Monday, April 18, 2016

The Great Vanilla Shortage or What WoW Could Learn From RuneScape

It's been hard to avoid the the whole Nostalrius saga these past couple of weeks. The story made it out of the blogs onto the regular gaming news sites and even as far as the fringes of the mainstream media.

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?


  1. That it costs a significant amount of money is absurd.
    For example, GW1 (I know it is not a permanent Open World) for years had a team of 5-10 devs keeping the lights on and adding a trickle of content (mostly by reusing assets). Then the team was 5 and now is automated.

    Of course there is no evidence that those 150K or 800K would become consumers of a paid Blizzard vanilla server. On the other hand not everyone interested on a vanilla server would use a 3rd party service.

    I would assume that Blizzard has the WoW builds stored somewhere but maybe they haven't.

    One thing that I'm curious is what vanilla experience are players after. Are they after the launch experience? Or a more refined with updated graphics and feature?

    And why do they want to play it? Are they still players that enjoy WoW and want to relive the experience from scratch? Or are they players disgruntled with current WoW and want to go back to basics?

    The first group I guess I understand.
    The second not so much. Because they know that eventually they will run out of "new" content and that "new" content will be the content that they current are disgruntled with. Unless they want the vanilla server to stay permanently frozen in time, which again leads to the running out of content to do (unless repeat ad nauseum).

    Returning to Blizzard own interests and motivations.
    A vanilla server could be essentially free money, but Blizzard might consider such free money pocket change and believe it not worthy even if it is almost effort free.
    I know it sounds absurd but they might believe other investment opportunities could offer either higher return margins or even if lesser margins a bigger amount of revenue.
    They might as well simply be wrong or just standing their own ground either for principle or pride.

    1. There are plenty of sound reasons for Blizzard not to do a Vanilla or other Nostalgia/Retro server but the one I just don't buy is that the money it would bring in would be "pocket change". Look at those RuneScape numbers: 2.5m subscribers added to the current subscriber list. They say there was little crossover between the two. That's somewhere over two million people paying a monthly sub who previously were paying Jagex nothing.

      An additional two million subscribers would be around $30m just for the first month alone and the evidence from Jagex is that a solid proportion of those players stick around for a lot longer than that.

      I don't believe that tens of millions of dollars of revenue per month is "pocket change" for any business and certainly not for Blizzard. Unless you are prepared to assume that a Vanilla WoW offer would be less appealing and/or reach a smaller market than Old Shool Runescape then tens of millions of dollars a month is what they're turning down.

  2. Oh good, you wrote this post. Now I don't have to. I had something similar knocking around and you've about covered it.

    I have to imagine that the prime motivators against going down the vanilla path for Blizz is a mix of not wanting to admit that they haven't necessarily made the game better for everybody over the years mixed in with a true belief that the game actually is better for absolutely everybody so nobody would ever show up for any sort of retro server.

    I know there are technical details, and maybe Blizz isn't as good at keeping source code as Jagex. But SOE wasn't either. Blizz could throw together a different experience, a pseudo-vanilla of sorts with the current client. That is, after all, what SOE did. But they won't In over a decade they haven't been interested in any special servers of any flavor. Your choices remain to this day, PvE, PvP, RP-PvE, and RP-PvP, and the "RP" designation is almost ironic in that Blizz doesn't do anything to support or enforce. Local chat is exactly the same there.

    1. It's all supposition but my feeling is that it's a corporate attitude more than anything, as you imply. Like Square Enix (although not as bad as that - nothing could be) Blizzard seems to have a "Daddy Knows Best" attitude to game development, where players are there to receive and be grateful, not complain or make suggestions. Being as successful as they have been has meant that there's been little or no need for that approach to come under question the way it has in other, less successful companies.

  3. I'm afraid I just don't buy the idea that Blizzard is refusing to do classic servers purely out of spite or blind pride. I don't have a lot of illusions about the developers, and I've seen they can let their pride get in the way, but they're not just childish idiots.

    More importantly, they are not ultimately the ones in charge of the company. Blizzard is a big, publicly traded company beholden to shareholders. I guarantee if some bean-counter had come to the conclusion a classic server was worth doing, they'd have done it years ago. They ran the numbers, and it didn't add up.

    Now, I suspect a classic server might turn a profit. But would it be more than they'd have made if those resources had been put toward new content? That I doubt.

    It's definitely not a trivial effort. They'd have to rebuild ten year-old code, content, and server architecture from scratch. They've said they don't have any back-ups for a lot of old abilities and the like -- they're just gone. Now, that seems pretty dumb to me, but what's done is done.

    And it's worth repeating again that the vast majority of Nostalrius' players had never paid a cent for the privilege. The numbers may sound impressive, but it tells us basically nothing about how many people would pay for an official vanilla server.

    The one argument I do buy is that it probably wouldn't cannibalize the existing playerbase. I imagine anyone playing on a classic server is either enough of a super fan to play both live and classic, or not interested in live.

    1. As I said, there are a number of very sound business reasons for Blizzard *not* to do any kind of nostalgia server. The effort involved and what the resources might better be spent on are certainly two of them. Those are not, however, the same as the numbers not adding up to make it a profitable venture.

      There would have to be something exceptionally unexpected going on that we haven't thought of for an official Vanilla WoW offer to underperform the RuneScape equivalent, wouldn't there? It's hard - too hard for me - to believe that a potential increase in monthly revenue measured in tens of millions of dollars is insufficient motivation in itself to go ahead. To leave that money on the table there have to be other reasons than lack of profitability. The interesting question is what those reasons might be.

