Personally I'm of the opinion that no, we won't see Blizzard-run Classic WoW servers anytime soon. Mostly because of code, logistics and possibly not enough profit to make the investment risk worthwhile.
"...you get the old hardware, the old code, because the old code is meant to run on the old hardware, the old data, the old bugs, all that kind of stuff. Of course the natural expectation is that well you would fix all that stuff." -- Tom ChiltonThe biggest barrier for Blizzard's entry is probably just getting old code up and running. As Tom Chilton's quote above indicates, assuming they could get the old code out of their backups--depending on how their code repository stores 10 - 14 year old data, which is a huge potential issue by itself, especially around art assets--they also need to rebuild the old hardware for the server code. There'll be code that relies on timing or performance characteristics of CPUs, RAM, internal networking, etc.
And if they couldn't get the old hardware again, they'd have to fix any number of potential bugs that would be caused by moving to a new hardware profile. Trying to figure out if that timing issue is a bug that existed in Vanilla, or due to hardware modifications.
That also doesn't take into account that their server OS--likely a Linux or UNIX variant--has had 10+ years of security, performance, and API tweaks. They certainly don't want to use a 10 year old OS for security issues, but the code may not even compile correctly anymore because OS modules have evolved over the years. Heck, for both client and server, they may need to be adjusted for newer compilers in general. Not to mention that Blizzard's current build pipe has evolved such that it would take more work to adjust Vanilla WoW development to fit the build pipe.
Speaking of security, WoW servers would have had a number of bug fixes over the years for security and anti-cheating technology that would be wholly missing from Vanilla WoW. Blizzard certainly wouldn't want to ship security holes even if they decided the anti-cheating tech wasn't worth the effort, just because it could potentially leave the rest of their network compromised. Those bug fixes would have to be identified and ported back.
Also, Blizzard's Authentication servers have evolved over the years, including support for 2-Factor Auth and likely protocol changes to the auth service itself for security reasons. Those would have to be back-ported into Vanilla WoW.
Then there's also the client itself, which would possibly need tweaks to handle newer graphics cards. Theoretically DX11 and DX12 are both backwards compatible with DX9, but that's not to say there aren't graphics card specific issues. Even on Eon Altar for Unity we've hit the occasional graphics card that just barfs on things and needs a specific solution. The cost here is almost entirely on the test team rather than the engineering team, but it's still not cheap.
There's no Battle.NET integration in Vanilla WoW on the client or the server, so that's another feature they'd have to port, and that one's a doozy. Part of it likely would come with the auth server changes (since they hook up with BNet), but current friend lists across games would need to be re-implemented.
It also ignores any further bug fixes to the game. These might include networking optimizations to make the game more responsive/efficient, content issues, systems bugs, and so on. While folks might be okay with Blizzard shipping a buggy game as is for nostalgia value, Blizzard's quality bar internally is probably set higher than that.
None of the above is impossible. Just an immense amount of work, and not all of it easily identified, especially in the cases of security and hardware bugs.
"But kind of maintaining that many different versions of the game is just not really feasible. Particularly in a world where people that are playing right now really want more content, not less." -- Tom ChiltonLet's say we've identified all the potential code issues and now it's a matter of assigning people to perform the work. If we pretend that five programmers are sufficient--say, 1 senior lead, and a junior plus mid-level programmer pair for both client and server--for a year, you're talking about $600,000 to $750,000 for salary, benefits, HR, legal, equipment, and so on.
That also doesn’t include testers, build teams, deployment teams, server hardware, server ops people, data center hosting costs, marketing, and more I'm likely missing. Testing alone would be a massive endeavor, and a lot of the testing would have to be extremely technical in nature given the hardware and security issues we've potentially identified.
All of those people could be working on the next Hearthstone or Overwatch instead, so there's an opportunity cost here that's harder to quantify. Or, even working on more current WoW content as Tom Chilton mentions above. Splitting their development team when they can barely put out content fast enough as is doesn't seem wise.
I'll ballpark a figure of $2M over the course of a year for this project, though I may be undervaluing it significantly. I don't have good figures on how much marketing, testing, or data center hosting costs. Suffice to say, MMOs are expensive, even if you're starting with an existing code base.
Profit vs. Risk
If $2M is the price to beat, then Blizzard would have to sell ~133k subscription months to break even at $15/month, and that's if we ignore taxes. If I ballpark a ~16% corporate tax rate from these investor values, they're actually looking closer to ~155k subscription months to break even on the initial layout. That doesn't take into account operating costs for support, test, devops, community managers, game masters, data center hosting costs after the initial deployment, further marketing, and so on.
Nostralius was free, but they claimed to have 800,000 registered users and 150k active users on their server. Alyson Reeves used micro-transactions to net a cool $3M from her private server before she got shut down hard. So there is clearly money to be made, but the question is, is it enough?
If we assume a 100% retention rate for Nostralius customers transferring to Blizzard--which is ridiculous at face value--then Blizzard could likely break even, and make a little profit potentially.
It's not really an apples-to-apples comparison, mind, because Nostralius was in a gray area at best, and a Blizzard run server could garner customers uncomfortable with gray or black market activities, similar to how Blizzard did the same with gold buyers and the WoW Token. But it's also not a fair comparison because it's highly doubtful all of those people would pay $15 a month to play Vanilla WoW again. Similar to how RIAA claiming that 100% of pirated music count as lost sales is spurious--many of those people wouldn't have paid for the music regardless.
As an extremely rough guess, if we assume that a Vanilla server probably would mostly get 1 month tourists who wanted to just get that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling, then if we pretend that 650k of those Nostralius users were 1 monthers and the 150k active users were 6 monthers, that turns out to be about 1,550k subscriber months. Or 1,302k after 16% tax, or 1,169k after the initial layout is subtracted. $17.5M is nothing to sneeze at if subscriber months netted $15 each (without taking into account operating costs).
But it's also a dead-end. They can't monetize Vanilla WoW the same way they can monetize Hearthstone, Heroes, or WoW. They can't release new content for it the same way WoW expansions work today, short of repeating the process for TBC, Wrath, etc. Also, no WoW Tokens, no cash shop, and do we really think Vanilla subs will actually pay $15 a month for an old product?
So yeah, they could grab a decent chunk of change for a one-time fee, but it's not a slam dunk and it's not actually that much as far as a Blizzard investment is concerned. It'd also be interesting to see if they could actually get enough employees interested in such an endeavor that they'd choose it over a newer project with more opportunities, and as mentioned in the previous section, the opportunity cost and potential of taking these employees who could be building new stuff could be lost profit as well.
Signs Point To No
There's a lot of things to keep in mind, and I'm sure there's a lot things I missed.
Assuming Blizzard could actually get the correct code, get the hardware, and get everything set up for the modern Internet and modern systems, they could probably make a neat profit. But because there's little to no room for growth after that layout, I don't see them making a huge investment here. It just doesn't seem worth it in the grand scheme of things.
At the end of the day, Blizzard--and all video game companies--are still a business.
#Blizzard, #WoW, #GameDevelopment