Retro Servers and A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Some folks are talking about how MMORPG blogging is dying. While there are indisputably more platforms these days on which to spread your word, and many of the old blogging folks have migrated at least some of their material to those platforms, the problem isn’t that blogging is dying. Blogs, in fact, are as popular as ever. The issue in our little corner of the internet is that MMORPGs are dying.

Or, at least, MMORPGs as they have in the past been considered. The immersive virtual world, instead of being pushed forward, has been pushed to the sidelines by big companies chasing big money. Such worlds aren’t dead, but they’re now doomed to become a niche within the much broader definition of “MMORPGs,” which these days includes anything that is either multiplayer or vaguely an RPG. When League of Legends falls into the same category as EVE Online, I’m afraid that the category has lost any meaningful utility.

In retrospect it almost seems that Blizzard and its cash cow have been followers here rather than leaders. How many companies produced MMOs that superficially copied WoW, but only the elements that they thought were marketable to the masses, while leaving out the virtual world that made WoW so seductive in the first place? Meanwhile Blizzard was doing the same thing to their own game. Of course, EverQuest came first, laying much groundwork for the genre, which turned out to be part of the problem — by producing a game whose defining feature was “like EverQuest, but easier,” Blizzard sold a generation of game developers on the idea that they key to success and popularity was “easier.” Nobody noticed all those other good things that a Blizzard more or less oblivious to the huge pile of money in its future had done before the game launched. The world that you could spend thousands of hours lost in went away and all that was left was “easier,” “better balanced” and “more accessible.”

Maybe that really is the way to success for an MMORPG, but if so nobody’s managed to do it on Blizzard’s coattails. Instead we have a game strangling itself to death slowly and a company seemingly unable to do anything about it, or even to correctly identify the problem. People being simply burned out on a game they’re explored very thoroughly is certainly a factor, but contributing to it is that each expansion has given players less and less world to explore and get lost in. Maybe the amount of physical volume is just as high, maybe there’s even more quests than ever, but all the little avenues of play other than the one that the devs give us have been slowly but surely stripped away or consigned to uselessness. Surely fatigue is important, but it would be less of an issue if WoW hadn’t lost an important element of what made it so popular to begin with.

We, the MMORPG fans who miss that big virtual world, have a couple of options. One is to wait on the chance that one of the next generation of virtual worlds will be what we want. I’ve mentioned my own hopes surrounding Star Citizen and EverQuest Next, and are some other titles as well, like ArcheAge and The Repopulation, that have potential. They’re all (save EQN) from smaller studios, but that’s okay — the market for this type of game needs to contract and developers need to stop chasing WoW money and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in development anyway.

Or we can hope for a throwback server, one that tries to replicate the experience of a younger game. But there are reasons why only one company even tries this, and why its attempts are halfhearted. The big obstacle is that there aren’t just five different versions of (for example) WoW: vanilla, BC, Wrath, Cataclysm and Pandaria. There are in fact hundreds of different versions, one corresponding to each step in the patch/update cycle. and of course you have two pieces of software to be concerned with, the server and the client. Which of the hundreds of versions do you pick? Assuming you even have archived versions of the software from that date? (SOE always maintains that it doesn’t even have that obsolete code, though you’d think that proper design principles would mandate decent version control.) The client today is vastly different from a version of the client from a random date six years ago, so you’d need to either distribute an old client alongside the current one of undertake a major piece of software engineering to make the current client work with both new and old versions of the server-side software.

This last is a dealbreaker, by the way. But let’s assume you even get that far. In that throwback version of the game there are surely cool things that have been lost today, but just as surely there is crufty, broken stuff that you’d want to fix — and it was fixed, one or ten updates down the line. Do you abandon all the good work that went into development of the live game during that time, in an effort to eradicate the bad? Eliminating changes the developers believed in at the time, defended in internal meetings and fought to achieve? Do you fix those things and effectively consign yourself to having a second development team working on a parallel game?

