It’s just been announced that Blizzard is suing Nostalrius, a vanilla World of Warcraft private server that enabled people to experience what the game was like almost a decade ago, before the first expansion was released.
So from a legal standpoint, yes of course they have every right to do that, as those who play the private server (Nostalrius) are essentially playing a subscription-based game for free, hosted illegally. I am not angry that they are doing this. There’s also the possibility that the current WoW devs themselves have nothing to do with Nostalrius being sued. Developers and lawyers are not the same people, and whilst I honestly have no idea what the developers’ stance is on vanilla private servers, it might not be aligned with this all-out aggressive attack that we’ve just seen on Nostalrius.
What they do need to do is take a lesson away from this. When asked at their convention a few years ago whether they’d ever open up “servers for previous expansions”, they replied with, “No. And by the way, you don’t want to do that, either.” And I get where they’re coming from. As developers, their job is to continue improving World of Warcraft, and they do this by constant re-iterations of class abilities, UI, graphics overhauls and endless amounts of quality-of-life changes. So after over a decade of continuous improvement to the game, players who ask to be given availability to the original version of the game will surely be met with cynicism, likely viewed as players wearing rose-tinted glasses wanting to live out the glory days of vanilla WoW, not realising that they’re associating their golden memories with gameplay which is, in reality, far from perfect.
You know what would prove them wrong, Blizzard? Opening a trial run of a couple of vanilla realms.
The fact that Nostalrius would peak at 15,000 players online at once and had almost 1,000,000 registered users is a fact that cannot be ignored. Whilst many players undoubtedly are looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, there’s also a large faction of players who aren’t and do legitimately enjoy vanilla gameplay. This number could even grow if Blizzard added vanilla servers into the game, and would give existing players a reason to stay subscribed throughout the always-present content droughts between expansions. I, for one, would be very interested in playing vanilla WoW (as somebody who played a few months of Burning Crusade when I was 13 or so, and picked up the game properly towards the end of Mists of Pandaria), and have even been tempted by servers like Nostalrius before reminding myself that I’d rather play the game in a legal environment.
Blizzard need look no further than Runescape for an example of a successful reintroduction of an older iteration of the game. A few years ago, Jagex Studios dug through their archives and found the oldest version of the game they could, and brought it back, playable as a alternate character for their existing subscribers. Old School Runescape has since flourished into its own game, with a driven (if not slightly poisonous) community, a democratic voting system for updates that they may or may not want added to the game (starting with quality-of-life updates, before evolving into unique OSRS content), and with a team of dedicated developers to touch up the old game and take it in the direction that players who preferred the 2007 experience would like it to take. I’m not saying that vanilla WoW servers should have updates or tweaks, as Runescape has changed its fundamental core far more than WoW ever did. I’m just saying that this project was undoubtedly a success on Jagex’s part, and has likely been a great tool in squashing the need for private servers in the first place.
There are, of course, some legitimate concerns regarding the reintroduction of an older iteration of the game. Splitting the community would be a problem, with many players abandoning their guilds for the vanilla servers. But to that I feel the need to raise the point that players are already abandoning their guilds for vanilla private servers, or more often for different games entirely. This is what happens during a content drought, and it would actually be to Blizzard’s advantage to introduce vanilla servers during a content drought (such as presently) to keep players subscribed to their game. Furthermore, after playing vanilla for a while, some players might realise that they have taken for granted much of WoW’s current level of quality, and find new motivation to continue playing the current game. And, of course, when an expansion drops, you can bet that anyone with a current WoW subscription is more than likely to put their vanilla romping on pause to go and explore the new content for a few months at the very least; those that would return to vanilla WoW after only a few months would also likely be the ones who would have simply unsubscribed in the past, reinforcing once again that it would be a financial benefit for Blizzard to open these vanilla servers.
In fact, I can’t really see any way in which Blizzard wouldn’t benefit from such a venture. Sure, it may be difficult on the technical side, I can’t speak for that, although I’m sure that if private servers can host the vanilla game, then Blizzard should be able to find a way, too. Not only would it be a financially viable investment of resources, but after it was up and running, Blizzard probably wouldn’t even have to bother with it apart from the occasional maintenance work. It’d stop players from constantly whinging that vanilla was better, give new players the chance to appreciate quality-of-life improvements, and win the hearts of the players… well, at least, the hearts of players who don’t complain about every single thing that Blizzard does. I’d recommend that Blizzard put a small, dedicated team on getting vanilla servers up and running, even if it was just as an experiment, and then everybody could see how the situation would pan out, once and for all.