Goose and Gander

In a surprisingly hot-topic twist, the internet was awash in reactions last week to Blizzard shutting down a vanilla private server. While the bloggers had the right idea, various random commenters had a much different reaction. The mental gymnastics are on point:

I don’t think you quite understand how this works. nothing is being stolen, absolutely nothing. Vanilla WoW cannot be purchased or played anymore.

here’s another scenario for you. lets say for instance you want to play one of the old Battlefield games like 1942 or Battlefield 2. you can’t though. you know why you can’t? the Gamespy servers got shut down. so if you wanted to play one of those games online how would you do it? well you could organize a LAN party but you’d need atleast 16 people with 16 gaming PCs all in the same place but good luck trying to make that happen.

the other way to do it would be to find a dedicated group of fans that are modders. they reverse engineer the code, they write new code that allows anybody to host servers for the game in question. put that code out on the internet as a mod. then people start hosting servers for this 14 year old game. EA loses nothing in this process because they aren’t supporting the game anyway.

this is what this group was doing with WoW. Activision wasn’t losing anything by these people playing Vanilla WoW.

I mean, let’s be real here. Blizzard/EA/whoever owns the IP, and gets final legal say with how it is utilized. That’s what copyright means. If they want to sit on an unsupported franchise and let it rot, that is their right. You can make some sort of moral “abandonware” or “historical preservation” argument, but again, the law is pretty clear here. Whether or not Blizzard is losing anything by letting others pirate their material is besides the point.

Now, if you’re fine with being a pirate, that’s all right with me.

The owners/employees of Nostalrius had an AMA on Reddit earlier, and they described the costs involved with running the server: $500-$1000/month for server/bandwidth costs. For ~150,000 active accounts (defined by at least one log-in event in the last 10 days). Which really confirms how and why there are so many zombie MMOs still shambling about, i.e. it’s apparently super cheap to run. You know, minus the employee wages, of which none were paid in this scenario, even though they apparently committed 20-30 hours a week on top of their day jobs.

It is debatable how much money Blizzard is “leaving on the table” in this scenario though. 150,000 active users on a private WoW server is larger than most actual MMOs on the market currently. Crucially, however, these were all F2P users – how many would convert to $15/month customers is a matter of debate. If 10% converted, that’d still be roughly a quarter million a month. That’s enough to pay 44 people’s $60k salaries per year with some left over. Assuming that they even needed 44 full-time people to shepherd over legacy code.

The problem is opportunity cost. And marketing/messaging. Blizzard could probably make money off of legacy servers… but would it be more money than they could by spending that human capital elsewhere? As someone with less than zero interest in vanilla WoW, I know that I would prefer those 44 full-time people doing something more useful, like staunching the +150k subscriber bleeding every quarter from WoW Prime. When was the last time new content was released again?

Releasing and maintaining legacy servers would be the equivalent of Blizzard rooting around in the couch for spare change while the house burns down around them. Which it is.

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Posted on April 11, 2016, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. So what stops them from letting the nostralrius guys handle a vanilla server for them then?
    There should really be some alternative solution to what they are doing now. Because how ever you look at it, the way they handle it now is bad for them, no matter who is right it’s negative PR that keeps painting blizzard as an evil company that acts greedy and never care about their customers. Just like with the flying circus last summer.

    I played WoW from the beginning of it all, so I gave nostralrius a shot to confirm my nostalgia, if it really was just nostalgia or if WoW was “magical” better in the past.

    It was… a huge surprise! It totally made me change my opinion on vanilla servers right around, it still was magical. It was a huge challenging world, and it felt alive. I could actually die while fighting mobs my own level if I was unlucky. WoW just felt good again. It took me two weeks to reach level 30(!) and it was amazing, that alone takes a hour(?) in today’s WoW and leaves a feeling of emptiness.

    I really hoped some higher ups at blizzard tried playing at it so that they could remember what made WoW good so they could make it good again.

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    • Blizzard is evil and greedy for… shutting down pirated content?

      “Hiring” the Nostralrius guys at this point would send the entirely wrong message, especially given the implicit blackmail going on with Nostralrius planning on releasing their (pirated) source code. Even if Blizzard did hire them, that doesn’t really change the fact that payroll increases (they would have to pay them, let’s be real) could have been new designers, artists, or whomever could be used to save X number of subs that actually matter, e.g. paying ones for current WoW.

      I do not doubt your experiences; I’m sure you enjoyed your vanilla experience.

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  2. Hmmm. I think that AMA gives a pretty good lead on why Nostalrius got Blizzard’s attention when other private servers haven’t. That’s a very high-profile, gung-ho attitude for a borderline illegal operation to take and it looks as though they paid for it. If they’d kept their heads down I would guess they’d still be running and Blizzard would still be pretending they didn’t know about it.

    As for the viability of Blizzard doing their own Vanilla server, where does that 44 people to run one figure come from? What if it was a “No Customer Service – play at your own risk” option, which other MMOs have done with special servers in the past? What if they could get it done with ten people? What if they charged a $4.99 sub? What if they charged a $20 sub? What if it was a limited-time offer with a lifetime sub of $199.99 and a guaranteed “lifetime” for the server of no more than two years?

    There are countless ways it could be played but if they don’t try any of them they will never really know how much money they are leaving on the table. It could be peanuts or it could be more than the regular game is making right now. No-one knows. I’m pretty sure you’re right, though, and Blizzard doesn’t actually care. Not because the money might be insignificant or because the idea might turn out to be a failure, but because if such a project was a success it would say things about where the company is now that no-one at Blizzard wants to hear.

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    • I just pulled the 44 employee devs number out of a hat, along with the $60k salary. Random searching states there were 900 people involved as of 2009, not counting billing/Customer Service. The argument likely goes that there wouldn’t need to be very many people maintaining the legacy code… but this is Blizzard.

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  3. The problem with the ”they just need to make WoW great again”-type of argument is that it ignores that by now what constitutes ‘great’ is highly divisive.

    For those who like hyper-levelling and sitiing at level-cap ASAP there are plenty of private servers, too, that provide that experience, just to a greater extend than retail.

    For those however who liked WoW better when it wasn’t so much of a lobby-game and still a MMORPG, there are currently only private servers, and changing the game for everybody – ‘money better spent at the current game’ – towards that would put off those that for some reason actually LIKE what retail offers.

    In other words, you’ll always P.O. some part of your market if you try (as Blizz has done for several years now, to great succes in their sub numbers and what not) to squeeze everybody into the same gameplay.

    Special ruleset Servers prevent/deminish this, as people who don’t like A on one server type can still be serviced (and charged) at the other server type.

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  4. Legal and moral issues aside, it really boils down to supply and demand. Customers want something that isn’t offered legally, so they take matters into their own hands and find a way to make it happen.

    This is similar to the music industry back in the early 2000’s that was petrified of losing control and started suing file sharers left and right. What’s lost in this is that it wasn’t the fear of being sued that caused the panic to subside, it was the music industry finally catching up with technology and offering services that made file sharing less attractive to the average person. $1 per song, removing DRM in most cases, and now services that charge reasonable monthly fees for access to millions of songs means it’s cheap and easy for people to get music legally. File sharing is still definitely a thing, but I don’t think anyone believes it’s going to topple the entire industry like they once feared.

    Blizzard can fight this and hide behind their copyright argument if they choose, but it’s a losing battle. The real question is do they care enough to offer an alternative that makes these private servers irrelevant.

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    • I see the parallel, but it’s a bit different in this case. For example, I don’t think anyone here could argue that Blizzard is actively losing money – the people clamoring for legacy servers are unlikely to be actively subscribed to current WoW. This was not the case from the music industry standpoint, where A = A, and they were merely dragging their feet on the distribution model. At most, we can say that X amount of money is being left on the table, at Y cost and Z development/support time.

      As for it being a losing battle… yes, of course it is. But what are they losing by periodically engaging the lawyers they have on retainer to make the token effort to protect their trademarks/copyrights? Likely nothing. Because WoW is never going to go back to the vanilla days, so all those private server players are always going to be non-customers for current-WoW. Chasing their fickle nostalgia dollars – especially in a sea of free private servers – is a fool’s errand, especially at the opportunity cost of, you know, not releasing current-WoW content for dozens of months.

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  5. This really is just New Blizzard being dumb and leaving money on the table. I mean there is a reason EQ and EQ2 have a bunch of original servers up, and it’s not because the owners of EQ are nice people. The market for old WoW is far larger than old EQ (because old EQ2 was hot garbage, while old WoW was growing by millions), and this idea that you would need a huge additional team is also false. Account support already exists, they already have the hardware (and if you need more hardware, that means you are doing very well anyway), and again EQ has shown that you can charge a ‘premium’ (full) price for the service and people will use it.

    Plus if they did bring it back, you could finally see why WoW was growing prior to WotLK sent the game down the wrong path.

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    • EQ has legacy servers because SOE Daybreak’s (or whoever owns the franchise now) house already burned to the ground, so there’s no reason not to sift through the couch ashes for quarters. When your current franchise is still north of 5 million subs (for now), you focus on that. There will still be time to trot out the zombie legacy servers when the numbers dwindle down to 10x EVE levels.

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      • What does waiting get them? If the cost for legacy is $15 a month, anyone who moves from current WoW to legacy is a wash for Blizzard, while anyone who pays that isn’t currently paying is a gain.

        The point is waiting is leaving money on the table, right now, today.

        Also lol at north of 5m subs. They stopped reporting them for a reason man.

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      • ^ A lot of things that they’ve done over the years – PvP to PvE transfers, server merges, CRZ, cross-realm LFR/LFG/Battlegrounds/Arenas, level boosts – were aimed at merging player population, not splitting it apart further.

        With that in mind, I expect to see Alliance/Horde cross-faction grouping and EU/US/Asia Battle.net merges before autonomous vanilla realms.

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  6. I agree with everything except for the house on fire part. Between Overwatch, Legion and the Hearthstone format revamp, I expect 2016 to be a very good year for Blizzard.

    (And yes, I’m ready to bet on it)

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    • Yeah, I should have clarified that the “house on fire” was specifically in reference to WoW (subscriptions). As a company overall, and especially in an ATVI sense, they are doing swimmingly.

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  7. I guess I get your point about having those people/money focused on new content, but don’t you think that’s starting to be a bit of a strawman argument at this point? Seriously. Blizzard has failed to produce content in a timely manner for over a decade now.

    The only reason Legion will launch in less than two years from Warlords is because Warlords is a half expansion.

    So the old “would you rather have that instead of a raid tier” starts to sound a bit empty. Put a different way, this expansion only had two raid tiers AND they didn’t get a vanilla server.

    That being said, I actually like that they don’t offer vanilla/tbc/wrath servers because it tells me that Blizzard hasn’t gone “full business” yet. There’s no way they couldn’t release a “gift to our players” vanilla server for a year. Cash in on a massive nostalgia payment, and then either shut it down on time (if unsustainable) or continue to cash in with TBC/Wrath/etc realms (with appropriate character transfer/copy fees of course). You could create tie-ins to your current wow account (“earn famous mounts for your battlenet account!”) and cross-promote with hearthstone/etc “see famous heroes, then play them in HotS!”

    So yeah. I’d imagine that they could get a nice little bump on the old bottom line. So the fact that they don’t means it’s a creative decision. So more power to them.

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  8. And yet I still dont get why they’d leave that money on the table – it’s not like there’s a proclaimed business ethos at Blizzard that condemns milking the cow. It’s a product for crying out loud and if your costumers love vanilla so much, let them have it? /shrug
    It’s most likely just losing them potential subscribers, I somehow doubt that same crowd will move on to play Legion.

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