There’s been this thing in the news over the past two weeks about a certain (illegal) fan-run vanilla World of Warcraft server and its untimely demise. You may have heard of it. Beyond the topic of emulators, the shutdown of Nostalrius has certainly revitalized the discussion over the place for classic MMO servers, player demand for them, and their profitability.
“We can now say that releasing Old School RuneScape was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Jagex said. “Since Old School RuneScape’s launch in February 2013 we have seen just short of seven million players log in with over two-and-a-half million becoming members.”
You can read the rest of the studio’s argument regarding classic MMO servers after the break.
During the early discussions there were of course many concerns such as: Was it even possible? How long it would take? And, whether there was the potential for cannibalisation of the existing RuneScape player base? We knew our players wanted legacy servers, as with most MMORPG communities they were not shy in telling us what they wanted. Even though we were quite certain about the initial surge of interest these servers would get, we wanted to test this so we asked our players via a poll if they would play. When half a million of our customers said they want to play it… we kind of had to do it.
Another big question mark was whether the legacy servers would have any longevity. To manage this risk a small team of three people was put together to manage the servers and community until the initial interest had died down, at which time resources could be reallocated.
The risk seemed low, allocated resources could all be temporary, and with half a million players saying they would like to try it, the risk of cannibalisation was outweighed by the potential for new customers. At the very least, Old School RuneScape would be a quick nostalgia hit for disenfranchised players.
With legacy servers comes legacy technical debt
Once Old School RuneScape had launched it quickly became apparent that the community wanted game updates. However, initially we were very limited in what we could deliver. Since RuneScape as a game had progressed during the intervening years, so had all the tools we used to develop it. We were in the unenviable position of having to recreate all the tools we used to develop the game back in 2007 so we could update it. At no point had anyone thought, “We ought to keep all these old versions of the development tools just in case.” I mean why would they?
The lack of development tools was not our only technical debt, we had to rework anti-cheating software, optimise areas of the code, and fix some pretty major bugs for a second time.
Something which should not really surprise anyone is that there was a rivalry between the communities of the Old School RuneScape and RuneScape. Over time this rivalry increased with the Old School community taking the stance of being purist, and the RuneScape community positioning themselves as progressive.
Although the Old School community saw themselves as purists they still wanted change, so to ensure the rate of change was acceptable to those players we allowed them to vote on every update that happens to the game. If 75% of those voting did not agree, the update didn’t happen. This gave a very strong sense of ownership of the game to the community; they were in control.
What was a surprise was that the tribalism shown by the community started to manifest itself among the development teams. As the small team was left to get on with things they developed their own ways of making things happen without relying on other teams. Although this self-sufficiency might be much sought over by many people, it has a hampering effect when it has to fit into companywide objectives and strategic planning across products.
It came to a point where the Old School RuneScape team needed more integration into the wider RuneScape studio. This was achieved by creating stronger relationships between staff and line managers that traversed different teams, as well as including the Old School team in more of the studio level decisions.
After about six months we started to see player numbers settle and we could see that very few players migrated between Old School RuneScape and RuneScape. What we were not seeing was one game cannibalising the other, so we wanted to understand why a player would play one game and not the other.
Through a series of surveys and data gathering from the game servers we saw there were some distinct reasons why people played Old School RuneScape. The three key reasons were the old combat system (which was changed in the main game in 2012) the grinding of levels, and the straightforward membership monetisation model. This made it very easy to position Old School RuneScape as complementarily to RuneScape and give us a very clear direction of where the game could go. More importantly, it identified areas we could branch into much more effectively than we could have done with RuneScape on its own.
For example, the old combat system leant itself well to PvP combat, which in turn allowed us to take our first steps into the eSports market last month with considerable success.
When legacy becomes THE legacy
Although the initial impact of legacy servers on RuneScape was expected to be short and sweet, it has grown into a major part of Jagex’s business. The Old School team is now five times the size it was when it started and has more members than the launch period, showing it can reach out to a wider market than the initial audience.
The modernisation of RuneScape meant tensions increased between the traditionalist and progressive RuneScape player base. However, Old School RuneScape gave the traditionalists a safe home and allowed for the continued modernisation of RuneScape without alienating a key part of our player base.
There have been challenges in overcoming the technical debt that suddenly appeared, as well as, ensuring that the product sits well within a wider business. However, it offered something our existing games did not offer and has allowed us to start expanding the RuneScape franchise into new areas such as eSports and streaming.
By keeping the risk of legacy servers low and being focused on how they can grow the franchise, this adventure has just started.