How Successful Will Classic Be?

As of today, WoW Classic is only a month away! I'm still excited, but I've been quiet on here because I honestly haven't had much to say. The open beta continued and there were several stress tests, but I didn't participate in either of those things. Commenting on what other people have been doing and saying only gets you so far when talking about games.

However, with launch being this close now, I thought it would be fun to "warm up" the blog again by writing one post a week speculating about different aspects of Classic. Not because I particularly expect to actually be predicting the future, but because I think it will be fun to look back on my own expectations later on and to compare them to how things actually played out.

First off, I wanted to tackle the question of how successful Classic is going to be. One of the biggest problems we run into right away when asking this question is that we still don't really know what made the original World of Warcraft so successful in the first place. Sure, it was a good game, but it would be highly dubious to claim that the degree to which it was better than its competition was directly proportional to the size of its success.

I think one aspect that undoubtedly played a large role is that - for whatever reason - the game managed to acquire a huge "newbie hose" as Eric Heimburg used to call it. We know that even pre-Cata, the majority of players who tried the game didn't stick with it for long. For it to have seen as meteoric a rise in players numbers as it did despite of that, the number of new players signing up on a daily basis must have been insane during those first few years.

One way or another, WoW achieved virality. Looking back at an old personal diary of mine, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that about two weeks before I started playing myself, I noted that a lot of my online friends had been talking about this thing called World of Warcraft lately, and the time stamp on that entry is the 6th of October 2006, two days after the release of the infamous South Park episode...

Anyway, lightning is unlikely to strike twice, but even if we were to assume that the game is bound to have much more limited appeal in this day and age (which I don't think is actually a given) and that most of the target audience are lapsed former players, that still leaves us with a potential audience of several tens of millions of players. How likely are they to show up again and stay?

Despite of their unique status, I actually think that private servers are the closest thing we have to a working prediction model. They've basically followed one of two paths:

First there's Nostalrius, which launched with a decent amount of fanfare for a private server and then continued to grow and grow, until Blizzard sent that fateful cease-and-desist letter.

All other private servers pretty much fall into the other group, whose fate has tended to play out like this: the server launches to a small to medium amount of fanfare (again, for a private server), maintains a healthy population for a while and then slowly slides into obscurity/inactivity as players drop off and aren't replaced by new ones.

I cannot for the life of me imagine WoW Classic sharing the fate of those latter servers, because from what I can tell the two main reasons they decline are 1) increased risk of some sort of drama or technical issue over time and 2) lack of marketing: It's one thing to produce a shiny launch trailer to attract a decent-sized crowd for launch day and quite another to continue to maintain a healthy influx of new players for years.

I'm certain that Classic is going to be safe on the stability side, as I have no doubt that Blizzard will stick to their word of maintaining it even if it doesn't turn out to be super popular in the long run, and while there has been a curious lack of marketing for Classic, the simple fact that it's going to be on the Blizzard launcher should guarantee a continuous influx of new players of at least moderate levels for a long time.

The question is: Will Classic be able to do a Nostalrius? It seems hard to come up with reasons why it shouldn't. It's certainly going to be the most faithful and stable recreation of Vanilla WoW available on the market, and easily accessible through the Blizzard launcher at that, without requiring any illegal download shenanigans.

The same people who were invading the YouTube comments of every WoW video throughout 2015 and '16 to tell everyone that they should ditch modern WoW and come play on Nost instead can go campaign for their friends to join them in Classic now. Hell, I've already done it by bugging my own friends from back in the day! One shouldn't underestimate the influence of passionately positive word of mouth, especially when professional marketing has been so curiously absent.

While gaming news have dutifully reported on every stage of the Classic development process, I have no doubt that a huge chunk of the aforementioned potential audience still doesn't even know that Classic is about to become a thing. Once it launches and their old friends urge them to come back, there's no telling how far that could go.

Oddly, I think that the biggest risk to things working out as I described is probably modern WoW. The barrier to entry for playing on Nostalrius was such that only people who were quite passionate about trying it even got a foot in the door... and if you went through all the effort of downloading an illegal copy of the client just to find out that you didn't actually like it, you probably weren't going to shout it from the rooftops.

Meanwhile Classic will share its subscriber base with current WoW players, which means that at its launch a sizeable number of those trying out Classic will come from the current game with its decidedly different sensibilities, and I strongly suspect that they won't be quiet about it if they don't like it. So any positive buzz will likely have to compete with comments along the lines of: "WTF Blizz, why did you waste money on making this instead of adding another raid tier?" instead of simply projecting a unified image of how great the game is.

Anyway, after all that waffling, what do I actually think will happen? I think that launch will attract a very large number of both current and lapsed players, and overall reception of the game will be mixed. I expect that those who don't like it will drop out quickly, causing the initial numbers to plummet again, but then, as the community of actually interested players starts to solidify, word of mouth will become more positive and Classic will actually start to see growth again as more and more former players become aware of it and get sucked in again. That's my theory at least.