World of Warcraft was a cultural phenomenon. It made a thunderous impact on those who played it back in 2004, and even for a few expansions afterwards—I joined during the Burning Crusade, losing over 100 days of my life to Azeroth and Outland. In that time I made friends whom I see years later, explored a seamless world and stoked my passion for PC games. To play WoW in its glory days was to feel part of some great movement in gaming. Small wonder that people want to relive the past.
That’s what Nostalrius allows (the clue is in the name). It’s Vanilla WoW’s most popular private server, running build 1.12, Drums of War. Patch 1.12 was the stop gap between Vanilla’s final raid, Naxxramas, and the Burning Crusade. As the final, most complete incarnation of the original World of Warcraft, it’s practically sacred. Using 1.12 as their base, the volunteer developers behind Nostalrius have been faithfully recreating the raid progression that Blizzard implemented long ago. Upper Blackrock Spire gave way to Onyxia’s Lair and Molten Core, Zul Gurub was a recent addition, and Ahn’Qiraj was up next. ‘Was’, because Blizzard’s legal eagles have descended, and from April 10 Nostalrius will go dark.
Unlike other private servers which Blizzard has crushed with righteous authority, Nostalrius makes no money from its 150,000 active players. The devs claim it incurs considerable losses. They’ve pushed WoW’s engine far past its intended limits, enabling over 11,000 concurrent players on a single server—a feat unmatched by any other. Can you imagine the hosting costs? Anyone can make an account, hop in and play World of Warcraft as it was more than 10 years ago. I strongly encourage ex-players to do so in the two days before it’s gone. Nostalrius is a living museum: a near-perfect record of a place, design choices and play styles that don’t exist anymore.
I am prone to soppy fits of nostalgia, granted. I could just be longing for something no one else cares about, although 800,000 Nostalrius accounts suggest otherwise. To be sure, I took a dip into Vanilla and put out a call on the net. I wanted to talk to Nostalrius regulars and ask how the impending shutdown will affect what I assumed was a passionate fan base just looking to relive good times. That’s certainly how my email respondents felt—aggrieved fans invested in raiding, socialising and Blizzard’s craft at its peak.
They’ve pushed WoW’s engine far past its limits, enabling over 11,000 concurrent players on a single server.
“This server should’ve stood as a testament to the great things Blizzard did in the beginning,” playmansam tells me. “Vanilla WoW means a lot to people, me included—this was my first MMO; I think I was in middle school. With Vanilla, Burning Crusade, and Wrath, Blizzard built these huge worlds with amazing story that you wanted to explore and be a part of. Now it’s just a bunch of people, because there is barely a community aspect to the game anymore due to server phasing and ‘looking for dungeon’ utilities.”
The decay of social interaction is something I often hear lamented, and the contrast between the retail build of WoW and Nostalrius is startling. Orgrimmar, capital of the Horde, is packed with people speaking to each other, shouting trade offers and rallying groups for dungeon runs. The Barrens echoes with “LFG Wailing Caverns,” and responses are had within minutes (unfortunately the unrestrained racism, sexism and other -isms of the Barrens still abound).
Some of these interactions are a result of flaws that would appal the modern player. Monster respawn rates are so slow as to necessitate grouping to be in with a chance of finishing quests. Few quests make more than a cursory attempt to tell you where you ought to be looking. Level-1 boars are a true threat to the noob. These rough edges were buffed out in WoW’s later incarnations—things became less of a hassle, but as a consequence they became less social, a process widely branded ‘dumbing down’.
“It doesn’t matter if some kid is only 12 and never played WoW,” playmansam continues. “It will never affect them the way it affected us when it was new. Blizz should look at Nostlarius players and be proud, knowing that their game means so much to us that people are willing to use their spare time to recreate the original world that drew them in in the first place.”
The assumption by some players—and perhaps Blizzard itself—that Vanilla Warcraft’s unforgiving design can’t inspire the loyalty of the kids these days might not be true. A notable contingent of those I spoke to about Nostalrius were newcomers, having missed out on WoW’s glory days and curious as to what all the fuss was about. Dante Brenner is a connoisseur of private servers.
“I’ve never played retail WoW in any form,” Brenner says, “because it never really interested me in comparison to other MMOs, but what did interest me was the nostalgia factor it held for many. I rolled up on [private server] Quality Gaming in 2012, got into a guild, began levelling, PVPing and goofing around.
“Instantly I understood the attraction, and that was the community the design of the game fostered. The guilds and players I played with ended up server hopping a few times because of server deaths, guild drama and other rubbish, but no matter what we went to we always had a great time. We managed to conquer the majority of raids available on servers, caused extreme PVP grief, did rap karaoke hours on Teamspeak while waiting for everyone to log on for raids, and other daft stuff. Best summers I’ve ever had. And it’s all thanks to private servers.”
There’s an enormous amount of good will towards Nostalrius and Blizzard’s classic design. It seems peculiar, then, that Blizzard would try to stamp on this outpouring of affection, particularly in light of its refusal to run its own legacy servers. In May last year, World of Warcraft community manager Josh Allen tweeted that it was, “Not really an effective use of time for devs who could be working on any number of features for the live game.” He acknowledged that while there’s interest in legacy servers, even internally, Blizzard doesn’t believe there’s enough to offset the costs. In that case, why not let a plucky non-profit handle it?
The logic may go that the more people access old builds for free, the fewer stump up for the retail version and the faster WoW’s subs will tumble. From the players I spoke to in-game, however, it doesn’t feel as if Warlords of Draenor will be any better off with Nostalrius closed. In the low-level zones especially there’s a collection of players more bored than nostalgic.
“Nothing actually; I just don’t have enough money to pay for Warlords of Draenor official servers,” Facegen tells me when asked what he prefers about Vanilla. “WoW made a huge step forward from this outdated crap. All this nostalgic crap… let’s be honest, WoW is raiding, and raids in Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria and WoD are far more interesting and challenging.”
When lowbie Orc Bootyjam came along, I asked him directly whether he’d pay a subscription if Blizzard offered official Vanilla servers.
“I don’t really think Blizzard should force you to sub for old content that you can play for free with a good community like Nostalrius.”
That will not be a popular stance at Blizzard, closer to the moral black than grey. A common justification for digital piracy (whether or not you see it as justification) is that the product would otherwise be unobtainable—you’d pay if you could, but there’s simply no option. That’s currently the case for Vanilla Warcraft. Nostalrius is a record of something that no longer exists, soon to be expunged itself. If Nostalrius were in competition with Blizzard legacy servers, it would be easier to reconcile the feeling of loss with Blizzard’s right to protect its property. Unless official Vanilla realms are announced at this year’s Blizzcon, however, Blizzard is simply strangling a community that largely adores it.
Whether official servers are practical is a bigger question. It depends on what portion of the community follows Bootyjam’s lead and how many take after the enthusiasts who filled my inbox in distress at Nostlarius’ closure.
“The numbers for the server were pretty insane,” Brenner says, “something I’d never seen in a private server before. Guess it goes to speak to the quality of Vanilla WoW and Nostalrius itself. I think it’s a little sad how Blizzard keep trying to extend WoW’s life instead of just accepting it’s on the decline. I’d love to know the real reasoning [for the legal action]. Maybe there’ll be a statement.”
I’ve asked Blizzard for that statement to no response. There’s the usual internet petition going around, cruising past 45,000 signees as I write. In the meantime, I advise you take some screenshots, run a dungeon and say a second goodbye to World of Warcraft as it was.