Saturday, June 16, 2018

Classic Progression: Beating The Drums Of War For WoW

As a somewhat casual, uncommitted, occasional WoW player I haven't been paying the closest of attention to Blizzard's ongoing discussion with their extended community over whether, when and how to meet the demand for a rerun of the "classic" World of Warcraft experience. I read the various news items and blog posts about it that pop up in my feed but I don't follow on with the kind of primary research I'd do if this were a Daybreak project.

I do, vaguely, recall writing something, at some point, about the way Blizzard might have adapted EverQuest's Progression Server model to their own ends but that would have been back when Blizz were still in denial about the validity or value of doing anything at all. Once they abandoned the increasingly untenable position of "you say you want this but really you don't" and moved to "okay, fine, have the damn thing, then" I mostly stopped thinking about the what and moved on to the when.

With a WoW expansion imminent it seemed unlikely we'd see much movement on WoW Classic this year. Blizzard has historically had something of a hammock problem with WoW. Subscriber numbers, which they don't tell us any more, slump between the tentpoles of expansions.

That's been a consideration for a lot longer than I realized, as I discovered when I googled "WoW expansion cadence". As far back as 2013 Blizzard was talking about moving to an expansion every year. Greg Street aka Ghostcrawler expressed that desire very clearly when he said

"We find that expansions are what bring players back to World of Warcraft. Really good patches will keep them, but they aren't as good at bringing players back to the game. We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly. Once a year I think would be a good rate".

That never happened and the problem of account retention remains. This being an expansion year, and with WoW expansions still generally appearing bi-annually, it would clearly be handy to slot the one-off project into an off-year.

To this end, work has to be done, not least in nailing down what the end product is going to look like. It has, after all, been a bit vague up to now. Not Star Citizen vague, for sure, but still more than a bit misty around the edges.

Significant clarity arrived yesterday with a decision on exactly what "Vanilla" means in the context of this project. Wilhelm reported that the Classic Server will specifically replicate the WoW experience as it stood on the day Patch 1.12: Drums of War went live in August 2006.

Which is interesting for a number of reasons, not least, as we all know, that no two people can ever agree on what constitutes the "Classic" period of any MMORPG. Deciding to bore down on a point as specific as this risks being seen as both arbitrary and partial.

It also strongly suggests that the WoW Classic server is going to be a timeslice. MattH in the comment thread at TAGN (actually it's the only comment as I write this...) makes it plain: "It’s certainly not a progressive one within classic/vanilla, which indicates that they are probably aiming for a “get done and get out” experience".

I'm so used to "Classic" servers actually being "Progression" servers it hadn't really occurred to me that Blizzard might be planning on a frozen slice of time that never changes. If that's always been their conception of the demand then their longtime position - "you think you want it but you really don't" - makes a lot more sense.

Progression servers, particularly the first time they appear in an MMO, have dynamism. They go some way to scratching the itch we all have to go back to the good times in our past but they also offer a clear and present path to the future. Not only do they offer the greatest chance of hitting everyone's individual Golden Age at some point during the run but they provide a number of jump-on points, each of which is a potential surge in membership and revenue.

A server that simply locks at a specific snapshot of the game risks stagnation. There is a market for an unchanging experience as can be seen by the number of "maintenance mode" MMOs that still hold some kind of population but it's easy to see why a company as large and successful as Blizzard might not consider that audience sufficiently large or profitable to encourage.

There is precedent, of course. As mattH says, "the most popular private servers are vanilla". And the most popular EverQuest private server is Project99. Some people want what they want. It also makes the Official Classic WoW server very much easier to maintain and operate. All the work is upfront. Once it's done Blizzard could literally say "there you go - enjoy!" and walk away, never touching the thing again except to make sure the server stays up.

What I expect might happen is this: the Classic server will run as a sop for the "Vanilla was best" crowd. You want Vanilla? You got Vanilla. Go play it and stop bothering us. At the same time it will provide a testbed for demand. If it makes money and holds a significant population, future calls - and there will be plenty of them - for a version of Classic WoW that doesn't just remain static but progresses, will be heard with sympathy.

