I can understand this desire. We form attachments to MMOs based on several factors, not the least of which are when we started playing the game and what we remember most from it. While we generally applaud the change brought about by content updates, bug fixes, expansions, and the like, there's always a part of us that won't let go of the past.
That's where classic servers come into play. Here and there, studios have recognized and responded to this desire for gaming the way it used to be by creating servers that deliberately call back to the past. It might seem to fly in the face of common sense, but I don't think it's that strange when you look at the larger video game community and how strong nostalgia gaming has taken root there as well. So what do classic servers have to offer you and where can you find them?
Despite what you might believe, classic servers have been tried out many times over the years. We've already discussed the odd situation of EverQuest Mac, which for all intents and purposes was a classic EverQuest server, but there's far more to be found than just that.
There's no official classic Ultima Online shard, but those looking to replicate the hardcore experience of "back in the day" always have Siege Perilous to explore. This server ruleset, created in 1999, retains the open-world PvP of the original game, limits players to rolling just one character, and levies travel and economic limitations.
Dark Age of Camelot responded to the negative response from Trials of Atlantis by creating a classic server ruleset in 2005 in which everything was rolled back before the expansion. The classic server was eventually disbanded, with some noise made by Mythic about creating an Origins server that would push the game back to its near-original state. Unfortunately, the Origins project died following Mythic's restructuring and the crash of Warhammer Online.
EverQuest has experimented with nostalgia gaming by introducing progressive servers in 2006 and 2011. While retaining all of the polish and features of the latest version of the game, these servers appealed to the old school crowd by starting everyone with just the core game and then gradually adding in the expansions.
Then there's the odd tale of Asheron's Call 2, which rebooted a long-dormant MMO from where it left off. This is perhaps the only case of a classic MMO server being the only server. Players were able to jump right back to 2005 when the studio brought the game back from the dead.
There are smaller examples of MMOs instituting genuine classic servers, such as Conquer Online and Ragnarok Online, but it's the recent tale of RuneScape Old School that's the real star of this story. This past February, Jagex discovered that it still had the code for the 2007-era version of the game and asked the players whether they'd like to jump on that. The answer was an overwhelming, "heck yes!" and the devs made good on their promise to make it happen. A little over a half-year later, the server was boasting in excess of a million players -- a million players who were subbed up, mind you.
To me, this is a great indicator of how players really would support more classic servers in MMOs, provided that they are done right. Another indicator (and I must tread lightly here) is those who take matters into their own hand by skirting the law to make such a server anyway.
One topic that comes up again and again is the concept of a World of Warcraft vanilla server. This discussion's been done to death, with a lot of vocal support on one hand and Blizzard saying "it's not going to happen" on the other. I'd love to see it happen, personally, as I'd love to see other veteran MMOs take a cue from RuneScape to preserve a living piece of gaming history.
So if it's such a golden idea to pull back in your nostalgic crowd and get a few more bucks (not to mention publicity) from them, why don't more MMOs do this? What are the inherent problems with making a classic server for your game?
First, the code may simply not exist. MMOs are constantly updated, and while backups are definitely a thing, a huge snapshot of the game's code may not be taken regularly or preserved indefinitely. In fact, the reason RuneScape chose 2007 for its old school server was that it represented the oldest copy of the game code the devs could find -- the game prior to that is lost to the ages. It's one thing to take the progression server route and just deny chunks of content to mimic the path that a game took, but finding that code and making it work today is often really tricky if not impossible.
Second, it's not as though a studio has a magic switch somewhere that a dev can toggle on to make a classic server happen. It takes time, effort, expertise, and -- this is kind of important -- money. The studio's going to want some sort of return on its investment for such a project, and there's a pretty convincing case to be made that classic servers aren't going to offer a strong ROI.
Third, players talk big talk when it comes to "oh yeah, I'd totally play on a classic server!" but the reality has proven that our mouths write checks our mouse fingers can't cash. Let's go back to the vanilla WoW concept -- lots of nostalgia there, lots of cries for a classic servers, lots of desire from fans to return to a simpler time. But there's a lot of forgetfulness too about how grindy and slow it used to be, so you're going to lose some returners based on the cold splash of reality. Another concern is the longevity of a classic server. RuneScape aside (and it's too early to tell for that), classic servers don't retain that initial crowd of interested lookieloos past the first month.
I'm not saying that classic servers shouldn't be done. I mean, I'm the archaeologist around here; naturally I want the old to thrive. But it's important to recognize that there are substantial obstacles to studios taking this player pipe dream and making it so. I think it's only fair that we acknowledge that.
I sincerely hope that game studios are taking notice of RuneScape Old School's success and looking hard at their own product in a new light. I think many long-running MMOs could benefit from a shot of publicity and population from such projects, especially ones that have several expansions and have grown to be unwieldy monsters. Sometimes I want to go back to a simpler time when these virtual worlds weren't so large and ungainly. I can't be the only one.
I think that one possible future for classic servers might be on mobile devices. Smaller game worlds, simpler code, and lower hardware requirements seem like a good fit for tablets. I might not choose to play a hypothetical vanilla WoW or vanilla Lord of the Rings Online when I'm at my gaming computer, but I get a small nerdgasm thinking of doing so when I'm curled up with my tablet on a comfy couch.
Classic servers also foster a strong sense of community. I mean, you're among good company when you're gaming with nutballs who would rather go back to 2004 than live in 2013, right? That's got to bond people quickly, not to mention how smaller game populations tend to make identity and reputation more valuable commodities.
Obviously, I think that history is important and not in a dry, fact-reciting sense. Being able to reach out and touch it -- or game it -- makes the past come alive to us. We might not be able to go back again, but we can vacation there and perhaps bring a friend along who wasn't there back in the day. That's worth creating and preserving, don't you think?
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.