Where are the classic servers?

Approximately eight months ago Blizz announced that, in response to the constant whines of a small but vocal and persistent player group, they would be creating so-called “Classic” servers. The idea, of course, arose from the rogue “Vanilla” servers Blizz took down a couple of years ago. These were clear copyright infringements and thus illegal in most countries, but their demise called forth howls of anguish from the players devoted to them. Eventually, Blizz sat down with the criminal perpetrators of the most popular of these servers, and in theory got some ideas of just exactly what it was about them that attracted players, as well as some ideas of how to run and improve such servers. There was even — briefly — talk of Blizz licensing the servers to actually make them legal, but that idea died rather quickly for a lot of reasons.

Nevertheless, Blizz apparently listened to the players who thought they wanted to play only and always Vanilla, and last year announced they would be seriously working on establishing official Blizz “Classic” servers. Since then, the only evident activity has been the establishment of a forum where players can flame each other on what “Classic” actually means. And flame they do. While there are some wise and thoughtful posts scattered through the forum, much of it involves people screeching about their personal ideas of the meaning of “Classic”, and anyone who has a different idea is a ((fill in the blank with an epithet of your choice)).

I do think the forum was a good idea, and I hope Blizz has been able to find some points of player coalescence by sifting through the garbage. Certainly defining a “Classic” server  is the biggest job Blizz faces in this project. Most of the people who think they want the “Vanilla” experience really do not. They certainly do not want all the crashes, jagged graphics, and other technical challenges from the early days of the game. Many of them are not willing to return to a time without group finders, transmog, flying mounts, mount and pet tabs, account-bound items, heirlooms. Many are not willing to put up once again with rampant exploits and bugs, classes without the flexibility they have now,  small stack sizes, yada yada yada.

What people who cry for “Classic” servers really want is for Blizz to give them once again the wonder and joy they found in the game when they first started to play. Sadly, returning to some committee opinion of the original game will not give them that, because it’s not really the game mechanics that made them happy then, it was an entire milieu of who they were and who their friends were and what their life was like and a fascination with what was at the time a new and miraculous technology and game genre. None of those situations are things Blizz has any power to recreate, and I personally think Classic servers are doomed to failure.

Blizz has hinted the reason they have not announced any official progress for Classic servers is that they have had to do mundane but time-consuming things like hire an entire team. They have further hinted they may have an announcement about Classic servers at this year’s Blizzcon, but definitely they will have nothing to say on the subject until after the launch of BfA.

In some ways, Blizz adopting the idea of Classic servers is very similar to what they did with the Blizz token. Enough players to pay attention to were going to illicit gold sellers to pay real money for in game gold (or for the gear and mounts you can buy for gold). Blizz played whack-a-mole with these outfits for years before they decided to give players a legal way to do what they were clearly going to do anyway. Pretty much the same reasoning, I think, is going on with Classic servers. With the token idea, Blizz pretty much put the gold sellers out of business while at the same time a) giving players a way to buy gold with real money, b) giving cash-strapped players an alternate way to keep subscribing, and c) making a pretty penny for the company. Win-win-win solution! The question is, will Blizz be able to pull off a similar triple victory with Classic servers?

The one big elephant in the room with any discussion of Classic servers is, what do players do once they have reached the end game — whether that is level 50 or 60 or 70? What do they do once they have run all the top level dungeons and raids so many times they can do it blindfolded? Players on live now get bored and stop playing an expansion — even a “content heavy” one like Legion — 4-6 months before a new one. Will any player actually be content to hit a dead end in the game time after time, to know all they can do is keep leveling new characters and go through the same quests they have already done dozens of times, knowing there will never be anything else to do on that server? (Hint: not only no, but hell no.)

Clearly, Blizz will offer some kind of progression for Classic players, otherwise all their resource investment in catering to these people trying to recapture their youth will be a total waste. And Blizz is not in business to waste money.

What that progression may look like is anyone’s guess. Will Classic servers be an infinite loop of moving from 1.x to 3.x and back again? Doubtful. Will they be just an alternate way to level up a new character, then at level 60 or 70 or whatever the character can jump to a regular server? (Without paying the server change fee.) Will current max level characters at 110 or 120 be allowed to jump back in to Classic as a low level temporarily and then come back to reality when they get bored? Will Blizz keep adding new content to a “Classic” environment? I do not know, but I think it is a sure bet that there will be some kind of continual progression available to Classic servers.

I have been a bit snarky about players wanting — well, actually, demanding — Classic servers. That is probably because I can see the practical obstacles to implementing them, and because I think these players really have not thought through what they are asking. But even though I have less than zero desire to relive any part of my past — either IRL or in a game, either the good or the bad — I do understand the longing to return to a time when you were happy and had a wide-eyed wonder about a game and could, at almost any moment, gather with your friends and have a rollicking good time.

I hope Blizz can live up to such lofty expectations for these players. Maybe they have a great, innovative plan that will satisfy every group. But I think in the end the WoW Luddites will be disappointed. The game has moved on, and players either need to move with it or find a different leisure pastime.