WoW has always had a very competetive playerbase. The concept of Server and World Firsts, both individually and for guilds, is deeply embedded there. The game has possibly the best structure to support "race to the top" competitive play of any PvE MMORPG. With the base game and six expansions it has a progression ladder that could very comfortably be tweaked to run for two or three years, long enough for interest to accrue to allow the whole thing to begin all over again.

WoW was made for Progression Servers. Almost literally. If Classic is a success - and it will be, commercially at least - we will come to see it as the dry run for what will become a major - perhaps the major - income stream for the aging MMO in the 2020s.

So long as Blizzard can continue to swallow their pride and think of the dollars, that is. 


  1. It's too early to tell if they are going to make progression server or not: 1.12 is not about content at launch of the server, it's about what the game would be mechanically given the amount of times Vanilla classes were revamped over the course of Vanilla. Considering rumors about Nost team either consulting them or straight up hired for the project, they might do the same as Nost did: timegating release of content according to original patch timeline while emulating some significant changes they brought like going from 8 debuff slots to 16 or buffing stats of old gear.

    1. Yes, it definitely is too early to tell. They have to start somewhere and this is where they have decided to hang their hats. I can't imagine there won't be some kind of "progression", most likely through the patch history as you describe, but simply by repeating the words "Classic" and "Vanilla" every time they talk about they're locking themselves out of the mid and later expansions. Vanilla is largely agreed to be before the first expansion but plenty of people would argue that "Classic" goes into Burning Crusade or even some way into WotLK. It may be that the final version of "Classic WoW" ends up somewhere well north of Vanilla but it clearly can't go into Cataclysm or Pandaria. A progression server could run through the entire expansion sequence and do so very profitably for a much wider audience than would want to stick forever at wherever Classic ends up beaching.

      We'll see. I feel that the really big decision has been made already - to do it all. Once that psychological barrier went down the door opened for all kinds of options over the coming years.

  2. Thoughtful post, thanks. I am not personally interested in reliving the Classic experience, but I think I understand the pull many players feel for it. As you say, the decision to do it has opened up many options for the future.

    It strikes me that one option might be to allow players on a Classic server to — without cost — transfer to the current game once they have reached max level for that Classic slice. Not everyone would want to do it, of course, but having the option might be a way for a lot more players to experience Classic once again without it being a dead end.

    Blizz might even in the future do individual Classic servers that would be a slice of time in the game — one for Patch 1.12, one for the next major patch, one for WotLK, etc. I think that is one of the implications of the tech explanations in the recent Dev Watercooler post — it is quite a complex process, but once the Classic team has mastered it, in theory it can be applied to any previous patch in the game.

    I could be wrong, of course, but I doubt if Blizz would expend the considerable resources they have on doing this if it was going to be a one and done thing. I think they clearly have some sort of ongoing project in mind, beyond the initial 1.12 Classic server.

    1. Other MMOs have used the transfer-to-live option to some effect. It's a good compromise to bring in more players than just the committed "it was better in the old days" crowd. It depends what Blizzard want to get out of the whole thing, I guess. There's huge potential for any number of versions of WoW should they want to go that way and it certainly fits the current frame of "games as a service" but they've shown some discomfort in being seen as The WoW Studio over the past few years. Money is money, though, and if the Classic project makes a lot of it there will probably be more to follow.

  3. Progression is kind of odd with WoW. There is not the long trail of expansions that EQ has, what with SOE cranking out two a year for a while. Even EQ2 has a longer tail. And each expansion was heralded by a series of pre-launch events in the old world, after which everybody moved on. And each expansion saw big class shifts, radical shifts at times, which changed the feel of things. And then there are all the quality of life changes over the years, each one divisive in the community.

    Despite the question as to where Vanilla ought to be, I think the largest amount of community agreement is that Vanilla is what people are nostalgic for. If nothing else, it is content that has either been changed radically or replaced, so you cannot simply go back and revisit, say, the original Deadmines instance.