Now, you could theoretically see something like SOE has done in the past, most recently with the Fippy Darkpaw server, which is a fresh server with most of the newer stuff locked down or hidden, but even so there’s a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes, in the basic mechanics or in the functionality of the UI for example, that can’t be easily changed or rolled back, as indeed SOE does not. This is why you’ve never going to see a real WoW or EQ2 throwback server; because to do it right costs too much money and is too much trouble. The fundamental game mechanics have changed too much; it would be impossible to hide the new game under a visage of the old, as was done with EQ.

That leaves the last option, which is to hop to one of a variety of private servers that try to offer a retro experience. There are selections for vanilla WoW, old-school EQ and pre-CE SWG, offhand, among many other private server options, and if one of those is your thing you may find some happy times there. But these private servers can never really fully replicate the experience that we had “back in the day,” lacking the community and the live dev team that gives an MMORPG part of its dynamism. Private servers are also of, at best, questionable legality; the whole private server scene strikes me as a sleazy underworld awash in shady figures and dubious downloads.

Still, some private WoW servers are doing interesting things. Many have additional non-canon features aside from stuff like x100 XP rates, like significant rules changes or even entire custom expansions. Note that I’m reporting this based on stuff like the linked video above; I’ve only ever stuck my head into one private server and an generally very uncomfortable with the idea. Legal or not, though, clearly a lot of attentive work has gone into some of these. It would be nice if something could be worked out with the IP holder to allow legitimately creative modded servers to exist above board.

This is more or less the situation we have today with Minecraft, in fact, although that game’s suitability for both modding and multiplayer is in my judgement subject to debate. In the case of high-profile MMORPG titles like WoW or EQ such a situation would seem pretty unlikely. But Star Citizen promises something effectually very similar, with the ability to create mods and run private servers drawn in from the get-go. This will be a boon for those dissatisfied with some particular version of the game — they can just write a mod to roll the game back to some earlier version, perhaps with other modifications, and run the whole thing on their own private server, without the kind of legal worries that illicit private servers currently have to worry about.

So that’s my proposed solution — I’m pinning my hopes on EverQuest Next and (and maybe a little on Shroud of the Avatar,) with an ear to the ground on a few other projects, but Star Citizen, which hopes to make centralized server control by the publisher an option rather than a mandate, may be the Next Best Hope. I just hope I’ll have a PC able to run it.

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One response to “Retro Servers and A Light at the End of the Tunnel

  1. ” the whole private server scene strikes me as a sleazy underworld awash in shady figures and dubious downloads ”

    I wonder why this is. Or rather, I don’t wonder, I’d probably be able to fashion a very accurate guess. The thing I wonder is why we (the MMORPG community) have allowed ourselves to make private shards so taboo.
    The whole culture of the MMORPG scene was birthed in ‘for enthusiasts, by diehards’. How far from this has the current industry strayed? If anything, the legitimacy of private shards isn’t in question: it’s the legitimacy of the live offerings in the genre.
    From a cash-grab point of view, companies have ceased their support of a given ‘iteration’ of a game. Why should they care that people remain interested in an iteration that isn’t the live one? You cannot change personal taste. If anything, people playing the older game of a chosen title provides press that would suggest the two might coexist, benefiting from each other. Lions and cheetahs do.
    The private shard MMORPG world operates in the shadows, because it is forced to out of the endless legal threats (never more than threats unless you are making it a business), but not because it is sleazy. Far from it. And people who aren’t afraid to endorse positive game design by playing a private shard aren’t sleazy. No, said people have the balls to directly address a topic and vote with their feet. ‘Cowardice’ might be a word used to describe everyone else, however.
    Lastly, dubious downloads? I own my own DVDs- many times over. It shows not only my support for the game I believed in and the studio that made it, but also that there isn’t anything dubious about the whole process.
    The MMORPG industry needs more, not less, of this, if we want live teams to ever understand where the train went off the tracks. (Here’s to hoping EQ:N delivers for everyone.)