Heading back to World Of Warcraft with Nostalrius

Last week saw the return of World of Warcraft‘s most controversial server, Nostalrius. It’s a private server which aims to recreate the experience of ‘vanilla’ World of Warcraft – that is, WoW as it was at or shortly after launch, before being supplemented and re-shaped by a hundred updates and multiple expansions. Logging on, I’m told “Position in queue, 3801. Estimated time: 47 minutes”, before being ushered into a world of lag and people complaining about random disconnects. So, uh… yeah! Congratulations to the team for perfectly recreating the vanilla WoW experience!

Seriously though, it’s an odd experience going back to a game that’s still ticking along. Nostalrius hit the headlines earlier this year when Blizzard put the kibosh on it. As kiboshes go, it was a friendly one, with the team invited to Blizzard HQ to discuss the matter, and even raise the issue of official ‘legacy’ servers not operating on the wrong side of World of Warcraft’s terms and conditions. However, all of that came to nothing. After months of the silent treatment, the Nostalrius team opted to give the bear one final poke by giving their code to another legacy team, Elysium. The new Nostalrius now lives on its servers, with both PvE and PvP servers to choose from, ready to let players party like it’s 2005. Again. With rather more General chat about Trump.

Private servers, also often referred to as ‘shards’, are nothing new of course. Ultima Online was the first game where they became a big deal, largely helped by EA turning a surprisingly blind eye to the whole thing. Many operate on their own rules, including instant max-level characters or crazy XP gain, while others have their own goals. As the name suggests, Nostalrius is primarily about preserving a snapshot of the past that is otherwise impossible to return to. Yes, World of Warcraft is still around, and at first glance may even look like the same game. Over the years though, it’s changed in just about every way imaginable, not least that many zones got an overhaul during the Cataclysm. This is the only way to play World of Warcraft frozen as it actually was.

Oh, except that right now it’s Winter Veil, obviously.

Start it up now for instance and gosh, yes, it’s amazing how well the graphics hold up, but it looks old. There’s no handy markers to show you where your next target is or where the current quest ends. Forget about flying mounts, or getting a regular epic one without some serious effort. In many cases, the march of progress did a fine job of filing the edges off things and making them easier. In doing so though, it’s hard to argue that much has been lost. I always liked the ceremony of going back to a class trainer to get new abilities for instance, and the original game’s willingness to do things like the Druid form quest that sends you through far too high-level territory. That was a real adventure, especially on the PvP server where I cut my first Level 60, rather than just another quest balanced to be basically effortless. Likewise, while there’s no arguing that tools like Look For Group and Look For Raid are effective at getting into the action quickly, they and the new capital cities of every expansion largely emptied most of the world and turned it into a glorified matchmaking lobby. There’s something pure about seeing someone running around Ironforge trying to get a group together to tackle Gnomeregan the old fashioned way. Or indeed, bother visiting Gnomeregan.

Certainly, just looking around is a nostalgic treat. Not being a particular fan of dungeons or raiding, I have no particular memories or opinion on the jump from Molten Core to Icecrown Citadel or the joys of 40-man assaults versus the smaller 5-man teams I personally prefer. I do have a deep fondness for the early years of World of Warcraft though, which like most, are as much down to the time as anything else. It wasn’t the first MMO that I played by a long shot, but it was one of only two (the other being City of Heroes) where I had real-life friends and co-workers who also played, making it a social experience as much as a game. Exploring Scarlet Monastery with a high-level friend. Being the high-level friend whose Mage could literally blow away any ‘high level’ enemy that got in the way with a quick Cone of Cold.

Ah, memories. All that had largely faded away by the time Lich King came along, with most having drifted away and a few others having sunk into the hardcore world of raiding guilds and the like. Since then, I’ve not really had anything similar. I missed out on the MOBA craze due to it both being something played in other magazines’ offices and then so tied to skill-level that the mere idea of inviting a noob to play along became almost statistically impossible. I didn’t have a console for Destiny, which a lot of folks I know played over the last couple of years. Now, working freelance at the other end of the country from folks… or in a different country from folks… or folks having less time due to things like ‘families’ and all that nonsense, I just don’t have the social circle to make something like Overwatch not just my game, but ‘our’ game. I miss having an ‘our’ game, a virtual Cheers of chat, adventure, murder and good times. But, that’s largely impossible. You need an ‘us’ to make an ‘our’, and a game that, like World of Warcraft, at least feels like it will go on forever. How many games can you say that for?

