The Community Experience of Retail WoW and Private Servers: An Ongoing Discussion of Legacy Servers

In this article, I discuss the differences in gameplay experience from the WoW of today and recent history, and "vanilla" WoW on private servers.

Throughout the first few iterations of Blizzard’s well-known World of Warcraft, a consistent game theme was collaboration between Azeroth’s community of players. In this article, we are going to discuss the differences in gameplay experience from the WoW of today and recent history, and "vanilla" WoW on private servers. Particularly with all the controversy over the Nostalrius servers and the ongoing demand for legacy servers, it seems like the right time.

In the vanilla days (vanilla WoW is the first version of WoW, absent of any in-game expansions) players had to continually connect with others in order to complete particularly difficult quests for experience, and instances for gear rewards. 

At the high end level of play, players most often joined player created communities called guilds and worked together with members in end-game raids consisting of up to 40 man groups. Most notably, the in-game raid dungeons Molten Core (MC) and the Temple of Ahn’Qiraj (AQ 40) were incredibly difficult instances that required communication, coordination, and commitment from all members to conquer.  

[image retrieved from Engadget] 

(Here’s Illegal Danish's parody song about the experience of MC)

Vanilla WoW was arguably one of the most difficult iterations of WoW to progress through as an individual player.

If you wanted to acquire all of those famed purple epics, you had to collaborate with the multitudes of players that were progressing through the game as well.

Hell, just reaching level 60 in Vanilla days could take months, depending on how much time a player dedicated to the grind. But because of this difficulty, a large consensus of players understood what the journey (or struggle) was like, and therefore, players often had the opportunity to genuinely connect with other individuals, something that seems to be focused on less in MMOs today.

I played Vanilla WoW during its retail days when I was in middle school. Yet to this day, I remember the players I met and the guilds I was a part of. The friends I made still remain in my memories, and this first experience with online communities and gaming became one that I strongly cherish to this day, and still continually seek out. I'm not the only one who experienced this kind of interpersonal bonding -- there are tons of other players who made lasting friendships through playing WoW, and sometimes those friendships even led to marriages. 

[Image retrieved from The Guild Show] 

I spent a fragment of time playing the first in-game expansion, Burning Crusade, but shortly retired from playing the online MMO that would go on to reach a total player subscription base of 12 million at its peak.

While Burning Crusade, and then Wrath of the Litch King, set the stage for Azeroth’s escape, I was playing Halo 3 on Xbox 360 -- experiencing what would become the epitome of my online gaming experience.

Every now and then, Blizzard would e-mail me promotional codes for a week’s trial of gameplay on my old account. During WoW’s cataclysmic days, I entertained the notion of getting back on just to see how the game had changed. At several different points I reactivated my account -- my night-elf druid still level 60, my old raid gear now a relic of the past (much like my character), and my mindset coming into what I expected to experience once again.

But even though all my stuff was still there, the community wasn't.

I remember logging on, first noticing the instant queue mechanic raid finder, and hopped into a queue with a group of players, my role being healer. I remember going into that first instance, the first time I’d even played the game in at least 5 years, and attempting to communicate with my other group members like I used to do in WoW.

Despite asking friendly questions like, “How long have you guys been playing WoW?” my group members responded with silence. I eventually gave up on my attempts to connect with these players, and tried searching for several other groups in hopes to find some kind of community connection, to no avail.

Later on, when Mists of Pandaria was released, I got back on WoW for a short duration of time. Here, I also failed to find a community experience that echoed what was once such a dominant aspect of the Azeroth experience. I was nostalgic for other times; I felt out of place with the direction WoW had taken, like players like me were all but gone, and it was depressing to realize that the game had maybe become too curated for casual players.

[image retrieved from Forbes] 

The short time it took to reach max level disgruntled me. (You can actually buy level boosts now). The class talent changes seemed to imply streamlining. Attack stats and gold numbers inflated astronomically. The once centers-of-community capital cities were empty and forlorn. Azeroth was no longer a place of home.

The game’s rise in popularity had changed the game by making it more accessible to a large audience. Along with countless others, I had no problem with a game becoming more accessible to more players -- because the experience of gaming is something that should be shared -- but I just couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the game’s developers. Blizzard didn't offer players like me a place to play the game we loved, and it still doesn't.