Of greed and morality

A few days ago the Washington Post published an investigative piece about World of Warcraft. Well, it wasn’t exactly about that — it was about Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE) and that company’s involvement in what we can most charitably call the gray market of internet gaming — gold farming, maxed-avatar selling, gear selling, etc. And of some interest, but I fear not surprise, the current chief advisor to the President of the United States, Steve Bannon — odious enabler of American Nazism and white supremacy — was one of the company’s executives.

Bannon saw so much opportunity in the prospect of game cheating that he persuaded Goldman Sachs and a consortium of Wall Street investment firms to invest $30 million in the company. Thirty. Million. Dollars. Eventually, IGE went out of business (I think — it is hard to track corporate restructuring and acquisitions and such), but in their heyday they did up to 8-10 million dollars of business per month.

The Post article was actually old news — similar shorter pieces have been appearing in online gaming news sources and blogs for a few months now — but it had some new details and gave a good picture of the seamier side of internet gaming. If you have some time, I recommend you give it a read.

At any rate, my point today is not that the President of the United States places faith and trust in a sleazy cheater, nor even that American economic policy is now being controlled by former employees of firms eager to invest in exploitation of game cheating. Rather, I would like to examine the notion of morality in the current world of internet gaming, using the IGE saga as a vehicle and Blizzard as one of the principal protagonists.

First, who were the winners and losers in the IGE morality play? Clearly, IGE was ultimately the loser — they went down in rather ignominious fashion, not with a bang but an impoverished, debt-ridden whimper. At their profit zenith, they had tried to buy off Blizzard and other game companies by offering them a share in the profits if the companies would legitimize IGE’s activities. As WoW represented a huge share of IGE’s business, Blizzard’s decision here was key and likely the deciding factor in IGE’s final demise. Blizzard said no, and in my eyes that makes them — and WoW players — the winner.

I don’t actually know why they refused, but I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and attributing it to a sort of foundational morality, a gut instinct that selling advantages in a game is just wrong. The real answer, of course, is more complicated, I suspect. A lot of factors persuaded Blizz to go after IGE with a vengeance rather than be co-opted.

One factor may have been that Blizz touted the game as one of merit not money, and they set up the subscription model to support this. Gaming companies need to make a profit, and selling subscriptions rather than virtual gear or gold was a good way to make money, especially in the early days of the game before spinoffs and endorsements and T-shirts and the like bring in much. To allow players to buy their way into max levels or high gear — without experiencing the game as intended — was contrary to everything Blizz had advertised about WoW.

A second factor was that the WoW player base was overwhelmingly against “pay to play”. Almost certainly, had Blizzard opted to throw in with IGE, they would have lost millions of players. Such a decision might have actually resulted in the destruction of the game. There is no doubt that this kind of strategic assessment played a part in Blizz’s final decision. They might have increased profits in the short term, but in the long run there was a good chance they would have caused the death of the game.

Other factors were subsidiary to the two I have just mentioned. For example, a sudden and significant influx of easy gold would likely have caused rampant inflation in the virtual economy of the game. Similarly, gear that players had to be proficient and persistent to obtain would lose its value if anyone could plunk down $20 and get the same stuff. Back when IGE was active, it was more rare to have a max level character than it is today, and the notion that anyone could purchase a max level with real money would have cheapened the accomplishment.

So I give Blizz props for turning IGE down, and for working to eradicate gold sellers and the like from the game. I don’t care what their reasons were, they did the right thing. And they continue to do the right thing today when they go after bots or when they punish players for selling services for real money. Yes, you can still cheat in WoW — the cheat sites are out there — but Blizz is continually refining its detection methods and imposing punishments, such that players really have to think twice about whether or not it is worth it in the end.

Now, of course one of the ways Blizz used to defeat gold sellers was to institute the WoW token — basically legitimizing the practice. I am still not sure if this was a good move, but it was undeniably smart business. Making it two-sided (turn real money into WoW gold and turn WoW gold into playing time) was genius and addressed two player markets — those who had time but not money and those who had money but not time. Additionally, Blizz controls the availability and price, so they can put brakes on undesirable results such as rampant inflation. As an added bonus, every player using gold to get play time has garnered a $20 per month subscription for Blizz rather than the standard $15 one. Genius. But I still think it was a minor backing off from one of the game’s founding principles.

The last thought I have on the whole IGE story is this. Internet gaming, even though it has been around for years, is still in its profit infancy. How the industry — players and spectators as well as developers and investors — deal with cheating will set the standard for the rest of its existence. Thus far Blizz has acted responsibly, I think, although they have been a bit easy on high-profile cheaters. Still, I believe they are on the right path. But the industry could go either way — it could go the route of professional wrestling or it could go the route of the NFL. There is big money in both, but one at least strives to be honest and competitive, and the other — not so much.

I am not so naive as to think greed is not a business motivator, but I am still naive enough to hope there is room for morality, too. For knowing and doing the right thing.