Last year, I tried to indulge my nostalgia for Dun Morogh, the wintry original Dwarf & Gnome starting zone in World of Warcraft, by returning to it as it is now. It did not go entirely well - in the 11 years since WoW's launch, much has changed. Where once this was a slow-starting MMO, defined by long wandering, hard work and a certain degree of solitude, these days its early questing is an explosion of instantaneous rewards and high-speed levelling. I thought that this first World of Warcraft was lost forever. But there is a way back.
I understand why Blizzard made the changes they did. Though never anything less than hugely successful, WoW hasn't been the phenomenon it once was for quite some time. Remixing its initial hours to be faster, more exciting and a shower of upgrades makes sense, in terms of encouraging the curious to stick around. WoW didn't birth the 'collect ten pig noses' formula, but it certainly popularised a trope that soon became shorthand for wider MMO mockery. No wonder Blizzard didn't want WoW to be that game anymore - instead transforming it into a carnival of instant excitements.
Babies and bathwater. To start a new character in WoW now is to not encounter real danger for many hours, for levelling up to be a quick shrug rather than a hard-earned celebration, to barely go more than a few metres without being offered new activities and treasures.
Yes, being suddenly mauled to death by a random bear in the middle of nowhere then facing a twelve minute ghost-run back to your corpse for resurrection is not exactly a pleasure, but this arduous structure and relative pitilessness was what gave early WoW its soul. A hostile world, an unpredictable world, a world for everything in it, not just for you.
And it cut both ways of course - perhaps another player would pass by while that bear was tearing strips off you. Perhaps they would help. Perhaps you would bow or wave at each other. Perhaps one of you would whisper WTG? and so the two of you would form a party, in order to make this harsh place a little less harsh.
Perhaps you would craft something for each other or share spare resources. Perhaps you would talk about this and that, about how you used to play Everquest or do you like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah too, or how awful Dubya was or how you were saving up for a GeForce 8600. Perhaps you would become friends.
Perhaps you would form a Guild, and recruit others to it, and they would become friends too.
None of this is impossible now (dated references not withstanding) but it is less likely. The early game, at least, isn't dangerous enough, the loot and the meta has pushed the exploration aspect into to the background, and there is so little waiting. Organic friendships are less likely because you're kept too damn busy.
So the yearning for 2006-era WoW is not simply a yearning for lost geography. It's not even a desire for a simpler time, because WoW is far more simple to get to grips with now than it was then. But perhaps it is a desire for a more innocent time - a time when we didn't yet know everything about how these things worked, or should work, and so more readily turned to strangers to help us understand and succeed.
To return to that state of not knowing is impossible - I played WoW for too long and obviously cannot forget how it works/worked. But it is possible to return to a state where others' practical assistance is required; either that or to work hard and work slow to survive on your own.
The Elysium Project is not the only 'vanilla' WoW resurrection in town, but it is currently the most popular. Extremely popular, in fact - depending on when you log on and which server you choose, you can face long waits for a place in the world. One throwback to the old days that I could do without, but a small price to pay for how otherwise successful a resurrection this is.
What's involved is downloading a copy of an ancient WoW client from not long after its launch - before any expansions were added, before even most of the patches and in-game events - then modifying a text file to divert it to a different server.
Finding that client is not entirely straightforward, as Blizzard are steadily ordering copies removed - they have not taken kindly to people playing an older version of their still-active game for free. I think they are mad to not run a paid vanilla server themselves, but perhaps that would be an admission of error and defeat.
In any case, the reasonably adept internet user will not struggle to find the client for long. With that done, you create a free Elysium account, create your character (original races only, remember) and in you go. A fresh start in the old world.
Right now, it's not just the original maps and quests and skillsets that make Elysium such a delight - it's also the fact that, herd animals that nostalgic humans are, the early zones are currently full of people. The random assistance and groups and friendships that characterised early WoW is possible again, at least for the time being.
What will happen once the initial swathe of people has hit level 60? Will they move on? Will they go create alt characters from different races, as so many of us did at the time? Will they turn to raiding and PvP contests? Will the whole cycle begin anew, and Elysium gradually updates with expansion packs and ever-more endgame content? In a few years, will there be another Elysium, another WoW vanilla server, to start it all over again?
It doesn't matter. This is about the now. I have zero intention of (re)playing World of Warcraft for the long haul. I have a child to look after, a household to maintain, a job to do, sleep to somehow sleep and, let's be honest, hotbar skills and hearing the same out of energy/mana/etc voiceovers a thousand times is only tolerable for so long. WoW can be returned to its 2006 life, but I can't rewind eleven years of my own life.
All I want/need is to revisit a happy time for a short while, remind myself what it was like, cheer myself with the familiar - the latter itself a sign of what age has done to me, I know. A bit of nostalgia is harmless, but not at the total expense of today's life and today's games.
That said - 2006 WoW is a bloody good game. In the time since, MMO development has focused on the thrilling and the epic, which makes Elysium-WoW's focus on the world so refreshing. The early zones are huge spaces, broadly free from setpiece and usually without much in the way of navigational aid. You have to explore, you have to decide where to go, and you have to walk through a place in which getting killed by a lowly wolf or pig or bear or a little grey man in a filthy loincloth is an ever-present danger.
It's a survival game, a little bit. Progress is hazardous. Decent cash is hard to come by. Significant gear upgrades are few and far between. You will die. You will have to walk a very long way back to your corpse. Repeatedly. You will have to work to find out where things are, and work with others to reach some of those things. You will have to wait for gratification.
And so I have been back in Dun Morogh, in simple Coldridge and deadly Chill Breeze, in quiet Kharanos and mighty Ironforge. I have enjoyed myself. I have spent so much time walking, I have fought so many animals, and I have sewn a few crude leather armour items. It's been quiet, it's been slow, it's been brutal yet calm. The weather has been gloriously intense - the swirling snow, the hammering rain. For some reason Blizzard dialled this back enormously in later versions of WoW, and it's taken a terrible toll on an excellent atmosphere. This is the Dun Morogh I missed so much.
(Even the gold spammers and farmers are there, just like the old days. No account fees - no wonder there are queues.)
Turn off the UI and this eleven-year-old game is stunningly beautiful. Age has not harmed World of Warcraft - rather, higher resolutions and maxed-out anti-aliasing make its huge spaces and master-crafted environments sing. A true world to ramble through.
I've just reach the level 10-20 zone, Loch Modan, and I know that the levelling will now slow further, that progress will require a steeper time commitment, that I will hit the same few number keys time and again and it eventually will grow tedious, and that nowhere else I visit will ever feel quite as precious as Dun Morogh. An itch has been fully scratched.
If I had a different life, I would keep scratching for longer, but this will do. Thank you, Elysium. You are an earnest and loving tribute to Blizzard's most brilliant creation. I pray they do not stamp you out.