By Nick Whitcroft
Earlier this year, the MMORPG community was abuzz with the news that Blizzard had stepped in to shut down popular legacy server Nostalrius. News has since surfaced of its return, but what exactly happened and what does it mean for the potential future of so-called ‘vanilla’ realms?
In the world of MMOs, whatever fluctuations hit it, none can rival the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft. And, whilst Blizzard continue to roll out new content - with this year’s Legion in August being the sixth expansion - many players still crave the experience they got from the original release. That’s where Nostalrius comes in.
So what exactly is Nostalrius?
Simply put, it’s a legacy server - an unofficial server hosting the original base game, prior to the subsequent additional content releases. For those users who still profess that WoW was, in its purest form, at its best, these so-called ‘vanilla’ servers offer a unique opportunity to dive back into that nostalgic joy of when the industry-defining classic hit the market. That might sound like a niche craving, but Nostalrius - the most popular of the multitude of such servers - had huge love amongst its fans; with over 1 million registered accounts at its peak. Not too shabby, right?
All that takes a lot of work. Behind the scenes, Nostalrius was based on the work of 30 volunteers, who took on the task of reverse engineering the early days of World of Warcraft and training teams to continue what they knew would be a lot of ongoing work.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Nostalrius in 2016. On the 10th of April, they received a cease and desist letter from Blizzard via their french server hosts and the server went offline that month. Citing copyright infringement, Blizzard took a firm, albeit caveated, stance:
"Why not just let Nostalrius continue the way it was? The honest answer is, failure to protect against intellectual property infringement would damage Blizzard’s rights. This applies to anything that uses WoW’s IP, including unofficial servers. And while we’ve looked into the possibility—there is not a clear legal path to protect Blizzard’s IP and grant an operating license to a pirate server."
It was a bitter blow for the 800,000 players still registered (150,000 active accounts), and for those on similar legacy servers worldwide. Blizzard’s reps did their best to make clear there was internal enthusiasm for legacy servers in principle, but referred to the “tremendous operational challenges” involved in hosting vanilla server(s) itself when dismissing any immediate action to launch an official equivalent.
How have the Nostalrius team, and the community, reacted?
Unsurprisingly, fans were in uproar. Arguing that original purchasers should be able to choose what content they get to play with - as one might with typical incremental releases across the Blizzard portfolio, such as Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo - many formalised their discontent in the form of a petition, gathering 276,036 signatures (at time of writing). When it passed 200,000 former WoW team lead Mark Kern stepped up to pledge to deliver it personally to Blizzard himself, and it was clear he was passionately in favour of the community’s efforts:
“I can't believe all the support you've shown for vanilla WoW servers. In the past few days you've all doubled the Nostalrius petition count and smashed through the 200,000 signature goal.
Now its time for me to get to work and put together a package to deliver to Mike Morhaime. Here's what I'm doing:
1) Printing the petition. All 5000 pages of it.
2) Writing an open letter to Mike, and sharing it with the community.
3) Shooting a video of the open letter and uploading it to @SodaPoppinTv's channel
4) E-mailing the whole thing to Mike on Friday and making the letter/video public on Friday as well.
5) Following up on Monday with a call to Mike on his cell and office.
I want to thank @SodaPoppingTv for being so passionate and doing the WoW stream to publicize this. I want to thank @Nostalbegins for taking the time to Skype with me and show me what a great bunch of devs they are, and thanks for everyone on my feed and following me @Grummz for all the moral support and tweets.
But...Especially, thank you petition signers! Thank you vanilla WoW fans! Thank you for supporting this petition and for playing and loving vanilla and early WoW so damn much! YOU did this! YOU can make it happen. And I'll be there right alongside you.
For the Alliance, for the Horde, for Azeroth!”
There’s a lot of love evident in not only the community at large but even the petition itself, where they make clear their lack of desire to ‘compete’, but rather to bring back what they consider the glory days - pre-Cataclysm - of a game they are passionate about, thanks to the guys at Blizzard for creating it in the first place. This passion was recognised, and it was agreed that the team would be invited to meet with Blizzard head honchos Mike Morhaime (CEO), J. Allen Brack (executive producer), Tom Chilton (game director) and more, including the community team, at their Irvine offices on Friday 3rd June, to discuss the reasoning for the Nostalrius shutdown and logistics and options behind a vanilla server.
What came of their meeting?
Initial reports following the meeting were positive. There were no NDAs and what was scheduled as a 2 hour meeting ended up running for over 5. During this time, the Nostalrius core team (Daemon, Viper, Tyrael, Nano and Ithlien) delivered and 81 page post-mortem report, community survey feedback and presentation materials, covering server data and more. They, themselves, expressed how surprised they were at the level of attentiveness and admiration they received during the session and the fact that they felt it was clear the Blizzard team very much wanted legacy servers to be a reality.
Similarly, in an interview with Kotaku, WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas stated:
“I really thoroughly enjoyed our meeting with them. A ton of us on the team, myself included, are day-one World of Warcraft players and beta players. I work at Blizzard because of my love for the original World of Warcraft, so I definitely feel a great sense of nostalgia for those times. It was really cool meeting a team of enthusiasts who put together their own project trying to reverse-engineer and make sure those days are represented. They’re a great group of people. It was really cool seeing their passion. But as we said on our forums a couple weeks ago, it’s something we’re still discussing. It’s something that, if we were to do it at Blizzard, we’d need to do it at a Blizzard-level of quality. That’s a large undertaking. It’s like launching a new game, for all intents and purposes. If we could flip a switch and just make it happen, we would. But it’s not that simple. So it’s something we’re still discussing internally, and we wanted to make sure people understood we’re not closing the door on it, but also we don’t have anything to announce just yet.”
