Almost 12 years ago, Blizzard launched World of Warcraft, the monster MMORPG that went on to dominate US sales charts and the entire MMO genre. It’s been almost nine years since the original version of World of Warcraft was available to play — the game’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade, fundamentally overhauled many aspects of the game. For some players, these changes were less than welcome. Last year, a group of dedicated fans and gamers launched Nostalrius, a server devoted to running World of Warcraft 1.12, the last version Blizzard released before TBC hit store shelves. As of yesterday, the nostalgia server is offline at Blizzard’s “request.”
The French group behind the project announced that the servers will go dark on April 10. The software behind the Nostalrius server will be released into the wild for others to use as they please, and Nostalrius was far from the only private WoW server. It does, however, seem to have been one of the largest groups of players, with 800K registered users. There’s no word on how many of those players were active on a daily or weekly basis, however.
I played WoW in beta from just after the Tri-Horde push to 2011. Having watched the game evolve through multiple expansions, I can honestly say vanilla WoW isn’t an experience I’d personally care to focus on. At the time, Blizzard’s design philosophy treated hybrid characters as second-class citizens. Paladins and Druids were expected to be healers in the end game raids, and their ability to perform in other roles was extremely limited. Smaller guilds with limited rosters also had real trouble making the leap from 10-man raids to 40-man Molten Core, and the PvP honor system was a horrifying grind. The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King made dramatic changes to the game that, in my personal opinion, made it far more fun to play.
And yet, when I look back on the years I spent in WoW, many of my greatest memories are anchored in vanilla. From accidentally chain-pulling the entire Scarlet Cathedral to one particular 26-hour PvP battle in Alterac Valley, classic World of Warcraft is what I remember best. The world of Azeroth has changed and evolved so much since classic, many of the areas where early players cut their teeth are either gone or vastly different. There’s no way to show newer players what those areas of game were like, and only a limited ability to experience them again as a veteran.
These issues are not unique to MMOs, of course — there are hundreds of orphaned games that no longer run on modern hardware, or can’t be legally purchased. Services like Steam enforce patch policies that automatically install only the most up-to-date version of a title. When Metro Last Light Redux was released, the game’s publisher pulled all sales of the original Metro Last Light. The differences between the two games are small and mostly favorable, but if you wanted to buy the original, you can’t. It’s just gone.
Emulation is one of the only ways to revive these classics (at least without a hefty sum of money and experience with old arcade systems), but emulating MMORPGs is thorny ground at best. Blizzard is well within its rights to shut down these WoW servers, but I can’t help thinking that they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face. Classic WoW servers don’t — can’t — compete with the modern title. Allowing gamers to emulate them seems like a great way to encourage people to stay in touch with an iconic title rather than some attempt to siphon money away from WoW itself.