    So just Vanilla seems like the right choice for now. They might do progression later, but because of the way WoW has worked Blizz would really have to progress by both expansions and major patches to get anything like the EQ progression server experience.

    1. Good points. As a sporadic visitor to Azeroth I do tend to forget just how regularly Blizzard re-write the basic structure of the game. SOE/DBG have always tended to layer all the new stuff on top of the old without a great deal of structural change. I can't really recall many - or maybe any - major class revamps, for example. I think tradeskills have had bigger changes than adventuring.

      The way WoW rips up the playbook and writes a new one for every expansion might make things a bit more complex to recreate but if Fiannor in the comment above is right in suggesting that Blizzard plan on being able to re-create the game literally as it was patch-by-patch then it just becomes a question of whether they want to doit, not whether they can.

      I was really thinking of the raid scene, though. I've never participated but I've always had the impression there's a much clearer and better-understood - and more overtly linear - raid sequence in WoW than in other MMOs. Only FFXIV seems to compete and that's largely because the entire game there is perhaps the only truly successful Child of WoW. I do think of Progression Servers as being primarily Raid Guild Progression Servers with anyone else just tagging along for the ride and if there's ever been an MMO where raiding really "mattered" it has to be WoW. You'd imagine there must be a lot of people who'd like to be the first to do all those raids again, either to recreate old glories or because they never managed it the first time around.

      The one thing that really strikes me, though, is how this change to what WoW could be potentially extends both its life and its profitability way into the future. You could easily imagine variations of existing content being parlayed into major releases for a decade or more, pushing WoW comfortably into the 2030s even without the need to create genuine new content. Do Blizzard want to be the custodians of WoW for half a century or more, though? And can they afford to decide not to be?

  4. I'm certainly interested in replaying a classic version of the game, but I guess I'm even more interested in replaying old zones and quests that were re-written by Cataclysm. It's certainly not a long-term diversion for me - I'd rather play current games that I'm invested in than retreat into nostalgia, but a rerun of all the dungeons as they were then with friends would be good.

    1. Ironically, it's the revamped Cataclysm zones I really want to see. I got to the mid-70s when I played so I remember most of them quite well and I'd like to see how they've changed. For Classic it's the systems and mechanics of the original game that I want to try out, never having experienced them the first time round.

  5. Progression also implies doing the steps of class balancing, right? That's a nightmare, especially for vanilla WoW where specs drastically changed during the initial 2 years of the game. And we're not talking simple tweaks here and there btw, I recall patches that completely changed the talent trees of some classes.I don't think I'd have much fun knowing that my chosen class/spec sucks until at least 1.8, where things get better and the bugs go away, or patch 1.x.whatever when they added the soulshard bags and I can finally have inventory space as a warlock.

    People point at the EQ progression servers all the time, but did the game did such extensive class balancing? Honest question, I really don't know.

    1. No, it really didn't. If I log in to EQ and play my Magician, the highest level character I have, the gameplay is very similar indeed to what it would have been five, ten, fifteen years ago. For many years, even in expansions with a level cap, mostly what happened was that you got higher level versions of the same spells or abilities you already had. People complained about the lack of variety eventually although a lot of people seemed happy just to see the numbers go up.

      For a very long time the real variety came from AAs, of which there were eventually many thousands. You could end up with quite significant differences between characters of the same class based on what AAs they had but it was largely left to the player to make those decisions.

      Compared to WoW, EQ is a very stable environment, I think. It has vast depth and breadth but it mostly comes from new things being layered on top of the old. Little gets removed. As I mentioned in a reply above, tradeskills have probably seen greater root-and-branch revision than adventuring ever did.

      If Blizzard really do get to the point where they can turn on old patches like turning on a tap (faucet is one Americanism I don't think I'll ever adopt) then the technical issues of adding and removing majior class revamps won't matter but whether players will want to put up with the disruption is another matter.

    2. Oh I see, thanks. I actually prefer the EQ way of doing things, that you described. What eventually made me quit WoW was the constant roller coaster of class balance and class redesign that came with every expansion.


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