Vague Patch Notes: Defining classic servers and progression servers for MMOs


Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few days – for no particular reason – is the idea of classic servers for Final Fantasy XIV’s launch version. Not progression servers, though. The former would make sense, but the latter wouldn’t, and it’s worth unpacking what the difference between them actually is in the first place because that is pretty informative in and of itself.

Obviously, the topic of classic servers for the game has come up before, with producer and director Naoki Yoshida laughing and saying the very idea is a nightmare. It’s not something that we’re likely to have happen any time soon, if ever. But I feel this game is a particular case where the distinction between the two is highly instructive, especially since there’s a strong case to be made for one and not the other. And when we understand that, we can refine our own thinking about other games and how they fit into this situation or fail to do so.

Let’s start with definitions because you know I love to do that and a lot of us – myself included – are often keen to muddy the waters by putting all such servers into the same mélange of concepts. Progression servers are servers that are explicitly meant to roll back an MMO’s content to an earlier state, then move through all of the content that has been released to date in an accelerated but staggered fashion. The idea is that you’re going back in time to the earlier versions of the game, possibly with modern understandings of balance, and revisiting the experience steadily.

Classic servers, by contrast, are meant to be a snapshot in amber that calls back to a point before certain major design decisions had been made. The obvious example to use here is Old School RuneScape, a version of the game that may or may not update and add new things, all of which is explicitly placed in contrast to the more modern version of the title. While commonality exists between them on some level, there is a fundamental divergence point, and the developers take pains to avoid blurring the lines whether or not it’s strictly “vanilla” or an alternate ruleset from an earlier fork in history.

It also looks ugly as heck, but that's more of a side effect than anything.

FFXIV definitely merits a classic server insofar as the original version of the game and the modern game have a very clean and obvious break between them. You won’t catch me saying that 1.0 was a good game, but it definitely had unique elements that the modern game does not have, and it had its charms. Moreover, since there are a lot of people who have known the game only post-relaunch, there are people who might be very curious about the game as it existed beforehand.

By contrast, though, a progression server is in large part built upon the idea that content becomes obsolete and you can’t really go back to it. That is… not really the case for FFXIV on a whole. Older content remains lively and accessible through a number of systems, events are often run to make it more accessible, and on top of that there’s the whole New Game Plus functionality so that players can relive stories from the past of the game more organically.

In other words, there’s something to be gained from having access to an older version of the game including otherwise inaccessible content. There’s not much to be gained from having a steady march through existing content that you both have available and can still do on a regular basis. Regardless of whether or not making the former happen would be a logistical nightmare, the latter is just kind of pointless.

One would hope, of course, that every game would put effort into ensuring that older content is still useful and relevant instead of requiring the bespoke recreation of period-specific inconveniences and obligations in order to give players an incentive to go back through things. But not every game is set up like that, and sometimes it takes more effort to go back and remake things to work that way. If you don’t build for that early on, it’s almost inevitable that some things will be less relevant as time passes.

Plus, you know, there’s a certain fun in walking back through memory lane in the first place. If the playerbase is there for it, it’d be absurd to claim that there’s no merit in taking a trip back to a younger time and rolling back the clock to when this stuff was new.

What gets dicey is when the conflation of these two terms doesn’t come from the player side of things but the developer side – because then what you’re being sold is not the same as what’s being promised.


The specifics of a progression server ruleset can vary based on design; you could be playing based on the rules of the most modern version of the game or possibly working from some form of progression in terms of design and availability over time. (A theoretical progression server for City of Heroes might not make a lot of sense without all of the game’s archetypes and power sets, for example.) But the point is that the progression server has rules, and from the start it is meant as a time-limited tour of classic content.

Classic servers, by contrast, have a specific point that they are not moving beyond, and that means that any and all content has to be designed separately. It can be informed by what’s being developed for the non-classic version of the game, but there should be boundary conditions informed by the very premise. As soon as you commit to making classic servers, you are committing to a new ecosystem for the game based on an earlier set of design principles.

For those of you who play a lot of tabletop games are and reminded of Pathfinder here, that’s not by accident. (If you’re reminded of Pathfinder Online, those devs are probably just happy someone still remembers that game.) You have built yourself a cage of nostalgia, and now it’s up to you to dwell within it.

When the lines between the two become smeared, what you wind up with are experiences that can only ever fall short, experiences informed neither by actual history nor by design shifts but by an endless appeal to emotion, to provoke fuzzy memories and try to measure up to what people think things were like in the past. And that’s always a mug’s game because even if past memories live up to the present, they ultimately rely upon capturing something as quixotic as a momentary blend of the past.

If it sounds like I’m being critical of the idea of classic servers here, I’m not. I think that there is a place – and a strong one – for both classic servers and progression servers, for allowing these windows into the past and preservation to capture a sense of how things were at one point. There are a lot of games where I would happily play on one server type or the other, or even both.

But I wouldn’t be terribly happy if something marketed itself as a classic server and then started just rolling along as if it were a progression server. I signed up for one thing and got the other. And if we got some classic FFXIV servers, the whole point would be staying in 1.0, not eventually moving on.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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