There’s an oft quoted joke among World of Warcraft players, it goes something like this, “How do you know if someone played in Vanilla? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” In this context, Vanilla is the base World of Warcraft that launched in 2004. Before the evil expansion packs were released and Azeroth’s maidenhood was ripped from her. At least that’s what many WoW players would have you believe.
The thing is, everyone has nostalgia for video games they played when they were younger. And many of those people, particularly in MMOs take it upon themselves to sit their fellow players upon their laps like grandchildren and witter away about the “good old days”. The days when their favourite MMO was in its glory days. Unfortunately as I’m sure you know, nostalgia has a way of clouding our vision.
However, I’m not here to give you a rant about why we need to rip off our rose-tinted glasses and throw them in the bin. Rather, I’d like to talk about the positive aspects of nostalgia and the benefits that nostalgia can bring to MMORPGs. In particular, a way that ageing MMOs can bring back old players and how new players can live the older days they never got to experience. I’m talking about “Oldschool servers”.
Now, MMORPGs are one of the very few kinds of games that evolve significantly over time. When an update is introduced to the live version of the game, that update is law and there’s no going back. Usually this is a good thing. It leaves players with some new content to experience and generally keeps them coming back to the game. After all, who doesn’t want some new content for a game they love? Especially if you’re paying monthly for it.
There is, however, a chance that some updates will cause more negative feedback than positive. At best this can be reversed in time to save the playerbase, and at the very worst it can cause rifts that bring the game close to its demise. Just look at the Star Wars: Galaxies NGE update. This isn’t just bad for business, but it’s bad for all kinds of players.
Oldschool servers are a good way that developers can appease both their new players and the hardcore elite who have been there since day one. Let’s use RuneScape as a case study.
Case Study: RuneScape
Those of you who have played RuneScape will know exactly which update I’m referring to. Early in 2007, Jagex the creators of RuneScape, effectively removed the PVP elements of the game that many people played the game for, namely, the “wilderness”. This started riots throughout many of the servers in the game, and many once dedicated members of the community left.
This wasn’t RuneScape’s only problem though. Over the next few years, Jagex changed almost everything about the game and soon it was nearly unrecognizable. The once iconic website had been replaced with a fairly generic looking one. The in game graphics drifted away from the antiquated and novel style of before, and moved towards a very uncanny valley feeling that alienated many players.
Many aspects of the gameplay changed too, and even the combat style was radically overhauled. This update, the Evolution of Combat, threatened to drive many players away. The game also got far easier, with simpler ways of playing the game and levelling up, even bonus XP weekends came around. The music was changed to sound more orchestral, and some would say less melodic. Soon RuneScape‘s numbers dropped, and by 2012 there were 100,000 players on at any one time at best, a drop from 200,000 during 2007.
Many people just couldn’t get over these changes, and many of us quit to find other MMOs. Forever yearning for that oldschool feeling we felt we were robbed of. Many left for private servers, and many left the genre all together. There was a massive feeling in the fanbase that people wanted, or rather needed, that oldschool RuneScape back. There was even an unofficial fan remake of RuneScape in its 2006 days planned that managed to get thousands of donators and loyal followers before Jagex ordered a cease and desist to its creators. For many of us, we feared that our oldschool days were just distant memories.
Then, in 2013, Jagex answered our prayers. They started an online petition that allowed players who paid their subscription to the game to sign it and decide if they should have separate servers that run an older version of the game from 2007. The petition far exceeded its goal, with over four-hundred-thousand signatures. And soon, at their very fingertips, players could experience both the new RuneScape 3 and the Oldschool RuneScape. There was very little in-fighting, there was no great divide among the players and generally both communities live in harmony with each other. Many players play and enjoy both games.
Effects Of Oldschool Servers
This is a net positive for the players and the company. The players get what they want because they get to experience the game in what they see as its prime again. This update brought many old players, including myself, back to the game. It also lets new players see what these oldschool players have been talking about for all this time, and it serves to showcase just how far the game has come in many ways.
For the developer, it caused many of their players to return to the game and subscribe again. It also adds value for money, because players get essentially two different games. Now OldSchool RuneScape is actually available to play for free. Players who feel like they’re getting their moneys worth are far more likely to stay subscribed.
This is something I would like developers to do more of, to not shy away from the past. To not throw the old models of their games aside as if they were outdated phones or expired food. People grow attached to games in every aspect, from their mechanics to their graphics to their music. You can’t just sever an attachment like that, it doesn’t help anyone and causes nothing but animosity among players.
Many developers like Blizzard have declared that oldschool servers would be a bad thing. One Blizzard higher up once infamously stated at Blizzcon 2013 that players didn’t really want oldschool World of Warcraft servers. They argued that players don’t remember how hard and inconvenient the game was back then. Apparently being ignorant to the fact that these are the very elements players want to see again. Although some do speculate that if oldschool servers were added to World of Warcraft it would cause a divide amongst the community, which is a legitimate concern.
Not every MMO needs oldschool servers though. Many MMOs such as Ultima Online and Everquest haven’t changed much in the past decade, so oldschool servers are not required. Yet for games like RuneScape and World of Warcraft, where massive game altering changes can and will be made, I would say that oldschool servers are almost essential once past a certain point.
Nevertheless I hope that as time progresses, more developers will start adding oldschool servers to their MMOs, and hopefully Oldschool RuneScape is just the first stepping stone to what could be a wider trend in the industry. RuneScape is a better game for having Oldschool servers, and I dare say, so would World of Warcraft be if it had them too.