WoW Factor: Forecasting the future of WoW Classic

    
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AHHHH

It’s probably chiefly due to my professional life that I find myself kind of looking forward to the launch of World of Warcraft: Classic next week, simply because that’s at last the point when we can start replacing all of the wild predictions about what could happen next with an actual tangible reality. Don’t get me wrong: Obviously I love speculating as much as the next person, but especially with WoW Classic it feels a bit like predicting what the natural history museum will determine was significant in a thousand years, at once forward-looking and backward-looking without a whole lot of actual substance to hang any of that upon.

But amidst all of the speculation train fun, I haven’t actually done any looking forward to the future now that the live interactive history tour is actually going to be playable. I’ve speculated about what might happen with the version in the future, and I’ve talked about how it interfaces with our memories of the past, but I haven’t actually guessed about its success, failure, or what’s going to happen with this project. So let’s do that! I might be totally wrong, but then we can all point and laugh at that, and it can’t be said I’m not putting my money where my mouth is.

bork

Let’s start with what I’d like to consider a pretty basic caveat: Absolutely no one has any real idea how well this is going to do.

All of the actual information we have to draw upon in terms of this project’s success or failure is based entirely around pre-release preparation, and that’s about as effective at predicting performance as a town’s hurricane preparedness is at predicting the strength of the storm. No, adding new servers and queues when this is the title’s only real release in nearly two months isn’t really indicative of anything beyond preparations for the actual launch. Just think about how many totally new titles rolled out extra servers ahead of time and then merged them right back down after launch.

This sword cuts both ways. Blizzard not having expected the volume of response does not speak to its plans or predictions, and the fact that this stuff doesn’t predict success also doesn’t mean it predicts failure. You cannot actually know how Classic is going to do over the next year without taking a look at data, thinking a bunch, analyzing trends, and then… making a big guess that’ll either be right or wrong in a year’s time.

As the internet remains… well, itself, the discussion about this particular project has become irritatingly binary. Either WoW Classic will bring food and water and smite our enemies, or it’s a horrible idea and it’s going to be shut down in the evening on Tuesday and everyone’s going to realize it was so terrible. Neither of these extremes bears much, if any, resemblance to a plausible reality.

So with all that preamble out of the way, what awaits for the game? Will it be a success? And the answer to that question means that first we have to answer a different question: What, exactly, does success look like?

That’s a serious question. At this point in my life I really no longer have the slightest idea what it looks like to be successful. But it’s also sort of relevant because Blizzard has helpfully obscured success on this particular project thoroughly.

Welcome to the death of reason.

The fact that the subscriptions for both Classic and the retail game are rolled into the same fee is, on one level, a good business move to encourage people to try out either. But it’s also a good business move because while Blizzard will no doubt be tracking account information, the company isn’t under any obligation to disclose it. If Classic doubles the game’s subscription numbers, it can be just counted as a win for retail with no further thought given to which version of the game actually attracted that audience.

Similarly, if it results in a subscriber bump that quickly evaporates, it doesn’t actually have to be made terribly visible from the development end. It’s kind of a brilliant trick from that perspective, since it just looks like “we made more money” no matter what effect it actually has over the long term. And since no concrete plans for the future have been formally announced, there’s not even any need to cancel things if subscribers dry up.

Let’s start with the basics. Yes, on launch day, servers are going to have some queues, especially the PvP realms that people are very eager to jump in on right now for a variety of reasons. The PvE realms (and especially the RP realms) are probably going to have lighter queues, if any; the turnout’s not going to match the days of the game’s initial launch regardless, but you’re going to notice it. And these are probably going to be consistently present for the first month or so of the Classic launch.

This is probably not going to last. The hype is going to die down, as it always does, and the PvP servers are going to run into issues with any sort of lopsided faction balance, as whichever ones wind up with any sort of imbalance will see that issue become more pronounced, and then there’s going to be a general exodus of players away from PvP servers simply because that’s kind of the way it always goes.

Note I didn’t say there’s going to be a mass exodus from the game itself. There’s not going to be one wave or one moment when a whole lot of people leave; it’s going to be a steady and slow trickle of people who get frustrated with queues or inconveniences they don’t remember or ones they do remember but didn’t think would really be that big a deal until actually playing the game. People will trickle out. That’s just how MMOs work – even WoW.

The three-month mark is when that’s going to start being more pronounced. By that point, most of the people who have any interest in reaching the level cap will have done so, and it’s also when a critical mass of players are going to all generally be faced with the endgame. Again, it’s going to mean a lot of players who thought they were totally on board with this are instead getting worn down and tapping out.

Superhero landing!

You’ll note that I haven’t said much about people trickling in to Classic, and that’s not by accident. I don’t think there’s going to be a real influx of people past the initial launch. Lapsed subscribers? Yes, definitely. Current subscribers who never played vanilla? Certainly. Current subscribers just checking it out while it’s the thing dominating the cultural zeitgeist? Without a doubt. But people who hadn’t played the game before and don’t play it now are largely unlikely to come flocking in. Vanilla’s cultural footprint is limited chiefly to the people already in the group, so to speak.

By this point, we’ll probably know about the next expansion to the modern version of the game and what (if any) lessons are being taken from Classic. And we’ll also probably be seeing cries for some of the servers to be merged, we’ll know whether an actual RP community has taken root (I have my doubts, but I’ll never say never), and I suspect we’ll have a general community in the version of the game that’s not precisely welcoming to newcomers. (This isn’t to say that the community on Classic will be actively hostile to new players, just that it’s not welcoming – New England-style disinterest, not New York-style exclusion. The sort of self-selected in group that doesn’t really grow much beyond old faces returning.)

In a year’s time? Well, it’s still going to be there. I don’t think the community will have grown all that much. I suspect there will be vague rumbles about the possibilities of servers for The Burning Crusade that get shouted down by the community that does stay. My forecast is that it’ll be, ultimately, kind of a weird museum piece frozen in amber, without a whole lot of forward motion, and definitely without the marvelous possibility of an entirely alternate development path. A curiosity, a point of interest, but nothing to break down the doors.

Could I be wrong? Certainly; I’ve even talked about what I’d love to see done with the potential moving forward. But again, we’re making guesses at this point. We’ll find out if I’m right in a while.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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NecrococoPlays

I imagine the population will be similar to that of Nostalrius in the long-term, with the addition of those who would enjoy the Classic servers but either didn’t know about the private servers or didn’t want to invest into a server that could be shut down at any time.

kjempff
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kjempff

However many servers they have now, it will not be enough. Considering that 10k players is the hard limit per server. Or said in another way, the number of players will be limited by the numberof servers; and the rest, less tenacious about logging in and waiting in queues will drop out of classic and play something else because it was not worth their time.
Judging from the numbers eq progression servers has been able to show on launch day (10k+ concurrent logins), and the size of WoWs playerbase compared, that would be in the 200k+ area, which translates to 20+ servers.

Obviously after the initial rush, a few months later thatnumber will be much much lower, maybe 20k concurrent … And then we will have the opposite problem, too many servers for the amount of players.
Now excuse me, I have to go turn offmy time machine as it consume too much power in standby mode.

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Jiminy Smegit

If you watched/listened to the latest Classicast episode, they had a couple of the classic devs on there who said now the groundwork has been done, TBC would be easy. There will be enough demand for that for them to do it for sure. They will likely keep the vanilla servers as they are and do character transfers to a new set of TBC servers. At least, that is my prediction.

There is going to be a huge dropoff in players for sure after a few months but Blizz will make a huge pile of cash and those of us who crave a more sociable MMO experience will get our fill for as long as we want to.

Kind of getting tired of the salty tears of diehard BFA players. Classic is going to be a success, no matter how much you want the playerbase to stay with you to save the turtles, collect meaningless pets, roll those RNG Azerite dice and grind repetitive world quests.

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DargorV .

“Its dead Jim”

After however long it takes the tryhards to “earn” their bragging rights about how hardcore they are for playing classic and how much better they are than the people playing retail.

I’d say a big drop after 3 months and a ghost town after 6. By then the kids will have gotten it out of their system and we’ll get to move on.

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Skoryy

Three to four months is a good estimate to wait and see how things pan out, given that Homecoming has had its peak player counts drop from the 9000s to the low 5000s in that same period of time. I suspect Classic will have the same activity curve.

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Eric Perbos-Brinck

Seriously ?

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IronSalamander8 .

I predict a lot of people will leave in the first couple of months and that it will peter out to a small dedicated core of players over time till just a core group remains, but that core group will play for a long time.

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NecrococoPlays

Well, yeah. A lot of people are signing up just to see the game and be a part of the hype. I have a sub at the moment, and plan on logging in and checking it out, but I highly doubt I’ll want to deal with old school leveling. I can barely stand it on the current servers. So there will likely be a huge decline after launch that follows every new/trending launch of players like myself just sussing it out with no intention to commit.

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Castagere Shaikura

I can’t wait to see how this pans out in 4 months after launch. I bet half the players will go back to new Wow over classic. This is truly a get the popcorn ready kind of thing.

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Carebear

4 months are much better than 1 month, which is how long blizzard expansions last since WOD…

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NecrococoPlays

The private servers hosting their own versions of classic had sustained a pretty consistent level of active players, so I don’t expect it to become a ghost town – it will be a niche population, though.

The only reason for popcorn would be for those who don’t have realistic expectations or a firm grasp on the context.

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Danny Smith

Insane numbers and constant server congestion and crashes for the first 6 weeks. Then busy but stable for about 3 months then a straight 45 degree on the graph decline as people get their fix and realise its not for them, get banned, go back to private servers for free or any number of reasons and leaves a small but die hard userbase that stick with it. Probably like 10k rppvp, 60k pvp and 100k+ for pve.

Though when the content runs out of steam for those people its going to be interesting to see what happens. Pvp for example might take more dominance as you really can’t run out of unique world pvp memories but a raid boss only has so many permutations to get it right and on farm. Maybe that leaning swings away from a pve majority?

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Malcolm Swoboda

My prediction is that it’ll be plenty successful this year, and probably successful enough next year to announce further plans, whether it be new server progression, servers that will go off the vanilla trail, or Burning Crusade. After that, unless the second possibility happens, Classic will subside, but mostly not merge servers nearly as fast as some think (given that population is much higher than what was allowed in 2004 tech). Being popular for months is a given, being popular for years is the question, but I think it’ll have at least a good couple years before new hotness – whether that’s 9.0 or a return of 2.0 – takes over so much attention. This is fine. So I guess I’m a little more optimistic than you, but not as optimistic as the biggest fanatics.

I think part of doing this whole project is to protect the massive game as a service, not just to make money directly from Classic subs.