This morning I'm reading about a fan-run vanilla World of Warcraft server being shut down after a legal notice issued by Blizzard's lawyers.
It's interesting to me because the subject involves keeping an older version of an otherwise changing game online and alive in some fashion and I have a background in heritage work/archiving. But first here's what happened with WoW:
A small team of volunteers operated an international legacy server for the version of World of Warcraft which existed immediately after the game's launch and ran until the first expansion, The Burning Crusade - it's also referred to as "vanilla" WoW. Known as "Nostalrius", the server has been running for about a year and apparently reached 800,000 registered accounts and 150,000 active players.
The idea, as per a forum post, was to provide "the adventure you always dreamed of, as it was just before the first expansion Burning Crusade, a golden age for most players". The team also say "We passionately reproduced the original progression you created throughout patches and content releases. The mighty Ahn Qiraj raid was to be released next month." - so a living version of vanilla WoW.
Here's a trailer:
"Yesterday, we received a letter of formal notice from US and French lawyers, acting on behalf of Blizzard Entertainment, preparing to stand trial against our hosting company OVH and ourselves in less than a week now. This means the de facto end of Nostalrius under its current form."
There's now a petition online asking Blizzard to reconsider the decision and to work out some kind of relationship whereby fans can continue to run these legacy servers. It's not an angry petition, by the way. The phrasing is maybe slightly clunky but it's actually written as this hopeful, nice thing:
Do you think that a policy change can be made regarding legacy servers based on volunteers work, for very old no longer supported game expansion?
Or do you think that legacy servers are doomed by definition since, in the end, it's hurting Blizzard trademark & communication more than anything else?
We finally truly understand the difficulty to handle constant community evolution, requiring often more updates for a shorter period of interest in a MMORPG context.
Nevertheless, the time spent helping people in this kind of context will be part of our memories forever, every team member also certainly acquired a unique experience that will be valuable in its future life.
Unless anything changes as a result of the petition Nostalrius Begins PvP, Nostalrius Begins PvE and Nostalrius TBC and all related servers will be shut down at 23:00 server time on 10 April if not sooner. The Nostalrius team say they will release source code and anonymised player data to those who want it "so the community as a whole will decide the form of the future of Nostalrius".
From a business perspective, I can imagine why Blizzard don't want people playing a version of WoW that they haven't sanctioned and which isn't how they want their game to be played currently. It means ceding control and not enforcing their own copyright as well as having potential financial implications if people no longer feel the need to purchase expansions and so on. Instead of running legacy servers they ran some weekend events where players could revisit dungeons of the past:
As they said at the time: “When you Timewalk these dungeons, you’ll find that your character’s power and gear has been scaled down to a fraction of what they normally are. For the first time in years, some dungeons you outgrew long ago will once more put your skills to the test.”
So they're not exactly ignoring that interest in older versions of the game, but nor is it a priority.
The question of how to archive or document older versions of these living games is something I think about every now and again. It came up when I was at FanFest last year because I was wondering if CCP had a kind of museum of EVE or some kind of archive for these older versions of the game, particularly as Andrew Groen was still in the process of writing his book, A History Of The Great Wars Of EVE Online, at the time and I wondered what resources there were for a task like that.
“We do have a lot of data for the whole history of the game but most of the stuff that Andrew’s doing now for the history book – we don’t know these things. I don’t think we could have done what he’s doing because none of this we can see in the logs of the game. Of course we write stuff down and capture it in one way or another...”
It also came up when I spoke to Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York about their acquisition of a number of video games. The piece was for the print edition of PC Gamer so I don't have it online to link to but here's the relevant paragraph:
A related curation problem in that often games are works in progress. Updates and patches are released, DLC materialises, items are added to in-game shops. MoMA aims to collect the game's source code in the language in which it was written as well as updates and revisions. What it is also trying to do is capture the idea of games as living communities and systems. "When games are alive like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, EVE Online, what you truly acquire is the relationship with the developer and the community. It's a live acquisition and you can never really crystallise it or freeze it cryogenically until it dies. You hope that's never going to happen so you acquire the relationship."
It's an interesting way of looking at that problem, and a practical one when you are a museum and need to consider logistics, costs, storage regulations and so forth in a very particular way.
But legacy servers are another potential solution. They're not perfect – there might be technological issues as games age out of current operating systems/hardware/software and then you need to choose whether to tweak the game or whether the players will need to find their own solutions. There's also the question of whether you're more interested in faithfully replicating an experience or replicating the spirit of the experience. And then there's the fact that you'll still never be able to replicate all of the external context framing the game.
I should add that this heritage/archiving side of Nostalrius is something I'm bringing to the table and not what the volunteer team were explicitly setting out to do with the server. I just find that side of things fascinating.
Empires Of EVE: A History Of The Great Wars Of EVE Online is on sale now - I've started reading it and it is really interesting
The petition against the shutting down of Nostalrius is here.
And here are five of Eurogamer attempting to remember how to play an old dungeon as part of one of those Timewalking weekends: