World of Warcraft Classic – Fragmentation Without The Metrics?

Looking at the push for the upcoming launch of World of Warcraft Classic, one wonders what it is that Blizzard sees in the launch of this game that they once seemed not to.

After all, it was only a few years ago, in 2016, where J Allen Brack, now Blizzard president, said that the infamous line “you think you want it, but you don’t”in response to a question about classic servers at that year’s Blizzcon. The recent Q2 2019 financial call for Activision Blizzard had some quotes from Brack and team on the matter, and while they’ve indicating they are pushing a lot of advertising into the endeavor (which, if you’ve opened the Blizzard launcher or been to a gaming site lately, is obvious), they also remain relatively quiet on their projected prospects for the title.

The thing about WoW: Classic that I actually think is really fascinating from a business perspective, which I touched on with a one-liner in my last post, is this: Blizzard has engineered a way to launch a pseudo-sequel that will be difficult, if not outright impossible, to report as a separate entity from the live retail game. There is no box sales number to track, no separate subscription that says just Classic on it, and while I fully expect that MAU numbers will be able to be split, I imagine most reporting will center around an obfuscated “Warcraft” time spent number.

Unlike a WoW 2 scenario (no, I’m not gonna write about that again!), this means the game can fly under the radar. When WoW Classic launches, or in all likelihood, over this next week leading to Monday’s character name reservations, WoW subscriptions are going to spike, and when Blizzard talks about the total number of WoW subscribers, the number they give is going to be pretty impressive, without a doubt. While I anticipate they’ll have separate MAU numbers available for each version of WoW, I doubt they’ll get more granular than that – like say, reporting the percentage of time spent per subscriber in each game, or what number of subscribers play more than 50% in each version. I imagine they’ll know that, and they’ll selectively use that data when it can be beneficial – Classic logs over x million players on day 1, Battle for Azeroth sees a 35% increase in log ins, etc.

The expectation to have here is that a rising tide will lift all boats. While a large number of the increase in subscribers will be here solely for WoW Classic, the likelihood is that a good number of those will also check out the live game. For many who were in the toxic pool of the game’s subreddit, certain streamer communities, or the like, who have left them during their unsubscribed time, may come back to BfA and like it, opting to play both. I won’t pretend that I would count on this long-term if I were Blizzard, but they are obviously making a strong play towards keeping people engaged via both games.

Let’s take a look at the late summer into fall season for World of Warcraft – we have an early 8.2.5 PTR up now, with the 15th anniversary rewards in the patch files telling us they are likely to push the patch prior to November. That means that we have the launch of WoW Classic on 8/27/2019, with live patch 8.2.5 sometime after, leaving enough time, if I had to guess, for Blizzcon to be perfectly paced into the calendar. With WoW Classic pegged to late August, I expect either late September or early October will see 8.2.5, with Blizzcon on 11/1/2019 revealing 9.0 and a What’s Next panel that will also talk in some detail about 8.3. We’ll also probably see a phase 2 Classic content rollout shortly after Blizzcon. With 6 total phases to roll out, Blizzard will likely use them to pad out the BfA calendar through 9.0. I would expect the schedule to end up looking like this:

Classic Phase 1 -> 8.2.5 BfA -> Classic Phase 2 -> 8.3 BfA -> Season 4(5?) for BfA -> Classic Phase 3 -> 8.3.5 BfA, probably some sort of preorder campaign for 9.0 -> Classic Phase 4 -> 9.0 open beta -> Classic Phase 5 -> 9.0 live launch/pre-expansion event -> 9.0 full expansion launch -> Classic Phase 6

Now, this could end up extending out or shortening depending on how strongly Blizzard feels, or about how long things take with the live game, but I absolutely expect them to maintain a staggered pacing with no stepping on toes for either game. When Classic has a release, expect BfA/9.0 to not be active with new content, and likewise.

Now, on the schedule I just outlined, there is one slight problem, possibly.

The potential issue here is that the original game had about 2.25 years to fully release and expand. It took more patches – a lot more! – but under this schedule, all the content would be out in half the time, with just over a year before all the Classic phases are rolled out. Now, this may not be a problem – you can leave players with the full slate of content for a while and they’ll be relatively happy, as Naxxramas’ original version was the least-entered raid in WoW history, much less completed. The Wrath of the Lich King version has taken some of the shine off of it, but at the same time, a 40 player version with the original mechanics like Frost Resistance in multiple fights and the classes how they played at that point in time would be a curiosity that may take a lot of time to clear.

Now, having said all of that, the big assumption at the core of the player-level discourse is that Classic will be a huge success and relatively long-lived. The fascinating thing about this is that I do believe it will be successful, but I think that there is reason for concern in Irvine.

The concept of WoW Classic, as a thing, is a pretty interesting idea and one that a lot of players were eager to throw support behind as a concept. The reality of the game, however, is perhaps less appealing. I can’t and won’t pretend to have some deep belief that it will tank or do well, but rather, I would maintain a more neutral posture towards it. There is a large pool of players split into a handful of camps – those who played vanilla and want to play it again, those who played it and have a bit of curiosity to relive it, those who never played it and want to try seriously, and those who never played and will check it out for the sake of seeing it in-person.

There are also a ton of factors that work against the nature of the game – better, much more accurate databases with quest data and raid strategies, streaming and online videos with greater details of strategy and execution compared to the ones that existed when vanilla was around, a change in the internet culture that can often split players into more familiar groups, and the weight of the expectations placed on the game.

None of those are to say that it will inherently fail, or fail for those reasons – but I think these things will play more of a role than people might imagine. When my guild started discussing Classic during our most recent Heroic progression night in Eternal Palace, there was a curious mix of people talking about playing the game but also, a similar contingent talking about not wanting to play it at all, from a mix of people who did and did not play it. I found this curious – it was ultimately friendly, but even the people wanting to play talked about the things that made Vanilla the experience it was being net negatives for the title.

If I were Blizzard, especially on an investor call, I would retain a degree of skepticism when talking up the game. It is an easy money-maker, of that there is no doubt. There was an engineering effort made here, but considering that the game was confirmed to be a project in November of 2017, it took them barely a year and a half from the point where they said they had just confirmed it would be a thing and hadn’t even started development yet to crank out the finished project. Most of the development work was strictly on a software engineering and design basis – unpacking the old 1.12 files, porting them to the modern engine, and sanity-checking to make sure that the numbers and behavior were in alignment with the original 1.12 client. It requires no ongoing development short of the phased content rollouts, no new art, no new dungeons or raids, and no additional work to create. That isn’t to downplay the effort the team put into the game, but is rather to say that the game will easily recover its development costs and then some with even just 3 months of live service.

However, there is a lot of reason to doubt the player reaction, largely because it is an unknown at this point. Private servers were never really super-popular, and even the Nostalrius server that kicked off the craze that led to this moment could only claim 150,000 total accounts, with no metrics around concurrency that I could find. The stress test for the Elysium relaunch after the Nostalrius shutdown showed 10,000 players during the stress test, but there is no indicator that this was an average server load and indeed during a stress test, you’re likely to see a peak of player interest as there are usually fun events and things happening to push players online. When the Nostalrius/Elysium communities would run fundraisers or sales of physical items like T-shirts to recoup operational costs, they’d often run sales figures in the high single-digits or low teens.

Now, a lot of this data is speculative in its own right. A private server requires a lot of additional work to launch a working client, which many players won’t put in. Even finding a private server takes a degree of effort that Classic will absolutely not require. Many people over-obsess about the nature of playing on a private server and the violation of the TOS implied, worrying about losing their live retail account. However, the stress test I mentioned above was not during an obscure period for private servers or from an obscure server. It was for the official Nostalrius relaunch, from the same team, with the same code and experience that the Nostalrius server and client offered, and after Nostalrius had been shut down, heavily popularized and lionized by opportunistic grifters like Mark Kern, and the relaunch had capitalized on all of the press Nostalrius had received – and it still got 10,000 people. It’s impressive for the other reasons, but less so when you consider that Nostalrius was supposed to be the pinnacle of the classic emulators.

The thing about a project like this is that there is no comparable datapoint to look at and extrapolate from. Nostalrius/Elysium is a different beast which can only barely give us a rough idea of the demand. Old-School Runescape is a different project of a very different scope and original playerbase size and interests, as is Project 1999 for Everquest. Progression servers tend to be popular on MMOs that offer them, but also are on games whose original versions are only fractionally as successful and whose current playerbases don’t approach the variety or size of WoWs. BfA, a low point for WoW, has a likely active playerbase that exceeds the peak of many of those games! The thing that is exciting from the perspective of analysis is that this is a huge unknown with a lot of topics to discuss as the launch rolls out.

Early on, the effects can be dangerous for the live game. Many guilds teeter on the verge of being incapable of putting together raids and activity groups, and losing players to Classic will hurt and may push many of these groups to an extinction point. Players who leave for Classic and come back within a few weeks may still be too late, as it often only takes a raid a reset without enough players to run to kill said group. The pool of players to do activities in the live game – farm groups for world quests and world content, Mythic Plus, dungeon queues, and more will all be hit in the short-term. I don’t expect them to totally fade away or become exponentially harder to get, but the possibility of that cannot be discounted.

As for Classic, I think there will be a few phases for the fairweather fans. Many players will drop out early, like when it takes them nearly two weeks to hit level 20, or, conversely, if the resources and game knowledge we have now shortens that time enough to hurt the perceived experience. There will likely be a run of players leaving upon hitting 60 and seeing how long things can take to run without the tools the modern game has – we often talk about the negative effects of Dungeon Finder, LFR, and the like, but they also have some upsides that are frequently dismissed. When people play Molten Core, they may opt out of the game – it was fun for its time, but the raid is fairly bland in terms of flavor, many fights have repeated mechanics, and the loot systems of Classic are definitely different – which may not be for everyone!

Past that point, I doubt the game loses much more – Classic is very likely going to maintain a steady base of dedicated players, although once the last phase of content rolls out, that may change. Live is likely to keep a similar level of player interest to today, so it will not grow much until a major content release, and will not likely add a substantial number of players until 9.0, which I do expect will still be a spike.

Mostly, for those of watching to see what happens, the next few weeks will be a lot of pontificating and holding our breath to see!

5 thoughts on “World of Warcraft Classic – Fragmentation Without The Metrics?

  1. The one thing I’d add to that excellent overview is that a key reason for the success of progression servers in other games is the opportunity for a fresh start. A lot of people enjoy beginning over on a busy server where everyone starts from the same base. The reason EQ keeps launching new progression servers even as existing ones are turning into ghost towns is that there’s a demographic that wants to keep re-starting and running through the same content as though it was new.

    If WoW Classic is succesful and holds a commercially significant population, Blizzard are going to be faced with the same problem other MMOs have had to deal with. Do they run the Classic server through every expansion until it catches up to Live or do they stop at a certain point and leave it embalmed in history? Do they open new servers periodically so peoplemcan restart as new?

    It’s entirely possible they could end up running several versions of WoW at different chronologies. If we imagine WoW continuing for another fifteen years or more, which seems entirely plausible, they will probably end up doing all of that and more.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. An interesting thought is whether or not they are also using Classic as research. I know too many people that have gotten fed up with the current design philosophy of scaling, zone sharding, complex gear systems that require running SimCraft on practically every drop, having to cart around multiple sets of gear depending on fights. I think many are hoping for a simpler game to play. Certainly it will be tough, but the current game is designed around the top competitive players playing on top end computers with add on programs telling them what to do and when.

    That said if the Classic model takes off and remains more appealing than live, I expect we may see a change in future design. The shareholders just want the company to make as much money as possible. If polishing up old code for a minimal cost shows a higher profit margin from more subs, higher MAU numbers? Then maybe what many have said for years may come to pass. Stop designing for the top 10%, that max out in weeks then go off to play other games, and focus on the 90% that are there every day.

    Liked by 1 person

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