Monday, January 8, 2018

What Classic WoW Can Learn From Runescape

The idea of a legacy World of Warcraft server has likely been around for as long as the game has existed and undergone changes that upset players in one way or another. It is understandable then that one might establish a private server in the hopes of reliving an older time or at least one they have more agency over, even if it's highly illegal to do so. When Nostalrius, a vanilla WoW private server, was taken down, discussion ignited over the possibility of an officially ran server due to the high amount of demand. At the time, I wrote an article about the possible issues of running a legacy server and the motives of those who want one but despite these issues, I wanted to see one come into existence anyways due to the possible benefits and personal curiosity.

Afterwards I largely went dark on the topic until an ultimatum was issued followed by this announcement. While I understand the reasoning for the actions of the Nostalrius team, I found this move to be a large step backwards in terms of encouraging Blizzard to open legacy servers of their own. In fact, the announcement reminded of the ongoing largely one-sided war between the Old School Runescape, or OSRS, and Runescape 3, or RS3, community where the legacy players behave in a hostile manner born of zealotry. It seemed that later on Nostalrius agreed with this sentiment but the damage was done and I ultimately couldn't see them as the standard bearer for legacy WoW servers anymore.

Despite this controversy, Classic WoW servers were announced during the most recent Blizzcon, showing Blizzard had an interest in trying to open some official legacy servers. In the wake of the announcement, I've found there's a lot of questions about the servers since not a lot of information was provided. While we may have to wait a while to learn more about Blizzard's plans, we can at least learn from a certain other officially run legacy game in the form of OSRS. In fact, I used some of the information I gleaned from that game to make predictions in my previous article on legacy WoW which I've since been using to answer questions about the nature of Classic WoW. Therefore, in this article I will analyze the history of OSRS and how it compares to Runescape 3 and use this information and more to predict the outcome of Classic WoW.

A Brief History of OSRS

The idea of OSRS effectively started when a number of controversial changes were made to the game starting around late 2007. This eventually culminated into the form of major changes such as the Evolution of Combat, which as its name implies fundamentally changed the combat system of the game, and the (harmful) pay to win, gacha-style Squeal of Fortune. These changes and more likely led to the hosting of numerous private servers (which I will not mention the name of).

Jagex responded relatively quickly to last set of controversial changes and opened a poll in early 2013 that received hundreds of thousands of "Yes" votes. This resulted in the opening of the OSRS servers which initially made a strong showing, but declined heavily in active player count over several months. Over time, the player count slowly recovered due to numerous factors such as the addition of polled content, almost all of which passed by a 75% supermajority. Between this recovery and the decline in RS3's active player count, OSRS active player count surpassed that of RS3 within a couple of years.

Differences Between OSRS and RS3

What often gets brought up when comparing legacy games with their live counterparts is the differences. While the differences between OSRS and RS3 are so extensive to list that I'm highly unqualified to go into such detail, a superficial comparison is sufficient to get a general idea of how much the two games differ and is important to a point I will make later on.

Presentation

When logging into the two games, what will immediately become apparent is the huge difference in presentation. One will consist of ancient, fairly simple graphics befitting a browser game from a decade ago. The other will have a more modern feel as if the older graphics were improved upon but smoothed out and given significantly more detail. Regardless of how one may feel about the graphics of each game, what is clear is that such a span of time had a major impact on the game visually. Personally, I found playing RS3 rather jarring because of this, though the presentation wasn't necessarily bad.

Combat

What comes next is the difference between the combat systems, which was what initially led me to trying some RS3 to begin with. OSRS combat is largely automated in most cases to the point attacking is as simple as clicking the attack option and literally AFKing though there are some rudimentary management options such as eating food to restore health. At higher levels, the game features some intensive situations that involve more dedicated management of various factors such as Prayer and dealing with enemy mechanics.