Nostalrius obviously can’t provide any of that. But to be sure, it’s a reason for many players to be glad it exists. A warm moment frozen in time, like one of those 80s cartoon intro compilations over on YouTube. A game that is exactly what they want it to be and always will be. A community of like-wishers. A predictable, comfortable safe space where everything feels ‘right’, like a new Slanket on a cold evening. The plan is to keep stepping through time, opening up other legacy servers starting with The Burning Crusade, for fans who prefer a few more rough edges cut off, but again, those will be individual, isolated, separate places, where Dalaran is never going to fly free of its magic bubble overnight and where it’s actually worth hanging around Ironforge, where mages with portals and warlocks with summons are actually worth their weight in gold again, and where the battle for Tarren Mill never, ever fades into irrelevance.

Purely on a historical basis, I think it’s an interesting project. Love or hate World of Warcraft, it’s a cultural phenomenon worth preserving, and that’s something our industry does really badly. Just look at retro games. Sure, we’ve still got them, but look at how many people think that the mark of their graphics was crisp, pixel-perfect precision rather than the blurs of CRT monitors (and beyond that, the art design specifically made to make use of it, like King’s Quest’s dithered graphics – blurring together what few colours early graphics systems could handle in order to create a whole new palette of them.) With MMOs, the idea that a whole world should go away just because the creator flips a switch is personally something abhorrent. Whether it’s a big name like Ultima Online or Everquest, or something less successful like Earth And Beyond or The Matrix Online, it’s all worth preserving in whatever form we can.

Sure, it’s technically against the terms of service. But at worst, it’s a sub-subdivision of the fandom that players aren’t going to stumble into by accident, meaning that any glitches or even toxic audiences aren’t really going to affect Blizzard, and in any event, the idea of them actually running legacy servers has always felt a pipe-dream. Even if it happened, how long would it happen for? Fans are ironically much better equipped to handle this kind of project, thanks to a mix of being driven by passion, and not having to justify it in terms of profit. It’s not as though plenty of the players wanting to go back in time aren’t also playing the likes of Legion, if only to have new content between alts.

Besides, it’s good to know that someone’s still looking for Mankrik’s Wife.

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26 Comments

  1. Tritagonist says:

    As with other forms of software, I am much more impressed by people who split development into new projects when changes to an original form become significant than by those who tell their existing customers to adapt or leave.

    What Blizzard has done with (or to, depending on who you ask) World of Warcraft over the last 10 years has made it an almost completely different game. I personally won’t join these unofficial servers as the magic WoW once had is now too far gone for me to really care either way, but it’s great to see various stages of it kept around for people to enjoy.

  2. Silverchain says:

    All these moments will be lost, like early Who episodes that Auntie taped over.

    • keefybabe says:

      Yeah but if it was a choice between getting any game of your choice back or Evil of the Daleks, let’s face it, Evil is gonna win.

  3. GenericJohnDoe says:

    Good Alt to Nostrils would be Kronos… No Waiting Time!

    • SaintAn says:

      Kronos has a cash shop, so not really.

      • GenericJohnDoe says:

        Did not need money to play. You can only get some mounts. No Win 2 Pay, not even purple/blue/green for Pay…

  4. Kestrel says:

    As someone who recently came back to the game after many years of absence, wow. So much has changed, but largely for the better. The empty vanilla zones feel vestigial, and the old dungeon designs adhere to a totally different design philosophy of throwing in endless trash mobs. The game holds your hand a lot more, but I like it. It also ups the difficulty with Mythic level dungeons and raids, which throw a lot more at you than what you’d get in vanilla. But vanilla was fun and a more social experience, to be sure.

    Now Burning Crusade – that’s when the game was at its best! Orcs… In spaaaaaaace!

