World of Warcraft, Nostalrius and Legacy Servers.

Beyond Horizons

Some companies really just hate your money. It’s a sad thing to realise in today’s world…

Blizzard served a Cease and Desist on a private World of Warcraft server called Nostalrius.

There’s nothing especially new there – Blizzard hates private WoW servers like most of us hate terrorists. It’s their software so of course they’re going to attempt to defend their trademark, lest the floodgates be opened and others run private servers with their own distinct balance patches – and, of course, those who play on private servers aren’t subscribing to World of Warcraft as a thing so it’s clearly money not heading into Blizzard’s coffers.

What makes Nostalrius different, in a sense, is that it was a Vanilla WoW server; before any expansion was released, before modern balancing issues and new classes, races and PvP mechanics were introduced making long slogs through Alterac Valley a thing of the past, before Ahn’Quiraj was crashing servers en-masse. This vanilla server had 800,000 subscribers and as I understand it, 160,000 active players at the end. That’s a lot of players – all of which want just one thing from Blizzard; the option to roll on a Vanilla Server, before the game was changed into the mass-market MMORPG leader that it became and is today. Of course, the official line on this was made very clear; “You don’t want that. You think you do, but you don’t.”

In a sense, I understand Blizzard’s stance on this. Few games can survive retreading the same old ground – Dark Souls 3, for me, is a game far too eager to play to the same old safe tropes of the series, rather than dare to be different again, and whilst I love that – I also hate it. Progress is never easy and often ends in failure, as Warlords of Draenor has ably proven for Blizzard’s once behemoth of the industry, but it’s usually preferable to just spinning the same old formula year in and year out. In a lot of ways, modern World of Warcraft is noticeably better than it was back in 2005/2006 – there’s little to no server lag, servers aren’t crashing when someone so much as sneezes within a mile of their location, the engine has seen numerous upgrades and significant style and combat improvements in the last decade.

This said – I do support Legacy Servers as an option. If people want to limit themselves to a server stuck in a time warp, why not? For Blizzard, that’s money it could be taking from fans of the series who simply prefer certain periods of the games illustrious career. A potential 160,000 extra subscribers at £10 a month each is… £1,600,000 extra each month. That’s quite a lot of money to be leaving on the table, especially when Warlords of Draenor has presided over a period of almost mass-exodus from the game, losing somewhere around three to four million subscribers since its release. That’s a hefty drop, no matter who you are. Fans want it – no matter what Blizzard says officially – and it’s cash that Blizzard could be taking from the fans. It seems like a business no-brainer, in a period where GOG allows patch roll-backs and digital obsolescence is a hot topic for the perennially tech-minded.

But the logical business side is at odds with a distinctly more human concern.

You see, Blizzard are facing the terrifying issue that they have screwed up. World of Warcraft isn’t dying, but it’s shed millions of subscribers and making a lot less than it once was. Their developers and writers and staff work long hours and are heavily invested in their work, so to see people criticising their product and requesting an option whereby they don’t even have to play this new content is going to hurt them in the pride regions. Blizzard are so invested they’ve spent tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars over the years fixing pressing issues, like server reliability, account security and graphical fidelity. They want us to love each instalment, each patch, each expansion – but it’s not always going to happen, and Blizzard’s focus on appeasing a broader section of the gaming landscape to attract new players seems to be providing the impetus for many long-term fans to simply walk away.

It’s not just a matter of protecting their trademark – Nostalrius and its apparent success, and subsequent social media campaign to strong-arm Blizzard into listening to them, must also be rather offensive to Blizzard who have spent a lot of time, money and effort making this MMORPG behemoth the go-to name for its respective genre. It’s hundreds of thousands of people all saying the same thing; “Your recent work sucks! We liked it better before all this stuff!” No matter who you are, that’s quite a heavy viewpoint to tackle for anyone let alone the idea that almost a million people are suggesting it online. Blizzard are trying to rectify things with Legion – and it may succeed, after all Mists of Pandaria was a boom period and slowed down the exodus. It was also a very good expansion all told, certainly better than the cluster-muck that was Cataclysm. There are clearly efforts happening to attract back players, and perhaps also in a sense start to wind down the game to a more manageable level – there isn’t a lot left lore-wise for Blizzard to cover, and after more than a decade it’d be understandable if Blizzard did decide it was time to look into something new, and just maintain Azeroth and its offshoot landscapes for people who want to stick around.