      When I ended the post by asking "Don't you like money?" the ironic implication was that we know they do so something else must be going on.

    2. If you haven't worked in a company over a certain size, you may not recognize the influence that corporate culture can have on what a company chooses to do. Tom Chilton saying things is almost literally the Blizz corporate culture speaking. Him saying it is impossible is the company saying they just don't want to do it and trying to shut down any discussion. Corporate culture can get a life of its own and can blind a company to reality. Accountants don't enter into it because the leader of the team who would have to do it says it can't be done.

      As for the players on Nostalrius, you are correct in that they have likely not paid a cent. But what they have done is sought out a play experience that is not advertised, comes with with some risks, requires considerably more effort to join in on, and which could be shut down at any time either through Blizz's injunction or the devs themselves deciding to move on to other efforts. So those players represent a pretty narrow spectrum of people willing to put in extra effort to experience an imperfect play experience. Rather than discounting them as cheapskates, it seems more reasonable to see them as a subset of the draw an official vanilla server might have.

    3. I thought one of the most interesting numbers in the Jagex piece was the "500,000" positive respondents to the in-game questionnaire. It sounds like a very big number but then look at how many people actually logged in to the server when it became a reality - 7 million. That suggests a much larger potential audience of ex-players who only sit up and take notice when something becomes a reality. There are a LOT of ex-WoW players...

  4. There's so much precedent for nostalgia servers in other MMOs that I really don't buy the 'saving face' theory, either. Even if it lost Blizzard some Legion re-subscribers, altho I doubt the majority of that second audience matches the first, a sub is a sub - they could probably even get away with charging the exact same.
    And like I wrote in Azuriel's post too, Blizzard aren't known not to be business-smart and milk the cow. So maybe they really don't care because they have more than enough. Or they personally cringe at the idea of having vanilla WoW running for eternity and doing better than newer titles...

    1. My favorite conspiracy theory explanation is that there's a corporate fear that an official Vanilla WoW offer would be more sucessful than the current Live offer and could end up eclipsing the Live game entirely. With Live subs dropping to who knows what and ex-WoW players numbering in the hundreds of millions, it's entirely conceivable that a retro version of WoW could attract and hold more, possibly a LOT more, paying customers than the current version. That would not just be embarrassing - it would cause a lot of potential issues for the future of the franchise. If there's one good reason not to do it it's to avoid the potential damage to the brand in becoming known as The Company That Curates That Old Game rather then a cutting-edge, market leader in breaking new products.

  5. Another point to consider too is that perhaps Blizzard just doesn't want those customers.

    To put it another way, this is no longer the Blizzard of launch-era WoW. This is the Blizzard of Hearthstone, Overwatch, the hated-by-the-hardcore Diablo III, and LFR WoW, and whose parent company owns Candy Crush Saga.

    DBG and Jagex can have the old school gamer. Blizzard will take the larger audience of gaming soccer moms.

    - Simon

    1. There's something to be said for knowing your audience. On the other hand, money is money...

  6. Without writing an essay-length comment, I think I'd sum my thoughts up thusly: Blizzard seems to be struggling (since Mists if not earlier) to actually put out good content on a regular basis. I don't see vanilla servers as a good remedy to this - they need to get their act and considerable resources in order and start facing up to the ever increasing competition! Content is king in any MMORPG.

    Secondly and somewhat at odds with my own personal views. If they were to do a legit vanilla or vanilla-like server then they could simply do "a SOE" and have a subscription that covers both to allow the same player base to flit back and forth or play both in parallel even. That way the bottom-line effect on the accounts shouldn't be so noticeable?

    1. Of all the odd or hard to understand elements of this whole tangle, the one that really puzzles me is why it takes Blizzard an average of two years to put out an expansion for WoW. It just seems like an unconscionably long time. I understand why making a new MMO from scratch takes 3-5 years but you'd think after that most of the heavy lifting would have been done and you could just add more rooms to the house in a fraction of the time.

    2. Great piece.

      One of the reasons Blizzard develops expansions at a glacial pace is that since developing Cataclysm (the last content patch of Wrath till Cata was almost a year, too) they re-work the very core mechanics of the game (classes, talents, the way PvP works etc.) with each expansion, too.

      So each time they basically blow a lot of resources on other things than on actual content, which is incedentally also a reason people get burned out by it as having to relearn your class every expansion gets tiresome - and would be even worse if Blizzard did somehow produce their brand of expansion faster.

      In short, if they made actual expansions that concentrated on actually adding content instead of retooling the game all the time (as well as decide which piece of cotnent they're going to remove this time around) then they could work faster.

  7. The people responsible for Vanilla and TBC have mostly left the studio. For the current team to implement legacy servers, it would mean that they instantly devalue the content that they have helped develop (Cata, MoP, WoD). If the legacy servers are successful, then that is an even bigger pie to the face.

    In all corporate environments, there is a serious disconnect between current and previous management. Always.The excuses of "it's too expensive" or "we lost the code" is bullshit to cover up the fact that they simply don't want to do it.

    1. I'd have to say this accords with my experience of working for large organizations. No-one ever did their career any favors by saying "hey, y'know, what the guy before me did, that was really successful - why don't we do that again?".


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