Last week, a beloved World of Warcraft private server offering players a chance to relive the magic of vanilla World of Warcraft announced their plans to cease operation thanks to legal notice from Blizzard. That server was Nostalrius, and it only lived for about a year. Naturally, the closure has generated a discussion around legacy servers. There’s no question about whether or not Blizzard was right to pull the plug on a service that allowed players to play an older version of the game for free. Blizzard owns World of Warcraft, and regardless of whether or not the private server resulted in a loss of profits, Nostalrius represented an infringement on that trademark.
I’m not saying that Nostalrius is inherently bad. I myself dedicated a small amount of time to playing on the server with friends who longed for better days when World of Warcraft wasn’t so easy. Nostalrius provided that for a lot of people, and ultimately succeeded in building a community around that. Before you jump the gun and assume that my friends and I engaged in piracy, each and every one of us still held subscriptions to the retail version of World of Warcraft. We weren’t playing Nostalrius to get a free fix of World of Warcraft, we were doing it to relive our memories of that time, and we’re not alone.
There are people who find themselves dissatisfied with the current climate of World of Warcraft. Some — like my friends — say that the game has gotten easier and become more casual as a result. Others feel that the Player versus Player community has been in decline. I can understand that, and I’m sure the folks at Blizzard can, too. Now that people have experienced classic World of Warcraft and the closure of Nostalrius has brought the issue of private servers into the limelight, there’s a push to see them legitimized. After all, there’s sure as hell a demand. According to the infographics provided by Nostalrius, 800,000 accounts were created over the course of the year, and 150,000 of those accounts remained active.
Those numbers are nothing to scoff at. People want to play earlier versions of World of Warcraft, and an ongoing petition started by the people behind Nostalrius supports that. There’s just one problem; all of this has already happened. We’ve seen this before with a game called RuneScape. As I discussed in the editorial I wrote on the subject, RuneScape saw a similar decline, with a similar outcry and the accompanying frustration. That ultimately led to private servers attempting to recreate RuneScape as it was, which ultimately led to the officially-sanctioned and beloved Old School RuneScape.
When you work on a video game that thrives on its longevity, how do you balance artistic integrity and the need to appease fans? For Jagex, the answer was simple — though it did take some time — create legacy servers and give the players what they want. On the surface, that might have been a successful approach. There are a lot of people who now play Old School RuneScape. But that success seems to have come at a price. Players have returned to the game and purchased a subscription to relive the glory days, but the main game has suffered as a result.
Jagex has always supported legacy servers since the introduction of RuneScape 2, when they allowed players to stay behind and enjoy RuneScape classic, but RuneScape classic was always a minority. The player base was small. In the case of Old School RuneScape, it’s the other way around. Instead of players staying on RuneScape 3 — the current version of the game — players have moved back to Old School RuneScape, and the player base has splintered. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to find RuneScape 3 servers with less than 100 players. Ten years ago, that was unheard of.
Meanwhile, Old School RuneScape enjoys a renaissance of popularity, with most servers retaining a population into the several hundreds. On a busy day, some servers can even fill up to the 2000 capacity limit. The legacy servers have become more popular than the main game, and that’s a problem. You could argue that’s because of the drastic and unpopular changes that Jagex made to the game, and you’d probably be right. But, regardless of the reasons, the player base has splintered and the main game has decreased in popularity. Since the technology between RuneScape 3 is always being changed and upgraded, you have to wonder whether or not it’s worth it.
This is the reason I’m hesitant to accept legacy servers being added to World of Warcraft. They might satisfy the demand and prevent private servers like Nostalrius from popping up, but they might splinter the player base, causing the retail game to dwindle in popularity. There’s no guarantee that this will happen, of course, but it will splinter the player base regardless. As RuneScape has proven, it’s not easy managing two games at once, and it’s for that reason that Blizzard should steer clear of legacy servers in World of Warcraft.
That might mean that the people interested in vanilla World of Warcraft can’t get their fix without resorting to private servers, which is widely considered to be a form of piracy, but it would also mean a more unified World of Warcraft experience. Up until this point, that’s all we’ve ever known. Blizzard can’t sanction private servers, but they can’t sanction legacy servers, either. To do so could potentially cannibalize their own game. Even with a model similar to that which Jagex has with RuneScape, where subscriptions are shared between the versions, you run that risk.
While you might earn the same amount of money or more, you’re dedicating time, money, and staff to a project that only a fraction of the population will play. Legacy servers might be a good idea with merit behind them, but the last thing I want to see is the situation with RuneScape repeat itself. Too many options can sometimes be a bad thing. I know that I’m in the minority in saying this, but I won’t be signing the petition to bring legacy servers to World of Warcraft, and you shouldn’t either.Tweet