RS3, because of its Evolution of Combat update, adds an additional layer of mechanical depth in the form of hotkeyed actions that the player has to use to engage in combat. At some superficial level, this makes RS3 comparable to other MMORPGs like WoW since they feature a similar mechanical system. However, I personally found RS3's hotkey-based gameplay to be fairly rudimentary even compared to older versions of WoW. This is understandable since characters in Runescape don't have traditional classes and specializations but are instead defined by their skill levels. Finally, there's some features such as Revolution that automate the combat, though doing so isn't necessarily optimal.

Microtransactions (or Lack Thereof)

When it comes to microtransactions, OSRS has next to none and the most notable one that comes to mind are Bonds, which, like the WoW Token, is initially purchased for real life money but sold for in-game currency. The player who purchases the Bond with in-game currency can redeem it for service-related benefits such as membership time. Since Runescape has long been known for tying character power directly to in-game currency since a lot of equipment in the game is tradeable, Bonds could be considered pay to win. However, I do not think this fact is detrimental to the game as I've explained here.

RS3 also has Bonds as microtransactions and was the derivative source for the OSRS equivalent. It also features some purchasable cosmetics that can be purchased through Solomon's General Store. However, the game features even more in the way of microtransactions since it retained the Squeal of Fortune update in the form of Treasure Hunter. As I mentioned before, I consider this feature to be a form harmful pay-to-win that has been considered as an article topic for quite a while. Since I may publish an article dissecting the feature in the future, I will instead simplify what I consider to be problematic about Treasure Hunter: It allows players to pay money to spawn in-game items and currency in addition to empowering their character, allowing them to pay to progress their character significantly and skip a lot of the game.

While I consider Runescape's biggest strength in general as a MMORPG to be the relatively slow journey to fully develop a character by maxing out all of the skills, even in the supposedly endgame-centric RS3, the former point of spawning items and in-game currency almost at will is by far the more problematic issue. The amounts that are spawned are seemingly negligible since items can typically be traded in for a few thousand gold, but this alone can add up fast considering the limit for purchasing Treasure Hunter keys is high at a whopping 20,000 per day per player (or ~$4,444 per day). I'd go as far as to say I have no faith in Jagex to regulate the in-game economy, especially in terms of gold inflation, because of this fact. What may also be concerning is that the game has been running Treasure Hunter promotions with extremely high frequency to further encourage the consumption of what I consider to be harmful microtransactions.

Finally, the rewards are somewhat randomized (though they can be controlled to a degree), so it even updates those who loathe loot boxes and systems like it though much like with Star Wars Battlefront 2, I consider this sin among the least grievous. With that said though, the fact that Star Wars Battlefront 2 was rejected so strongly primarily due to its harmful pay to win microtransactions in addition to its loot boxes says a lot about how popular RS3 is and may even explain its declining playerbase.

The Tale of Runescape Classic

While OSRS and RS3 continue to clash in a sense despite both games being very different and likely appealing to different types of players, there is one more version of Runescape that quietly continues to run (officially) in the background. This version is known as Runescape Classic, or RSC, and it lasted 3 years until it faded into legacy when Runescape 2 or RS2, which is the version OSRS uses, released in 2004.

The act of fading was prolonged however since when Runescape 2 was in beta and eventually released, Jagex seemed tentative about fully embracing their new version of the game. They allowed a transfer of items between both games (first to RS2 then back to RSC) and continued to host servers for the older game, which is pretty revolutionary considering OSRS required enthusiastic support from the community for Jagex to even consider hosting servers. Over time, access to RSC increasingly became restricted and while it was reopened for members as recently as about a year ago, the regular playerbase for the game is now very small and doesn't even remotely rival OSRS or RS3. It also doesn't help that the game has received no updates for a very long time.