They were transparent on the amount of work involved in making something ready for release to the polished standard they would need to uphold. Whilst they do indeed have the source code available from backups via their code version control system, tremendous amounts of development work would be required to recreate the array of missing information needed to generate a final server build - data, models, maps, client/server-specific files, etc. Any missing assets need recreating. And it’s not a case of simply trial-and-erroring features; they need to get it right and be constantly attentive to bug fixes and so on. And this was something the Nostalrius team well recognised.
However, the meeting instilled hope that the two teams could potentially work together to foster a future for legacy servers, especially now the depth of community interest was transparent. In October, the growing hype for BlizzCon was hailed as a “golden occasion for them to announce their plan for legacy realms, and potentially fulfil the dreams of millions of fans over the world.” In the words of the Nostalrius team at the time: "if Blizzard doesn't make an announcement to honour their own core values, be sure that we will". Blizzard was never likely to respond to an ultimatum. BlizzCon came and went on 4-5 November, however, and, despite their whiteboard wall being drowned in Nostalrius tributes, no such news was forthcoming. Blizzard themselves commented via Battle.net that "We’ve seen some talk among the community that you might be expecting to hear some news on legacy servers at BlizzCon, and we just wanted to take a moment to let you know that while we’re still discussing the possibility, we won’t have any updates to share on that until after the show" - a post glisteneing with potential but entirely vague.
In the meantime, whilst the Nostalrius team prepped to support Blizzard in any efforts to legitimise the legacy offering - formulating studies, milestones, schedules, resources to share, a scope of work - Blizzard slipped into radio silence. Despite frequent reaching out from the team over the following 4 months, with questions regarding the issues raised in the meeting and how they could contribute to any official release, even nullify the need for Blizzard to have any staff working directly on the project (as this might be frowned upon by the core community) they received no response.
Is Nostalrius coming back?
In a word, yes. "Nostalrius, exactly as you know it, will be returning." Following the lack of communication, the team released the source code and additional tools to the community, beginning with Elysium - an existing legacy project which they believed to be most in line with their core values and with whom a number of their own volunteers were already working. This is to include reviving existing Nostalrius characters, rolling back to prior to the closure announcement, to ensure those who deleted characters out of frustration have the chance to pick them back up.
Elysium itself is technically on hold whilst the resurrected Nostalrius will take its place, with existing Elysium characters being frozen, ready to migrate to the new system along with the Nostalrius character-base. In a Reddit post, the Elysium dev Suzerain_Elysium confirmed:
“Elysium will now proudly revive and continue what began a year and half ago. We will be gratefully accepting the core and player database of Nostalrius. This means that Nostalrius, exactly as you know it, will be returning. Additionally, as many of you know, we have a very large percentage of the Nostalrius staff that has been part of Elysium. Their positions in the staff reach all possible areas such as Administration, Development, Game Masters and Quality Assurance. As of now we have a total of 16 Nostalrius team members (excluding Nostalrius’ administration whom will remain off of the project) and the number is growing. Together we will bring true Legacy servers to the private server community until Blizzard does.”
For our UK readers, the Elysium server time runs 2 hours behind GMT. The Elysium staff held an AMA on Reddit on 13th November to answer a number of the community’s questions and, whilst not everything was covered (with some frustrated by the glossing over of issues such as the balance between English and non-English chat in Nostalrius previously), much was, such as population caps, view distance and more. The website continues to be updated, with the latest stress test run just a few days ago and the final one due this Sunday, 4th December, after which they promise to announce an official release date.
As for what they plan on doing if they receive another cease and desist letter from Blizzard? Well, according to Suzerain, “We will politely decline their request.” A firm response, though it will be interesting to see how they hold up should Blizzard decide to take them to task again...
Will we ever see an official legacy offering from Blizzard?
For the reasons described above, it’s really hard to say if this is ever going to be likely and Blizzard themselves have refused to be nailed down on an answer. Though it’s clear they’re exploring their options.
"So what can we do to capture that nostalgia of when WoW first launched? Over the years we have talked about a “pristine realm”. In essence that would turn off all leveling acceleration including character transfers, heirloom gear, character boosts, Recruit-A-Friend bonuses, WoW Token, and access to cross realm zones, as well as group finder. We aren’t sure whether this version of a clean slate is something that would appeal to the community and it’s still an open topic of discussion.”
There are a whole host of things for them to consider. For example, it’s unlikely people would be willing to pay an additional cost for a vanilla experience and, if this was the case, the core community could resent dev time being invested into building and supporting an experience outside the main game. Could it perhaps come once the game has finished its run of expansions? Who’s to say. But the positive point is that, as the Nostalrius team observed after their meeting with them, "Blizzard is now well aware of the amount of players willing to play legacy servers, something which wasn’t the case until Nostalrius shutdown," meaning any official next steps will be guided by its cult player base and the knowledge that’s been shared thus far, which can, for the optimists among us, give us a glimmer of hope…