The whole retro nostalgia server thing has gone from something those weirdos at SOE did once in a while to a idea that has helped sustain the profitability of titles as large as World of Warcraft.
The idea has officially been part of the EverQuest business model since 2015 and has spread to other Daybreak titles and beyond. Old School RuneScape has a life of its own, Aion just launched a classic server last week, and the Lord of the Rings Online team is launching two new legendary servers next week and has started hinting about a real “classic” server.
So I started wondering what it takes to make one of these sorts of servers viable. I came up with four… I’ll call them “common threads”… that seem to be involved with successful ventures of this sort. They are, to my mind:
- Player versus Environment Progression
- Expansion Based Content
- Multiple Server Architecture
- Some Past Era of Fame or Success
- A Monetization Scheme
Player versus Environment Progression
The first item on my list, PvE, is probably the most controversial. I mean we only have to look at how many PvP servers Blizzard stood up for WoW Classic to convince just about anybody that PvP is not necessarily a detriment to the nostalgia idea.
But I am going to argue that even on a WoW Classic PvP server that PvE progression, doing quests and killing mobs and getting to the level cap, is the primary. Getting ganked in Stranglethorn Vale or coming to an uneasy truce with somebody from the other faction when you just want to finish up a quest out in Un’goro Crater, that is some extra spicy topping on the PvE game and not an independent PvP experience. It is PvP in a PvE framework, and that PvE framework is what you need.
Which isn’t to say that PvP can’t screw things up even with a PvE framework. The story of PvP in EverQuest II basically consists of a few brief moments where a PvP server was fun… under very specific circumstances, like leveling locking yourself at a specific point in progression and sticking to low level zones… and most of the rest of the fifteen years of the game trying and failing to recreate or recapture the magic of those moments. They keep breaking PvE progression to make it work, which makes it otherwise unsustainable.
Expansion Based Content
This might not be as critical as the first item. It is more of a factor as to how long your nostalgia experience can be expected to last. EverQuest, with 26 expansions, is the poster child for this. You can unlock an expansion a month and still keep the party going for a couple of years.
But you might not want to drag people through every expansion. The Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server for EverQuest ran for nine years. EverQuest was only seven years old when they rolled out the first such server. Nine years is long enough to feel nostalgic for the good old days of the launch of the server.
For World of Warcraft it feels like there is an argument to stop after the second expansion, if only for the sake of simplicity.
And, of course, having expansions where the game changed all in one go gives the company and the players nice, clear markers as to where the nostalgia is. It is handy.
Multiple Server Architecture
The MMO in question ought to support the idea of multiple shards, servers, realms, or whatever you want to call them. This seems like a bit of a gimme, but it does leave out EVE Online, where not only does everybody play in a single version of the game (except those in China), but the game itself is a success based on the critical mass of players. Splitting off a nostalgia based New Eden would be a non-started for this reason alone… but it also doesn’t have PvE progression nor expansion based content. No retro server for EVE Online ever.
Anyway, you should be able to roll up a new, special rules server and not kill your game or over-tax your staff.
Some Past Era of Fame or Success
Can you have nostalgia for a game nobody has heard of? Sure, why not! Will anybody else come and play? No.
A big part of the retro server plan is farming your installed base, appealing to them with visions of the “good old days” when the game was new, they were young, and everything seemed much simpler. While those who missed out on the original launch might show some interest, the success of your server is largely based on how many people have fond memories of your early game.
EverQuest does very well on this front because, while the game never achieved anything like WoW level subscription numbers, in the five years between its launch and WoW‘s launch a lot of people came and played for at least a little while. Brad McQuaid said at one point that there were a couple million former EQ players before WoW was a thing. These are the people who will be tempted to come back.
And then, of course, there is WoW Classic, where Blizz had to roll out about 150 servers to handle the nostalgia overload.
Even Lord of the Rings Online, which never met Turbine’s grandiose visions of popularity, did score a lot of players over the year.
On the flip side there is EverQuest II, which launched just weeks before WoW, and never achieved the kind of success its older sibling had, or Anarchy Online, 20 years old this month, which had such a bad launch it became the first title I knew of to go down the free to play path. Both games have dedicated followings, but neither has the depth of installed base that makes the idea of a retro server a big deal. EQII has had a few of those at this point, but they tend to launch quietly and shut down even more quietly.
A Monetization Scheme
The company isn’t doing this for nostalgia, it is doing it to farm the installed base for money. And to get that money, they have to have a plan. WoW Classic has the simplest of all plans. Since you still have to subscribe to play WoW, they just included WoW Classic in that plan and they were set.
EverQuest and other Daybreak titles, which still have a subscription plan as an option, just put their special servers in a special “subscribers only” room. Not too tough, that. (Though can we get LOTRO and DDO on the Daybeark All Access plan now that we finally know Daybreak owned them before EG7? or How about an EG7-wide all access plan?)
Aion Classic has… a monetization plan of sorts. If I am reading things correctly, it consists of a special pay to win cash shop and an optional subscription for benefits, but at least that is a plan.
But I wonder if a game like Guild Wars 2 could ever pull off the nostalgia server idea. It seems like there might be a market to re-roll the event experience of the game from scratch. Maybe? But their business plan is buy the box and cash shop items. I guess they could have some special cash shops items, but I am not sure they would bring in the money needed to make a classic server worthwhile.
Anyway, those are my somewhat off-the-cuff thoughts this morning. I am sure I missed something in the mix.