Personally, I can understand why RSC as a legacy game has a tiny playerbase today. When I was younger and started my journey on RSC, immersing myself in it to the point of stubbornly refusing to try RS2. However, I was eventually convinced by friends to try it and realized it improved upon the older game immensely. For example, I felt more in control of my character when in the combat state since I could eat food to heal and flee whenever I wished instead of having to wait for three rounds of attacks. Actions also generally felt smarter and were automated to the point of not needing to require as much repetitive clicking to perform actions such as chopping trees or cooking food. This didn't stop the game from having some sense of challenge at the time though since there was more to manage such as Protection Prayers and run energy, which Jagex began to design around.

Ultimately I may be biased in my evaluation since I play live WoW but I think RS2 at the time was so superior to its predecessor that it outshined it on its own merits with actions restricting access to RSC playing more of a "supporting" role. The sheer level of quality of life improvements and reiteration upon existing concepts that RS2 featured is worth keeping in mind when discussing legacy and live versions of games. Note that this doesn't mean I think RS2 would hold up nowadays (in my opinion, it doesn't, but that's a topic for another article) or that more recent iterations of a game are always superior though.

What All This Means for Classic WoW

Even for a rather generalized overview, the previous sections make for a rather large infodump that may not mean much. This conclusion will make light of the insights I have drawn from that information despite Runescape and WoW being very different games.

The first thing that comes to mind immediately is that RS3 was actually doing okay but ongoing development of the game caused a decline. Personally, I think this has a lot to do with the microtransactions since they are some of the unhealthiest for a multiplayer game for all of the reasons I mentioned above. I also mentioned above that there are many players who strongly reject such practices and while consumers of games in some sectors such as the mobile market may not care as much, such a rejection surely has an impact.

In contrast, while I may heavily criticize WoW's microtransactions, my issue lies with pricing more than what they actually sell since it all, even services, has a rather minimal impact on the game or can be regulated easily. Some may not necessarily agree with this assessment, but based on it I'm inclined to strongly believe microtransactions won't be that big of an issue when comparing the two versions of WoW. At the very least, I think there's a good chance Classic WoW may get its own version of the WoW Token in accordance with the Bonds OSRS has.

What comes next is the possible playerbase size of Classic WoW compared to WoW. Nostalrius may have had hundreds of thousands of players, a fair amount of which were active and there's likely a high amount of possible latent players sitting around. Meanwhile, the live version of the game still likely has millions of subscribers or at least potential players that translates to a fairly large population of active players, which is simple enough to deduce from statistics such as Legion's strong sales numbers. This is a fairly significant difference compared to the tens of thousands of active players that both OSRS and RS3 deal in and are more easily influenceable since even minor exposure of the games can increase the playerbase size greatly. What I'm basically trying to say is that live WoW is likely to generally have the larger playerbase since it's difficult to match up against its size.

With that said, while the live version of WoW has gotten better about providing players with enough content to consume, the variety of evergreen content could stand to be expanded among other changes that'll ultimately leave players seeking a different game to play from time to time. Classic WoW could fill that void and see a boost in active players when the live version of the game is in a predictable lull similar to where it's heading at the moment. This can also work in reverse, which leads me to think that Blizzard should have one subscription allow access to both versions of the game. It also leads me to think Classic WoW will need regular updates of some sort to thrive much like OSRS, though releasing it when live WoW is in a lull will give it a nice boost to start with.

This leads me to my next point on how similar live and Classic WoW are, which makes it easier to transition between the two games at will. While there's many who would disagree, this point is based on what is fundamentally hotkey-based gameplay that is made distinct through details such as the control scheme and determining factors (in this case, mostly through class and spec). Even at more intricate levels there's mechanical tricks that can be used in both versions of the game such as kiting that ultimately allows skills developed in one game to be highly transferable to the other. The multiple versions of Runescape could only dream of having this sort of ease of transition since, as I mentioned above, even at a fundamental level there's some major, immediately noticeable differences between the three games.

I ultimately think the similarities are a good thing because it may help to bridge the divide between the two communities. I would rather have that over a toxic rivalry and also hope once the servers are available, that legacy server requests will die down since even Blizzard can host so many, especially in the way of types of servers. However, time will tell.

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