias will get in the way, which is justified on the basis of the aforementioned. I indeed do have a tendency to argue in favor of the live game, though mostly from a mechanical standpoint much like this guy, who explains why much better than I probably could within a paragraph or two.

On the other hand, what I like about Nostalrius was the sense of community it managed to build within a year due to various factors such as a smaller world that is arguably more inconvenient but also causes player interactions to happen as a result. This point on community is something I've strongly been arguing for when it comes to the live version of the game that was largely influenced by self-reflection when working on Wrath in Retrospect, which I still hope to make happen in the future. Though I have a tendency to dodge around the relatively obvious "isolated in the Garrison" point (that's getting fixed in Legion apparently), I favor addressing other systems that contribute to the anti-sociality of the game (that will be around in Legion). The point on a sense of community was further confirmed in an AMA with people at Nostalrius, who specifically said:
We feel that one of the biggest differences between the current retail version of World of Warcraft and the original game is the sense of community. If you read through the comments our players have made since the announcement of our shutdown, the majority of them are sad because they are losing a place where they have made friends from around the world. This extraordinary community, social links created throughout the game, is something that we would love to see again in World of Warcraft.
It is worth mentioning in response to other inquiries in the same AMA those at Nostalrius mentioned there was a pretty large legacy WoW community that's been around for a while, which makes sense considering the post-Wrath decline and general player turnover, so there may have been additional advantages when it comes to starting up a legacy server. Regardless, the point is social interaction through having a sense of community is a big deal in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. Because it's a point I am strongly in tune with, I would like to think discussing and possibly advocating for legacy servers isn't fraught with a dislike of older iterations of the game from a mechanical standpoint compared to newer ones.

The Part Where I Ramble

I've divided this section into separate parts because I think there's specific topics related to adding legacy servers and the Nostalrius takedown worth addressing. These sections are intended to transition from one section to the next and otherwise makes the article look neater.

The OSRS Corollary of Success and Schism

OSRS and RS3 are in a similar situation to the point the Nostalrius shutdown controversy got brought up multiple times on the 2007scape subreddit. However, while there are some comparable aspects, it's not a completely comparable situation. For example, OSRS and RS3's differences are a lot more drastic since the Evolution of Combat appears to have made the game more like a hotkey-based MMORPG much like World of Warcraft, etc. While the live version of WoW is very different from older iterations, the progression from Vanilla to Warlords appears a lot more seamless and seems to consistently follow a design philosophy of being the more casual-friendly MMO along with more points that are explained here. In addition, the base (hotkey-based) gameplay is surprisingly similar.

In addition, OSRS's success can also be lent to a notable decrease in players after around 2007 due to controversial changes. There were also other controversial changes that seemed to incite some relatively intense riots (documented in this video). WoW has gone through similar changes and suffered losses that were more apparent after Wrath, but the Runescape ones appear more notable.

One way Runescape's history becomes more notable is due to the rivalry between the two iterations of the game to the point the 2007scape community is strongly anti-EoC, which is one of the biggest differences. Said difference could arguably be so great that the audience the games draws are quite different. Further evidence of the difference in this graph, which shows that the number of active players on OSRS is about half of that of RS3. Finally, the polls indicate that a lot of people wanted official Old School Runescape servers.

In comparison, there's something of a rivalry between live WoW and older versions of WoW, but it doesn't seem quite as vitriolic because while there are discussions, they seem to be more focused on criticizing the state of live WoW as opposed to bringing back a specific older iteration of the game. Also, while hundreds of thousands of active players is a lot, with this post asserting there are at least 300k active players playing legacy WoW, such a number still doesn't hold a candle to the at least 4 million that still remain as active subscriptions on WoW today even when accounting for the WoW Token. I would be interested in seeing how a poll for legacy servers for WoW would turn out, though I'm certain there's be as many as a million "yes" votes.

To conclude this section, while it is nice to see the Runescape and WoW communities uniting (it's much better when there isn't an e-peen contest), the situations that led to the creation of the OSRS servers has something of a unique history that resulted from numerous alienations over a span of many years to a passionate community whose numbers rival that of the live version of the game. This doesn't mean WoW legacy servers can't be a thing, but it's unlikely Blizzard would follow Jagex's footsteps too similarly.

The Factor of Demand

As I mention in the previous section, having some hundreds of thousands of active players to run a server for isn't that significant compared to millions. However, it would be unfair to dismiss this point entirely since hundreds of thousands of players that are likely not playing the live version of the game translates to millions of dollars of additional monthly revenue for Blizzard (before accounting for costs). These numbers alone are enough to throw into question the condescending remark claiming players "think they do [want legacy servers], but they don't." This is also not accounting for other legacy server variants (Burning Crusade servers, Wrath servers, etc) and ex-players who weren't aware of private legacy servers or aren't willing to play on private servers.

The point is there's clearly a rather significant demand for legacy servers and players seem willing to pay for official ones.

The Issue of "Supply"

Disclaimer: I have almost no idea how servers work. A lot of this is hypothetical and corrections are appreciated, though the general point I'm trying to make in this section shouldn't be too different since the scenario I describe is being exceptionally generous.

