May 26, 2016 will go down in video game history as the date that the MMORPG genre was saved from oblivion. That was the fateful day that former Blizzard World of Warcraft Team Lead Mark Kern met with then President of Blizzard Mike Morhaime to present him with a petition of thousands of signatures clamoring for Blizzard to create an official classic version of the original WoW.
Eventually, Mike Morhaime saw the wisdom of listening to the pleas of legions of disaffected WoW fans and finally relented. Later that year at BlizzCon 2017, a previous skeptical J. Allen Brack announced the good news that Blizzard would be indeed making World of Warcraft: Classic.
For years, many hardcore and veteran WoW players unhappy with the state of WoW were playing on private legacy servers. They did this because the current version of WoW is a mere shadow of the WoW of 2004. After years of bad decision decisions that streamlined gameplay, eroded challenge and minimized social interaction all with the intent of broadening the subscriber base, WoW was simply no longer WoW anymore.
The current woeful state of the MMORPG industry is a lesson in the law of unintended consequences. While many of the design decisions were made with the best of intentions, many if not most harmed the long-term health of the MMO and the player communities built around them. With each successive expansion, most MMOs become burdened with convenience features concocted to appease the marketing suits with the intention of tempting gamers to purchase and keep playing. Sadly, WoW is no exception to this rule.
The phenomenon of legacy servers has unexpectedly revitalized the MMO industry and become more popular than live servers with other venerable MMOs such as EverQuest and Lord of the Rings Online offering legacy servers that players are flocking to. Clearly, players are desperate to find and a worthy fantasy virtual world that challenges and captivates them.
With WoW Classic, Blizzard has a chance to redeem itself and correct the many glaring mistakes of the past. Using the original version of WoW released in 2004-2005, they can follow the timeline of original patches and carefully and nimbly continue forward with future expansions such as The Burning Crusade and The Wrath of the Lich King but avoiding the pitfalls along the way.
Catastrophic design decisions like flying mounts, the dungeon and raid finder, cross-server realms and more can all be avoided if Blizzard has the wisdom to stay the course and continue with the sound MMO design trajectory started in vanilla WoW.
I predict WoW Classic will be a massive and unprecedented success that will cause the video game industry to sit up and take notice. Not only will WoW Classic save WoW, but it will also save Blizzard and save the entire MMORPG genre along with it. With the success of WoW Classic, investors might decide to start bankrolling MMOs again.
A rising tide lifts all ships. I predict that sometime in 2019 Daybreak Games will announce a new EverQuest MMORPG. This is also good news for indie MMORPGs like Ashes of Creation and Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen who plan to release their fantasy virtual worlds in the next few years.
Not only is the existence of WoW Classic a triumph of the game design elements that made this MMORPG genre so unique and alluring, it is a vindication of the persistence of thousands of loyal fans of legacy servers — designers, streamers, bloggers and players — who never stopped caring and believing in the power of virtual worlds all these years.
In a strange twist of fate, the studio responsible for the rise and fall of the MMORPG genre may be the one that saves it.