  5. Mansen says:

    It’s not technically against the terms of service – It’s full stop against it…

    • Jediben says:

      Surely Blizzard aren’t providing any service at all in this instance? So CANNOT be against a ToS by definition.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      “Technically,” in this case, means “It’s against the ToS, but it doesn’t harm them and they can’t stop you anyway, so it hardly matters either way.”

  6. ariston says:

    A big LOL. Ah, that takes me back.

    I think I prefer Peanut Butter Cup to Vanilla, anyway.

  7. tkioz says:

    While the desire to keep a bit of video game history alive, lord knows we’ve lost enough of it already, I find the entitled attitude of the ‘developers’ involved in this project to be incredibly grating.

    They didn’t get what they wanted (Blizzard talking about them at BlizCon) so they decided to spit in the companies face and say “screw you”. Let’s face it most other publishers wouldn’t have them over for a tea and a chat.

    I can’t say I blame Blizzard either, and I’m hardly a fanboy. IP and Trademark law is a convoluted mess and basically forced them to ‘protect’ their IP against all comers unless they want to weaken the protection they get from it.

    The demand for ‘legacy’ servers really is over stated. Sure there might be a few thousand people, maybe even ten or twenty thousand, who want it, but really how much cost would be involved in setting up and running it properly? Doubtfully enough to make it worthwhile.

    Honestly I don’t know how anyone could want to go back to that time. Sure we’ve got fond memories of it. Great time with friends, real and online, in a virtual world that seemed endless, but like everything it is tinted by the vagueness of memory.

    Actually playing the game that way again? I’d rather shoot myself in the foot and I’d say after the ‘excitement’ of the experience wears off most of the people trying out the new server will feel the same way.

    • ludde says:

      Except the previous Nostalrius had something like 800k registered accounts and 150k active. The PvP server was always chock full and could easily have been three servers instead of one. There were people EVERYWHERE and it was pretty great.

      The question is how many of those would’ve paid full price for the pleasure though. Without something like updates and new content – which goes against the nature of a legacy server – I think that number would be limited.

      Although I’d love a realization of what WoW could’ve been in its early days. Especially the concept of contested zones actually being contested with siege weapons, defense towers and so on. That I would pay for.

  8. SaintAn says:

    This sounds like you think people play this and old games because of nostalgia and to visit like a museum. Old WoW and many other old games are deeper, more complex, and feel like you’re part of a world because they were made for gamers. These new games and updated games like Legion are targeted for the lowest common denominator for maximum profit and filled with cash shops so there’s not much for gamers anymore so we have to go play better games.

    Since the Legion update WoW isn’t even by definition an MMO anymore because of sharding splitting everyone up and also screwing up RP on RP servers (I rarely ever see RP in the world anymore).
    It hasn’t had a feel of server community since they added the crossrealm crap throwing people from different servers into the same areas so they don’t have to show weakness and make people see that WoW is dying by shutting down servers.
    WPVP died when Cata added flying to the old world completely killing off my incredible RP-PVP server where we had a really great community and some of the best WPVP that could be experienced.
    When they gutted talent trees they ruined leveling alts.
    When they started giving the game a lazy singleplayer story where everyone is the one chosen one it further ruined the feel of being part of a world with others.
    And the recent Chronicles book completely ruined the lore of the game by explaining all the mysteries away and giving the game some of the stupidest lore explanations I’ve ever seen. Can’t stand playing Legion after reading Chronicles creationist garbage.

    So I’d much rather play the much superior Vanilla that is a continuation of Warcraft than the lowest common denominator trash it is today.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “This sounds like you think people play this and old games because of nostalgia-”

      (Points to name of server)

    • ludde says:

      Yeah, there are plenty that consider the old version the better game. For me WoW was at its best early on, after Honor kills had been introduced and before Battlegrounds opened.

      After that everything just served to empty the world and make it less meaningful. I much preferred raids on Orgrimmar, Crossroads, Astranaar, Booty Bay and so on to the instanced 24/7 Battlegrounds that never mattered. Or just smaller raids over some entrance to a dungeon or other – there was always something going on and you felt like anything could happen. (These things also happened on the previous Nostalrius server.)

