Last week attorneys representing Blizzard Entertainment sent a cease-and-desist letter to the administrators of Nostalrius Begins, a private "legacy" server that had been running a version of World of Warcraft as it existed between 2004 and 2005 since February 28 of 2015. As of last night a Change.org petition to Blizzard CEO and co-founder Michael Morhaime had garnered more than 55,000 signatures in protest, but the plea for survival went unanswered, and the server shuts down forever effective today.
But there's cause to mourn Nostalrius' demise and reason to frown on Blizzard's actions. Owing to the ever-evolving nature and heavy populations of massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, Blizzard's decision effectively amounts to bulldozing a living history museum. Nostalrius' admins were trying to make WoW's storied legacy live on in something besides low resolution videos and stories from old timers like me in trade chat.
It was, effectively, a different game in 2004, and playing Nostalrius was thus a bit like going back in time. There was much less of an emphasis on the "world's greatest hero" approach that today's World of Warcraft champions; instead, common enemies like murlocs could easily kill you if you just rushed in, and thus you were compelled to look for friends to play with to tackle them safely. Some of the greatest friendships in my life began from such chance encounters. It also helped that servers were contained entities where players made reputations for themselves, and thus you could find yourself without anyone to group with if everyone else learned you were an asshole.
"We definitively lose at the same time the possibility to play the game we initially purchased."
In many ways the world itself was literally different, as Blizzard reshaped the geography of zones and quest progression of the core continents for 2010's Cataclysm expansion. It made for a good story and it fixed the problems of struggling to find groups when the majority of the population had moved on to the expansions, but a lot of what had made World of Warcraft so wonderful got lost in the process.
"We believe that [World of Warcraft] was played completely different back then," Nostalrius' lead designer "Daemon" told me over email. "We feel like it was more about a community and building relationships or even sometimes rivalries with other players we met on our adventures. Today, after five expansions, the game has drastically changed, and a lot of players long for the game in its original form."
The original form, Daemon reminds me, was a "cultural phenomenon" that gave us household names like Leeroy Jenkins and led to a popular episode on South Park. He and his team, which grew to encompass 30 volunteers from around the world, took up the banner of preserving and recreating it because "Blizzard has not acknowledged that they have any desire to do this."
As Daemon points out, the problems of preserving an massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) are essentially unique in gaming.
"Today, a lot of the games we enjoy can only be played online, and get regular patches to release new content, improve the gameplay, and remove bugs," he said. "However, we definitively lose at the same time the possibility to play the game we initially purchased." But it's certainly easier to capture those experience with other games. At any point I could dig out the Nintendo Entertainment System my parents bought me in 1986 and experience Super Mario Bros. much as I did when I was in elementary school. The screen may be wider, but essentially little has changed. Elsewhere, I can download a 1993 game like Doom through Steam and still walk away with a full understanding of why I loved it so much 23 years ago. Even when problems arise, the biggest hurdle is finding someone who's willing to translate the code for modern systems. But MMORPGs are different. To get the full effect of what made World of Warcraft so magical 11 years ago, you need not only load up the original version of the game, but you also need to populate its server with thousands of people. To preserve it, it effectively needs to be reborn. You need to recreate its economies, right down to people hawking goods in trade chat and listing supplies on the auction house. You need to recreate guilds spending days running the same dungeons and quests over and over for faction reputation, and you need to recreate the frantic races to be the first to tag a world boss. Any less, and it's not really WoW.
I said back in November that there will never be another MMORPG quite like World of Warcraft in its original form, and that remains true, in part because a modern emulation can never capture our awe at the wonders of the relatively newborn Internet. But Nostalrius came damn close. By the time the lawyers sent their letter, it had amassed around 800,000 registered accounts and regularly boasted 10,000 concurrent players. Fifty volunteers served as game masters, who helped remedy in-game problems and kept out pests like gold sellers. Its showrunners largely stuck to the same patch schedule as Blizzard's, and they implemented few structural changes.
"It was strictly the way vanilla World of Warcraft was played back then, but with a few minor adjustments because of our population," Daemon says. "We believe that we had five or six times more online players than a single official realm back then."
