Retro, nostalgia, progression, classic, tag them with whatever prefix you choose, but farming the installed base with a promise of an old school experience has gotten a serious boost of legitimacy with the pending release of WoW Classic. It is no longer just weirdos led by Daybreak and Jagex, or the desperate like the late Trion Worlds, playing the old school card.
That Blizzard has gone there means that they are convinced of the viability of such a venture. We have certainly seen, time and again, the success of such servers. There is even a set pattern, with the launch seeing an overwhelming crowd show up, followed by a winnowing down of the nostalgic player base as the sight seers and the never-satisfied purists wander off.
There remains a solid and enthusiastic core of players who will see things through to the level cap, doing all the things from raids to faction grinds. But even they begin to fade when their goals are met, leaving behind the truly dedicated who just want to keep on playing in the old content over and over.
At that point with something like EverQuest Daybreak will just unlock the next expansion. Some of those who lapsed will return, the raiders especially, and the server will keep going. EverQuest is pretty much the extreme example on that front. With a substantial base of past and current players and 25 expansions to unlock, one of their progression servers can keep on going for ages. The Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server, which Potshot and I played on, went live back in February of 2011 and is still moving along. It merged with Vulak server, its launch twin, back in late 2017, but is still there otherwise.
Eventually though Daybreak will merge servers back into the live population. Over on EverQuest II they will soon be merging the Fallen Gate server, which opened up in mid-2017, into the live Antonia Bayle server. EverQuest II not only lacks the depth of expansions, but also doesn’t have quite the same fame or player base on which to draw. Special servers there tend to wrap up much sooner than with its elder Norrath sibling. But that is where they all go eventually.
The same happened with Rift Prime, the Rift retro server, which died off pretty hard once they got to the Storm Legion expansion. There is always a certain wry humor to be had when the retro server follows the same path as the original live servers did back in the day. The population that remained was offered transfers onto live servers.
But WoW Classic will be different. Blizzard, perhaps going overboard on the purist aspect of nostalgia for the old world, has rolled up WoW Classic as a semi-independent game. Your subscription gets you access to both WoW and WoW Classic, so you’re covered there, but it will be a different client using a different sort of server and will have its own character database, so even if you’ve used up all of your character slots in WoW you will have 50 open slots, 10 per server, with WoW Classic.
With EverQuest, EverQuest II, Rift Prime, and LOTRO Legendary the special servers were only variations on the live product with some flags set to limit access to content and changes to things like experience gain. Otherwise they used the same client and the same launcher. This sets WoW Classic apart.
In the short term I expect that WoW Classic will be successful, but what happens in the longer term? While there is some progression planned in the form of raid unlocks, which will keep the raiders engaged… and they’ll likely lead the charge to level cap in any case if on can draw from the EverQuest retro experience… after that there doesn’t seem like much of a plan. So what can Blizzard do?
- Leave the Servers to Run
The easiest answer I suppose is to just leave things as they are once raid progression has been done. There is a certain demographic that will just want to live and play in the WoW Classic environment, staying forever in 2006. Others will show up late or won’t care about being there on day one or will want to get to level cap at their own pace. And there will be people who will come and go from WoW, since one subscription pays for both. Given the size of the WoW player base, that might be a viable path for years even if Blizz doesn’t do anything further.
- Roll Fresh Classic Servers
The magic which Daybreak has discovered in their EverQuest progression servers is that there is a sizable demographic that just likes a fresh server launch and playing through the progression. Daybreak can drop a fresh progression server every year or so and will see a swarm of people show up to play. It keeps people subscribed, it keeps that demographic happy, and it gives people who want to be in the mad rush of a server launch but who may have missed previous chances a place to go.
I suspect that we will see something like this with WoW Classic. The fact that there is raid unlock progression means that the experience won’t be static and so after the last unlock there will be people who missed out and/or who will want to start fresh. This seems like a pretty easy choice to keep people playing WoW Classic. The question will just be the timing of new servers.
- Head for the Dark Portal
As noted, Daybreak revitalizes its retro population by moving on the next expansion, so it seems like Blizzard ought to be at least thinking about getting on to that as well. In fact, we know they have. The question is, how to you get there?
Given the Blizzard solution to the Vanilla WoW question was to go back to the original client, you can hardly expect anything less when it comes to The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King.
But how do you get there from WoW Classic? Do you eventually convert those servers to servers for The Burning Crusade? It almost feels like you have to if you want to get the whole “unlocking the dark portal” event. But what about people who want to stay behind in vanilla, and there will be some?
Given how WoW Classic came to be, does this mean a third (or more) special client to keep and maintain for a third type of WoW server?
If WoW Classic proves to be a success, if the money is good, I suspect Blizzard will want to do something further on the nostalgia front. The questions will be around how long it will take them to get there, where will they stop, and how will they get players into these middle timelines. Server conversions? Transfers? Something else?
- Other Options?
There are probably other distinct options, not to mention a plethora of variations on the theme, that Blizzard could pursue. Blizz could, for example, go the “Disney vault” route and only roll out WoW Classic servers every five years or some such. There is a possibility that they will decide the whole thing isn’t worth the effort and just let the WoW Classic servers linger on with light maintenance, or even shut them down after some time has passed. I doubt the latter, at least in the near term, but I suppose it could happen.
The question remains though, what will Blizzard do? Time and audiences do not sit still and it feels like a big WoW Classic launch will only whet player appetites for other retro options.