Like the ongoing war in New Eden, where thousands of ships and tens of thousands of players battle over virtual assets measured in trillions, much of the widening interest comes from the numbers. No-one much notices when something happens in a game played by a few thousand people but when the tally runs into six or seven figures we all feel a disturbance in the force.
There were, reportedly, a hundred and fifty thousand active players on the illegal Nostalrius server. They came from an even larger pool of people, eight hundred thousand in all, who were sufficiently enamored with the idea of stepping back in time to the halcyon days of Vanilla WoW to take the trouble to register their interest with the organizers.
Blizzard's much-discussed decision to train their legal artillery on the perpetrators of this incursion into their proprietorial territory most likely relates as much to the sheer size, success and concomitant media profile of Nostalrius as it does to any ethical or aesthetic objection to the misuse of intellectual property. To have so many people prefer a copy of your product, and a copy of your old product at that, to your current commercial offering has to be a difficult pill for prideful producers to swallow.
Fortunately for players of MMOs not curated by Blizzard, other developers are less sensitive and show more foresight. Daybreak Games (née SOE) have made a business model out of giving customers what they used to want. That seems to have worked well for them and there have been plenty of press releases and interviews where the commercial success of the various progression and TLE servers has been confirmed and puffed.
Always, though, without hard numbers, which is why the revelation that a single, illegal vanilla WoW server was able to hold a population that would by no means disgrace a middle-ranking MMO has aroused so much interest. How much more significant, then, should we see the astonishingly open and revealing account from Jagex concerning the retro Runescape server they opened three years ago?
It's one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking documents I've read on the subject of MMORPGs for a very long time, not least for the hard numbers it reveals:
- 500,000 positive responses to an in-game poll on whether to undertake the project
- 7,000,000 log-ins to the old-school servers over a three-year period
- 2,500,000 of those log-ins converted to subscription-paying customers
I've posted before about how, with our relatively narrow focus as on a sliver of the MMO market and with companies so obsessively secretive about population figures, this quadrant of the blogosphere may not have any real idea of which are the real successes in the genre. RuneScape is and always has been a big player in the Western MMO market but you'd never know that from my Feedly or blog roll.
Even so, these are bigger numbers than I would have guessed. If Jagex have two and a half million subscribers just for their old-school offer, how many do they have for their main game? And they are different numbers. The suspicion has long been that retro-servers merely split a game's existing customer base but, for RuneScape at least, this is apparently not so.
After about six months we started to see player numbers settle and we could see that very few players migrated between Old School RuneScape and RuneScape. What we were not seeing was one game cannibalising the other
Another argument often produced against the idea of retro-servers is the cost of creating and maintaining them. It's a lot of work and that effort could better be directed at current content, or so the line goes.
When Azuriel was considering why Blizzard would be foolish to enter the WoW nostalgia market with an offer of their own he suggested a ball-park figure of forty-four developers to set up and maintain the project. I thought that sounded a tad high and queried it in the comments and Azuriel confirmed it was a figure he'd pulled out of his hat.
Even though I thought that was more than any company, even Blizzard, would need for the job it would never have occurred to me for a moment that the actual number of developers required to get such a project up and running could be counted on the fingers of Mickey Mouse's gloved hand.
a small team of three people was put together to manage the servers and community until the initial interest had died down
Three people. A team that was later expanded to five times that when the success, and more importantly the longevity of the success, became evident. So, that's fifteen people to cater for an extension to the business that has attracted new customers numbering in millions.
With these new data points it's easier to calibrate the size of the pile of money Blizzard must be leaving on the table by not moving into the nostalgia market on their own account. That has to be one big pile.
It's not just the initial windfall as a potentially immense flock of curiosity-seekers and nostalgists from WoW's vast hinterland of ex-millions sub up out of curiosity and sentiment, although that's a potential one-off profit of a lifetime all by itself. Going on Jagex's experience, the spike in revenue has great potential to be ongoing and sustainable.
Although the initial impact of legacy servers on RuneScape was expected to be short and sweet, it has grown into a major part of Jagex’s business...This made it very easy to position Old School RuneScape as complementarily to RuneScape
So, with some actual facts at our fingertips, it seems we can say that nostalgia servers for MMORPGs can, when well-handled, be both profitable for the producers and popular with the players. Moreover, having an old-school offer complements rather than competes with the existing Live offer and creates synergies that push the entire business forward.
So why wouldn't you? Don't you like money?