Many of the first players, he tells me, were people who'd played the original version of World of Warcraft and wanted to share in that experience again. Over time, though, players who'd never played in those days also started to show up, and thus the fruits of the team's drive for preservation began to reveal themselves. Many of these new players stayed, finding a sense of camaraderie that no longer comes as easily in Blizzard's current incarnation of the game. Nowadays, the single-player focus is overemphasized and grouping in the open world is almost unheard of. There's still a healthy emphasis on grouping in World of Warcraft, but the potential for sudden friendships gets lost in the convenience but comparative anonymity of the group finder that pulls players from different servers for the length of the dungeon, after which they usually never see each other again. When people speak to each other in such "social" situations, they often brusquely refer to players by their class, not their name.
"They are losing a place where they have made friends from around the world."
"Hey, mage," just doesn't forge friendships like "Hey, Esotericus." But who cares, right? You'll never see these folks again anyway. Players on Nostalrius were trying to get away from that sort of thing, if only for a bit in between content patches. And for new World of Warcraft players, Nostalrius gave them a glimpse of what all the fuss had been about years ago.
"We feel that one of the biggest differences between the current retail version of World of Warcraft and the original game is the sense of community," Daemon says. "If you read through the comments our players have made since the announcement of our shutdown, the majority of them are sad because they are losing a place where they have made friends from around the world." Nostalrius, in Daemon's view, was never a challenge to Blizzard; it was meant as a tribute, an "overlapping" game that exists alongside Blizzard's beast. He notes, importantly, that they "never received any kind of profit from Nostalrius." They rejected donations when offered. Furthermore, they made no effort to hide who they were, as the server was hosted by OVH, a well-known company in France. When the legal order came in, they took action to comply immediately. If anyone was running this kind of show correctly, it was Nostalrius.
Daemon doesn't say as much, but Nostalrius technically wasn't even conflicting with World of Warcraft's current content for most of its existence, as Blizzard hasn't released a single significant content patch for WoW proper since June of last year. If anything, Nostalrius was giving players who love its game a reason to keep coming back to World of Warcraft when the main game was not. And now Nostalrius is gone. Even so, another could easily take its place, as the team rather defiantly said in their petition they'll "still be publicly providing everything needed in order to setup your own 'Nostalrius' if you are willing to," right down to the source code and the method of encrypting personal account data.
I reached out to Blizzard on three occasions to try to get their statement about the story, but never received a reply. Daemon hasn't received one, either, but that isn't stopping him from being optimistic.
"We believe there are ways for the community and Blizzard to converge toward a solution that would benefit everyone," he says, "and we would be more than glad to share our thoughts as well or even a post-mortem of our project with them."
If Daemon ever gets to chat with Morhaime and co., he'd be wise to point out that there's a precedent. When a nonprofit, fan-made legacy server called Project 1999 sought to recreate the original experience of the MMORPG EverQuest, Daybreak Game Company gave them their blessing. As for Blizzard itself, it's recently shown that it's willing to support games far older than classic World of Warcraft years after their original release, and Nostalrius' success seems to fly in the face of World of Warcraft community manager Josh Allen's stated belief that legacy servers would "be something almost everyone just pokes at for a week or two and then drops."
World of Warcraft is one of the greatest games of all time. It maintains that distinction in part because Blizzard has skillfully adjusted to the needs of a new era, one in which many players don't have the time or desire to put the hours we used to put into the game a decade ago. As much as it hurts to say, today's World of Warcraft is probably the game it needs to be. (A busier content patch schedule wouldn't hurt, though.)
But Nostalrius pulled off a miracle. Its 10,000 concurrent players may not hold a candle to what World of Warcraft still draws even with its declining subscriptions from the content drought, but it partly succeeded in resurrecting the WoW that was. Its death closes a window into a world when the Internet was still flush with the wonder of meeting and working with people from across the world. Blizzard's actions thus amount to destroying a significant part of its own history, and its closure hurts all the more since no other private server has pulled off that simulation so selflessly and competently.
Gaming as a whole is worse off with its loss.