However, this is something Blizzard will have to consider in time; Nostalrius was a success and much-loved, and proves that there is an appetite for Legacy Servers. Of course it would be awkward for Blizzard to maintain lots of different legacy periods – but that’s unfortunately the side effect of an MMORPG and largely why the genre bottomed-out in the last few years. It’s very expensive and fans aren’t always committed to the changes that the developers are, so why spent hundreds of millions of dollars on something that might not succeed and might in time fall on its face as the very userbase it attracted walks out. Ask Square-Enix how that feels, after Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward fell flat on its face. Though admittedly much of that damage was done at the end of A Realm Reborn… d’oh!

Blizzard could even defend its decision not to do so this way; Vanilla Legacy Servers would create demand for other periods of Legacy Server – a Burning Crusade legacy server (pre and post key patch), a Wrath of the Lich King Legacy Server and a Pandaria Legacy Server (No-one will ask for a Cataclysm Legacy Server. NO-ONE!). Maintaining individual server rigs for these options, coupled with maintenance and perhaps even an expectation to graphically renovate these old periods (which would be wholly unnecessary but Blizzard would make their lives more difficult, of course)… that’s going to cost a lot of money, and perhaps it’s money that they no longer have in ample supply. After canning an expensive MMORPG project called Titan, and other technical disasters over the years, Blizzard isn’t rolling in the dough the way they used to. So indulgent options like Legacy Servers might be fiscally non-viable; but Blizzard just needs to say that.

They won’t, of course, because no company wants to admit they’re not making bank the way they used to. The suggestion would be to admit failure – that the company no longer knows or understands what large chunks of its audience wants. That’s the death-knell for any successful long-term franchise, but a game that still has just under five million subscribers? You really don’t want to give any indication of weakness, as others will quickly jump ship if they feel the oak beneath their feet is sinking. Especially when there’s a new expansion which might just bring back some of the flock… you never know…

Still, all said, I do support the idea of Legacy Servers – even if I am no longer invested or interested in World of Warcraft (or MMORPG’s in general now). If fans want it, the more you struggle to tell them they don’t – the more they do. This is a base principle of life itself and it’s always surprising how few people grasp that. Forbidden Fruit looks all the more tempting because people keep telling you “NO!” – you want to know why, you want to fight that viewpoint, you want to stick it to the man and other such phrases. Far better that Blizzard trials a Vanilla Legacy realm for, say, three months – then sees how many use it officially on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. If it’s not making an impact, say so. Then move on.

The problem is if it is a success – then Blizzard will have to concede that its game is about to shatter into fragmented legacy shards. And that’d be a difficult situation to grasp. Runescape does have legacy servers and they are popular, but it hasn’t had nearly the same amount of expansions that World of Warcraft has had – and to provide a legacy server for each period, and maintain it, and patch out any bugs and glitches that are found, and have a small team working on each legacy period – it’s a big ask, and at that point I’d probably prefer to wind down the whole project and move on to something like World of Starcraft (or World of Diablo – not the names I’d pick, clearly, but it gets the point across), leaving World of Warcraft to its own legacy – a giant felled by reinvention, restless users… and the ravages of time.

But a lot of us have moved on regardless, and perhaps it is time Blizzard thought long and hard about the future of its staple income generator. I can’t say I’d return for a Legacy Server… but I might casually pop in to see what the fuss is about.

After all, I was there in Vanilla. I don’t mind a little nostalgia, and I’m kind of curious if today I’d be attracted by the same game mechanics…

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