Then I discovered and played on my first Vanilla private server by the team of developers at Feenix.

I played on Feenix’s “Blizzlike” Vanilla server from 2012 to 2013. This time choosing to go Horde, and at the then-accelerated rate of experience, I quickly rose to level 60 and began focusing on in-game raids, forming my own guild of players, and working towards those elevated epics.

It was here that I met players who reciprocated my longing for community, and for a familial Azeroth made up of multitudes of players and collaborations -- not the Azeroth that emphasized individual players. The players who were on Feenix had all mostly played Vanilla WoW “back in the day”, or played Burning Crusade. Many of them had quit playing the game during Wrath, or Cataclysm, and many of them felt the game had changed for the worse.

They were players like me, and our desire for a niche WoW experience only brought us closer. Once again I was experiencing an Azeroth of community, but it was more than that. It was a community of players who had seen the game they loved change too much, and who wished to play the version of the game that defined their original experiences in it.

[Image retrieved from Rebrn]

After a while, my university studies forced me to retire from Feenix servers, and many of my guildies fell out of touch. Regardless, I knew that there was something special about this experience.

So when I learned of the private server “Nostalrius Begins” I was the first of my WoW friends to step back into that nostalgic neck of the woods.

The groundbreaking server of Nostalirus Begins went online February 28th, 2015, and it offered players the experience of playing Vanilla WoW at the experience rate of the original. All of the leveling quests and dungeons were scripted to be Blizzlike, and despite a few coding bugs here and there, Nostalrius Begins was a private server unlike any other that previously existed.

There were other servers, like Feenix, and the oldest private server, Valkyrie, but neither of these servers came close to comparing to Nostalrius in terms of population and community. 

The dedicated team of Nostalrius developers had spent much of their free time working on providing a place for WoW players to play the version of the game that was loved by both developers and players. Reminiscent of the players on Feenix servers, Nostalrius became a community experience that was built by individuals who understood what the vanilla experience was like because they had played it, and wished to share it with others.

During my time on Nostalrius, I was one of thousands who reached level 60, and I was just about to begin acquiring best-in-slot gear when an unfortunate circumstance arose. Blizzard, who was previously known to shut down private servers of their old Azeroth, ordered a cease and desist on the developers of Nostalrius despite the server running on a non-profit basis.

The last few days of the server’s life, April 6 to April 10 of this year, masses of players gathered in a limbo-like state, discussing the server’s legacy, the experience that was shared, and what the future had in store.

(I documented some specific moments I experienced during the last days in a piece of prose poetry and in-game screen shots linked here.)

[Image retrieved from the Nostalrius website]

In the end, 800,000 player accounts were made on Nostalrius, with an active player base of 150,000, and a total 3,252,751 characters created. The Nostalrius team organized an online open letter to Blizzard shortly after the shutdown announcement was made and asked their playerbase to sign it and add their voice to the issue. The letter asks Blizzard to consider that "...changes may be made possible in the link between Blizzard and volunteer based legacy servers." As of today, the signature count is over 260,000. Reading the numerous comments on the petition, many signers echo the desire for a community experience once again. 

On June 1st, the team of Nostalrius met with Mike Morhaime at the Blizzard campus to discuss vanilla WoW and the Nostalrius server, and an announcement about the meeting is expected sometime this week.

Admittedly, nostalgia is influential in the yearning for official legacy servers, and aspects of the game today like dungeon finder, and the single-player focused changes allow individuals to play without having to dedicate extensive amounts of time in-order to progress. Many players love the WoW of today, and that’s awesome, but there are other communities of players who do not, and they only wish to play the game they once knew. These players would gladly even pay to play on official legacy servers.

Nostalrius themselves has cited that the work behind establishing a legacy WoW server would be monumental, but the community of players would gladly wait for an official server -- they just want the option to play the WoW they love. Blizzard has notoriously been against legacy servers, so whether or not they ever come to be, only time will tell. However, Nostalrius Begins has opened up a dialogue that many people, including YouTubers like JonTron and TheLazyPeon, are contributing to in regards to private servers and how WoW has changed. 

The meeting between Nostalrius and Blizzard is also a good step forward in this discussion because players are being heard, and developers are (hopefully) listening. 

[Cover image source]

Published Jun. 9th 2016
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