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.