Blizzard is suing Nostalrius, a private server that hosts World of Warcraft (WoW) in its original state without any expansion packs. As one of the most popular private servers of all time, people are outraged, both Nostalrius players and retail (Blizzard’s servers) WoW players.
To understand why people are outraged, one has to understand Vanilla WoW. Writers and players far more skilled than me have struggled over the last decade to explain what made Vanilla so special. There are a variety of objective changes to the game that people can point out to be what changed World of Warcraft for them. For me, and I think a lot of other people, it is a combination.
Released in 2004, there has now been 12 years of evolution in game and MMO-design for WoW to keep up with. While Blizzard led a lot of these shifts themselves, there is still an obvious difference in the way that games and MMOs feel now than they did twelve years ago. It is a change in philosophy and that most difficult part of game design to pin: feel.
Another good word for “feel” in this context is “atmosphere.” Back in Vanilla, World of Warcraft really felt like another world. Players were dropped in a hostile environment filled with mysteries. The game was designed to encourage player interaction and to reinforce the sense of scale. Leveling took far longer in Vanilla (Even I never hit level 60 in Vanilla!) and therefore so did major milestones. Your first rideable mount to improve your travel speed was not unlocked until level 40 and was kind of a big deal to get.
Because mobs hit harder and players had less self-healing for sustain, leveling was also difficult. It was dangerous for many classes to fight more than one enemy at a time. For better or worse, classes were also designed with specific roles in mind. Not the tunnel-visioned “tank, healer, damage dealer” brushstrokes of retail servers. Classes had drastic strengths and weaknesses that also encouraged player interaction and communication. A Mage is frail when enemies inevitably walk up and hit them. But party up with a Warrior to bear the brunt of the damage and you can produce your excellent damage unmolested. Party up with a Rogue and they can keep enemies stunned while the group beats them up. Teamwork made everything easier for everyone.
The world was large and took time to travel across. Flight points for quick travel only connected major settlements to each other and many zones only had one flight point. Quests, especially those in the later levels, forced players to travel across the world. Some larger quest chains made players travel to the other continent just to start the next step. Quests per zone were more sparse, but forced travel made players explore and experience more content.
It should be mentioned that Vanilla servers are not a service that Blizzard currently offers. When you buy World of Warcraft, you buy it in an updated state. There have been ten years of patches and additional content added to the game. These include the following expansion packs:
- The Burning Crusade (2007)
- Wrath of the Lich King (2008)
- Cataclysm (2010)
- Mists of Pandaria (2012)
- Warlords of Draenor (2014)
- Legion (TBA, expected 2016)
Each expansion pack brings with it a variety of new features to the game, including a raised level cap. The cap in Vanilla was 60 and is now 100 with Warlords. Previous content is usually not removed when a new expansion is released. After Wrath of the Lich King released and players adventured through Northrend, players were still able to play with The Burning Crusade’s content, including the world of Outland.
The exception to this rule is Cataclysm. In Cataclysm, the dragon Deathwing rampaged across the world, changing it forever. Entire zones flooded. Volcanoes erupted in once peaceful forests. Entire quests and characters were deleted, replaced with new content in these updated zones. The goal was to update and streamline the leveling experience. The result was a more disconnected world. Quests rarely, if ever, guide you outside of the original zone. You start adventuring in Azshara and you finish every quest there. Then you move on to the next zone.
The changes in Cataclysm “improved” the game. Travel took less time, players reached max-level content faster, questlines made more sense and had more cohesive stories. Enemies were made easier and quests less difficult, but there was now less incentive to party up with other players. Faction and server communities became far less important as now, WoW can be played almost entirely alone. Improving the game weakened the world. When I log into WoW now, I often don’t say a word to anyone. Groups that I join don’t say a word to each other even when I try to start a conversation. They don’t have to. Ain’t that a shame for a game that five million people play?
Outrage about the Nostalrius closure stems from at least one of two reasons. One, because they never got to experience Vanilla in the first place. These players wanted to see what it was like in the halcyon days of 2004, when the Internet was young and so was Azeroth. When everything was dangerous and you had to read quest text and work together, so unlike retail. Or they’re upset because they can’t relive Vanilla and all the adventures they never found.
They say you can’t go home again. That after you leave, nostalgia creeps in and things seem better than they were in the moment. Worse, that you change and those moments no longer mean what they used to. What Nostalrius represented was a way for people like me to relive the past, when we first logged into Azeroth and everything was so new and grand. Back when World of Warcraft seemed like a game that we could play for the rest of our lives and never get bored. Nostalrius let people enchanted by Vanilla return home or make it their own, for the first time, with people who love it just as much as everyone else there.
I’m not going to say that Blizzard should make legacy servers that host past versions of World of Warcraft in their old state. There are countless reasons why Blizzard probably doesn’t want to do that. Where would they stop? The Burning Crusade servers? Wrath of the Lich King servers? Who knows. It’s clear that Vanilla WoW servers are the most popular and the most wanted. It’s a relic of a forgotten time. People just want to remember it and, if possible, relive it. I know I do.
Nostalrius wasn’t the first private server to be shut down. It sure won’t be the last. Refugees will flood other private servers, boost their numbers and make them more susceptible to Blizzard’s protective eye. More will be shut down in the future. Their players are trying to catch a memory, a ghost of a life in another world, a dream.
People always rebuke the Vanilla lovers with “It’s just nostalgia.” But it’s not. Thousands of people were there, in their chair, playing on Nostalrius and it was more fun to them than retail. There were thousands of people just like me, having fun. It’s not about the Vanilla fans. It’s about the game, what it was and what it has become. It’s about what the game means to people.
Sure, maybe we should stop chasing ghosts. It’s a game that inevitably ends in our characters deleted under the weight of legal documents. Players flock to another realm, one gets too large, the cycle repeats. No king rules forever.
Maybe Blizzard will never change their mind and we’ll never get legacy servers. Maybe I’ll never get to be a bright-eyed, eleven year old kid again, logging into Azeroth for the first time after watching my cousin play, making friends across the world, having grand adventures and a whole world to explore.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Maybe I’ll be right here. It’s just like I remember. And it’s so, so fun.