Going back to the statement I linked far above on how Blizzard doesn't want to implement legacy servers, while it wasn't the most diplomatic way to answer the question, there is an implied warning of sorts that legacy servers may not be a good idea. What comes to mind in terms of consequences, which I will also discuss a bit more in the following section, is cost. While there is likely to be some server merges in the live version of the game in the future, I'm not quite sure if all the data associated with the server is consolidated into a single one instead of having them run in unison but having something of a network that allows interactions (and probably causes quirks like doubled character slots), which appears to be the case right now. Were these consolidations to happen, there would at least be hardware available to run legacy servers on and Blizzard might not even need to move it from wherever it is, but rather they simply need an older version of WoW running on said servers that could be supplied by someone running a private server at the very least.

Assuming the above is the case, which would minimize the cost of running a server to about what it currently is right now, there would need to be staff associated with the legacy servers. Considering the live version of the game already has problems with content that could easily be addressed by just staggering it out, it may not be ideal to take staff from the live team to maintain legacy servers. In this case, a new team of staff would be needed on their own payroll, reducing the overall revenue not to mention it takes time to find such individuals to hire (and rehire). That said, Nostalrius was run by volunteers and it's possible they may be willing to run the official legacy servers. This is a point that is arguably bolstered by how diplomatic their open letter to Blizzard is. The open letter in question specifically provides an offer of advice from Nostalrius to Blizzard regarding legacy servers.

With all that taken into account, it's possible for Blizzard to meet the demand by running several legacy servers (for the hundreds of thousands of players), but the prospect of doing so may require some outside intervention and favorable scenarios. Thankfully, both of these are at least somewhat plausible.

But What Kind of Legacy Servers?

However, this introduces another problem. Currently this entire article has been focusing on legacy servers specifically running Vanilla WoW due to the news surrounding Nostalrius, but a legacy server that players want may be from any of the previous expansions (like Wrath, for example). Players may also want to play on a specific patch. This sort of split demand that is almost certainly likely to exist may end up multiplying the number of servers and team of staff needed significantly. That said, Blizzard could intentionally fail to meet the demand of some players (which would alienate them unfortunately but a good explanation to the tone of something like "demand was too low, we may try later" may set them at ease).

Unfortunately, this doesn't change the issue of how much this ends up making the playerbase look fragmented. In truth, it isn't quite as fragmented and players may even play on multiple versions of the game kind of like A Friend does on Runescape. There may be frustrated perceptions regarding how much or how little attention specific legacy servers get, which may lead to conflict between communities. Furthermore, while having one team devoted to a set of legacy servers may not be a big deal in terms of affecting the live game and the perception of how much attention it gets since having a few extra hands probably isn't going to speed up content releases much, several teams' worth of staff can.

The worst part is all of this doesn't account for the issue of where the most demand lies in terms of a legacy server. What if due to nostalgic perceptions and a community that was composed of the most active subscribers the game had at the time, a Wrath of the Lich King server was actually the ideal legacy server to run? The point I'm trying to make in this section is that Blizzard would need to think really hard about how to handle legacy servers in the best way possible.

Final Statements

I could say a lot more on this topic such as how Blizzard handles content addition for legacy servers (fork off like OSRS? Reset the server after all the content is released from that expansion? move on to the next expansion?), but I think the question of adding legacy servers doesn't necessarily have an easy answer. Personally, I'm in support of adding them as long as the live game is doing well. In fact, I think adding legacy server access and live server access to the same subscription like Runescape does may recreate interest in the live game at some point for players who originally were interested in official legacy servers assuming the state of the live game is good. While there's many negative outcomes to consider from adding official legacy servers and at a personal level, I don't stand to gain much by the addition of such servers, the above alone is a positive outcome that may be worth the risk. It's also worth mentioning that there's other positive outcomes that don't just involve putting upset individuals at ease temporarily.

TL;DR: Yes, Blizzard should at least consider adding legacy servers (in defiance of this adage, I might add). While it's not easy to implement, doing so can provide an enormous benefit to the live version of the game while fulfilling a significant demand. To put it another way, legacy servers can be perceived as something of a high risk, high reward marketing ploy.

Final Final Statements

I do have one other thing I wanted to say but forgot to before publishing this article. As someone who often looks back fondly on the Wrath of the Lich King experience wishing it could come back, but realizing that it won't bring back the specific friends I made at that time (pretty much none of whom I talk to now), what I began to look for instead was aspects of the enjoyment that could coexist with the live version of the game. For example, as I partially mentioned above, I boiled down a lot of the enjoyment to the sense of community Nostalrius devs talked about, which could exist in a live version of the game despite numerous features that make the game more anti-social than I'd like or consider healthy for the game's state in general. On the other hand, if you really do want legacy-exclusive concepts like archaic design (such as mechanics that couldn't somehow be reshaped to work with the live version of the game due to how punishing they are, etc) that to some would frankly be considered a game design abomination, then all I can really say is you're entitled to your opinion, but I'll be prone to criticize it kind of like this (I linked this above, but it's worth relinking).

For the record, this doesn't change my stance on wanting legacy servers, but it is some food for thought for those who enjoyed older iterations of the game: What did you really enjoy about it? Because if the answer is along the lines of "I enjoyed playing with my friends" you may want to evaluate your thoughts on wanting a legacy server more.

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