With the release of WoW Cataclysm, Azeroth will be re-forged and "classic zones will be forever changed by the cataclysm". At first glance, this seems like a nice way to appease some of those old nostalgic feelings.. you know, starting from the beginning again and levelling through familiar territory. But will that actually be the ultimate effect?

Blizzard's launch of Cataclysm could finally end the Classic/Pre-TBC Realm question, or it could be a strategic move to implement it in future expansion packs.

One of my sources tells me that "Classic WoW Realms" has been discussed internally at higher levels and at great length for quite a while now. It might not mean anything at all, but it also might mean that certain executives have a vision or plan for the game that they're not yet ready to reveal.. and may all depend on what happens with Cataclysm.

It will never happen!

You're probably thinking to yourself, "But Blizzard SAID there will never be classic realms!"

There are even a TON of articles discussing Vanilla WoW realms, and they have all said "Blizzard flatly denies that they will ever create a Pre-TBC server", "Blizzard confirms no vanilla ever", etc.

But that's not exactly true. Here's what Vaneras (the source of all those posts) actually said:

Kalgan pretty much said the same thing. I would have been completely satisifed if they had said, "Blizzard will NEVER launch a classic realm. I promise. This will never happen." But, they didn't.

Instead the official statement was "Sorry, but at this moment in time we have no plans.."

There are 3 things wrong with this statement:
  1. "Not at this moment in time" - Logically, that means that they COULD have plans immediately AFTER the post. This is also classic corporate-speak which I wrote about it in an earlier post.
  2. "We have no plans" - Of course they have plans! They been talking about it, thinking about it, the server teams have been planning the migration in their minds in case it ever does happen. Just because you have a plan or blueprint, doesn't mean you're going to build it. The word "intention" would have explained better.
  3. Sorry to sound harsh, but Vaneras is just a CS Forum Representative on the EU Forums. He has no idea what the direction and vision of the Sr. Management team is.
Blizzard's Intention

Blizzard wants to slim things down (ie, reduce talents, remove character traits, massive stat changes, etc) in order to more easily manage the game. "Dumbing down" the game, as some people have put it, makes it much easier to escape the constant balancing act while also increasing general appeal of the game (people can jump in and play more easily). At least, that's the belief.

It could also be a way of closing the chapter on Classic WoW Realms by telling the players, "We're pushing forwards and innovating. You have to keep up with our changes. We're not looking back and neither are you."

Hmmm.. "major character changes", "moving into a new system", "old world is gone forever tough luck". This sounds just like SWG before they had their own cataclysm.

Blizzard's Possible Strategy?

But here's where all of those changes could be a very smart, long-term, and strategic move.

In Cataclysm, the world and it's citizens will be completely changed, forcing them into new world. Once the old world is gone, the need for nostalgia and familiarity will grow much stronger and with more players.

TBC and WOTLK will be remaining the same, but the Pre-TBC (Classic) world will be completely wiped off the map, so to speak.

That need for old world style gameplay has already happened with the hardcore classic players. But with the new and drastic change upcoming, it will influence additional hardcore and even casual players as well. That's a huge number of players that may lose interest in the game in 1-2 years timeframe, all because a requested feature was never implemented (ie, developers not listening to the customer.)

In order to combat a negative change in customers, the next expansion pack would have to be something very new and extraordinary:
  • Level cap to 100 or higher.
  • 2 or more Hero Classes
  • Brand new skills and spells.
  • New classes, not just 1.
  • New races, not just 1.
  • 2-3 times as many new Raids/Zones, and not reused canvases.
  • And maybe (well timed*) Classic Realms to lure the hardcore and casual players back in?
(* nostalgia reaches drastic levels in 1-2 years & new exp. pack comes out in 1-2 years.)

If Classic Realms don't get implemented, then they have to innovate (gasp) something for the next expansion pack. But this actually makes sense, and they have nothing to lose by doing it.