      After that WoW lost some of its flair. They tried again with the world PvP objectives in Burning Crusade but that didn’t work out. In came the LFG tool, the Arena PvP, flying mounts and so on and I haven’t touched it since.

      • Harvey says:

        Yes, I too miss the pre-battleground days. Me and my pal levelling up together, sometimes travelling off the beaten path to avoid bored high level players patrolling the roads.

        Sometimes we’d be caught by a camp-killing jerk, killed so often I’d write their name down on my kill list; to be found later and repaid. Only once did we actually catch one from our list, but I’ll never forget the satisfaction I felt when he logged off in frustration.

        We’d turn on the worlddefense channel, and come to the rescue of any lowbie being camped; Sometimes we saved the day, sometimes it was a trap laid and WE’D be killed. The best times was when it’d escalate into full-blown war with 30-60 people participating.

        Then battlegrounds came out. The world never recovered.

        I did like the original Alterac Valley, which had the sense of a real war effort (and which could last all day)

        • Jediben says:

          This. Bloody LFG and flying mounts. Pff.

        • ludde says:

          I remember the first time I met enemy players very vividly. It was in Hillsbrad Foothills and I was barely level enough. Together with a few friends we were killing the Alliance NPCs in the Human village there. After a while I looked over to my side and saw two lines of red letters float by behind the trees in the orchard. I didn’t immediately realize what they were but soon spells were flying, people dying, mobs getting pulled and chat erupting in chaos. It was amazing.

          The Alliance players had come to that spot to abuse that the NPCs would be neutral to them (or even allied, I can’t remember) but not us. We were easy pickings there, at least the first time.

          Some would probably only find that fight annoying and unfair, but I didn’t mind that the game world was like that. It’s much more exciting when it’s not always perfectly balanced and the same everywhere, when there’s something left for the players to discover.

      • Chillicothe says:

        It was not a better game, but was in a better place from being percieved better by us, the playerbase. The goal was to get the game better, and improvements came without warning or on demand. The game’s quality improved with every patch. However, once that balance of power between us the players and they the developers shifted in 2008 with a completely new goal for the game, it was over. Never good enough, never fast enough, never enough, until we get that and *FWIP* out we go.

        And that’s why it’s for a few who love it, and for me, I’ll indirectly quote Thomas Wolfe and point to the above as why.

    • shagen454 says:

      I completely agree that “WoW isn’t even by definition an “MMO”. I’ve been saying this for years, WoW is WoW, it’s an online multiplayer RPG, thingy magig. It’s games within games, zones after zones and a huge part of it playing solo, solo instances, instances all over, it is it’s own thing. I still regard Ultima Online as being one of the best examples of what people call a “MMORPG”.

    • Kala says:

      “Old WoW and many other old games are deeper, more complex, and feel like you’re part of a world because they were made for gamers.”

      *giggles*

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    Nauallis says:

    I dunno, knowing that there’s some ability to sample WoW in its original vanilla flavoring, pre-BC, pre-WotLK (I first played shortly after Wrath launched), is exciting. The fundamental problem is an ongoing one, though. There are too many high-quality entertaining games to play… and I’m a little too lazy to bother.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    Ah, the good old days.
    – Ironforge chat: LFG: need one tank. 10 mins later: LFG: need one tank.
    – Raiding as a mage with only one viable spec: frost. You didn’t do much more then press frostbolt most of the time.
    – Oh, you’re also good to create 200 breads and water… 1 at a time.
    – You were a lock? Go and spend half an hour before the raid to collect soul shards.
    – You’re a paladin, priest, druid or shaman? The description said dps or tanking you say? No no, you heal.
    – The raid needing exactly 40 guys. You there, nr 41? Go wait outside until someone has to leave.
    – That shiny new item you just got? It’s useless for your class! Blizzard forgot to add spell damage for casters.

    WoW had some of the most fun times I’ve ever had in a game, but people tend to forget that it wasn’t a perfect game.

  11. WyldFyr says:

    I haven’t forgotten… I remember just accepting it for what it was at the time. If I had to chose between that and LFG & CR and all the other stuff that makes the game feel like a soulless shell of what it once was … I pick that.