Note: There are a lot of arguments against classic realms because of the great deal of problems that they used to experience (server stability, latency, no resilience, class balance, long AVs, long raids, hard to get epic items and mounts, world bosses, attunment chains, etc.) But all of that can be fixed and patched properly while still having the same Pre-TBC experience. Do you think Blizzard would really implement realms EXACTLY as they were? (And with which patch? There were TONS of changes in Pre-TBC.) This argument, however, will take too long to discuss and is off-topic, so I'll skip it for now. Let's just say though, that it can be done and done well. There would also be options when selecting a new realm to join - full classic server (2 variations), TBC realm, WOTLK realm, etc. If you don't mind hardwork to grind for gear, go with the full classic. It's not mandatory, just new realms to choose from.

Cataclysm is a test!

Cataclysm is an attempt to rejuvenate WoW and bring in more people. Since their customer base is decreasing, Cataclysm might also be a test to see what people really want. Blizzard (hopefully) will be watching the trends to make their next decision.

If the customer base decreases because they miss the old world, then classic realms is a definite possibility. For example, if interest in Vanilla-WoW Private Servers significantly increases (approx 8 months to 2 years) after Cataclysm, then that's a sign that they've been looking for. If one market can't provide a much needed service or feature, customers will simply goto another market - ie, private servers (currently in the thousands.)

Here's what the trends are showing right now. There's already a massive increase in the need for classic realms, and users are moving away from Official Servers to Private Servers instead (ie, they're choosing someone else over Blizzard who is actually providing the requested feature.)

ScapeGaming (was a commonly utilized WoW Private Server) had over 420,000 users but are currently involved in a legal case with Blizzard.  That's just one private server and it's larger than most 2nd-tier MMO's!

So you can say that there's a definite interest and strong user base playing on WoW private servers.

Or am I just wrong, and Blizzard doesn't consider long-term variables like this?

Cataclysm might just be the final nail in the coffin. If so, it could also be a slap in the face: it's like a constant reminder of times gone by, and how you will always be pushed forwards against your will.

Will Cataclysm actually appease the need for nostalgia, or will it cause even more players to evoke nostalgic feelings who to bring back to the "good ol' days"?

If it doesn't appease their needs and they don't plan on launching Classic realms, Cataclysm will just be another expansion pack (probably the 2nd last for WoW), you'll see a lot of preservation webpages popup (ie, images/videos of the old world), a large increase in private servers, and a significant drop in customers. Can the next expansion pack save them though? If so, it needs to be something big.

Don't underestimate the power of nostalgia

So about this "nostalgia" feeling.. can WoW user really be THAT influenced by it, and can it really cause such a mass exodus of players?

Consider this:
  • It's already happened (albeit in a slightly different form) with the SWG MMORPG.
  • Marketers use nostalgia to influence what you purchase. It's highly effective.
  • WoW developers have already put nostalgic pieces in the game already ("Captain Placeholder" is returning in Cataclysm no less).
  • It's hardwired into all human brains.
  • It's so significant to our behavior that it was once believed to be a cerebral disease.
  • Nostalgia can cause emotional pain or joy, which has a huge impact on our decisions (see conditioned response.)

For the tl;dr readers, here's the condensed version. There are 3 possible outcomes:
  • If Cataclysm appeases the need for nostalgia, it will be a big win for Blizzard and finally closes the chapter on vanilla WoW. (There are trends that will prove this: internal records, WoW forum posts, Google interest searches, and number of Private Servers / User counts.)
  • If Cataclysm evokes increased nostalgia (visible trends again), Blizzard may introduce a "huge feature" in the next expansion pack.. classic realms (and perhaps variants to choose from.) A very smart strategy, and a way to reduce development costs on the next expansion. =]
  • If Cataclysm does increase nostalgia, more users ask for Pre-TBC realms, and trends increase in favor of Vanilla WoW servers (e.g. private servers, posts, requests, etc.) but the feature is never introduced, sales will not be hurt but existing customers will leave. Keep in mind that customer counts and sales have decreased and the existing customers are the ones that they desperately need to hold onto.