Since the early part of last month there’s been an issue on the table for anyone who plays Activision Blizzard’s flagship MMO that has nothing to do with the present, and everything about the past. If you ask most players they’ll understand perfectly well the concept of the Private Server: a place where time stands still, where normal rules of play and behaviour aren’t under the watchful eye of the parent company and where playing for free really is possible: no tokens, no monthly sub and often no idea of what might happen to your character should you transgress.
For one particular server, known as Nostalrius, their aspirations to grow a strong and very vocal community has become a focal point for many issues, including the legitimacy of the current IP as it stands. Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft appear now to be inextricably linked, a fact that comes as a surprise to many commentators. Nobody reasonably expected the series of events that has transpired to come to pass, and what this last month has shown is that the parent company truly understand the value of attempting to keep everybody happy.
To understand the significance of Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft let’s go back to April 10th, when Blizzard issued a Cease and Desist order to shut down operations for good. Private Servers are, of course, in clear violation of Warcraft’s Terms of Service, quite apart from being a quite serious breach of intellectual property rights. Because of the high profile of this particular location, it was perhaps inevitable there would be a backlash of feeling, but I doubt even Blizzard themselves anticipated the 200,000 plus individuals who would go on to sign a Change.org petition asking for their version of the IP to not only be recognised but legitimised by the parent company.
In what was an unprecedented move, J Allan Brack then responded to this petition, explaining that Blizzard had already considered numerous possibilities for ‘Vanilla’ play experiences, and that it looked forward to more conversations with the Nostalrius ‘team in the future.’ At this point, the movement for Vanilla legitimacy had gained some notable supporters, including original Warcraft designer Mark Kern, who produced a passionate You Tube video to back up his beliefs:
On the ground, the movement for change was clear and obviously seductive: many players felt Blizzard had lost its way with content releases, often as far back as Cataclysm. Design and system changes had leeched away from the initial ‘joy’ of early Warcraft gameplay, when far less emphasis was placed on convenience. The addition of new classes and additional mechanics being simplified over time had caused many to lose faith in the abilities of current designers to create and maintain a viable and sustainable game world, and this was borne out by videos of vibrant, bustling locations on Nostalrius when often players on Live existed in low population and subdued servers. The allure of Vanilla was abundantly apparent, and Blizzard’s acknowledgement of the movement gave a new-found legitimacy to their actions.
It then became apparent that the Nostalrius were to attend a meeting with Activision Blizzard themselves and as a result a questionnaire was produced in order to allow the New Vanilla ‘founders’ to gauge the mood and outlook of their player base. However, commentators have suggested that the weighting and construction of questions in this document is perhaps not as objective and unbiased as it could be. There is an increasingly vocal portion of players that feel that Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft should have no connection at all, that by attempting to make Vanilla look acceptable the process effectively taints all subsequent expansions and content. Many current players are more than content with the existing status quo and feel that forcing a new version of the IP into existence will divert much needed attention and resources away from the existing world. So the very idea of a vanilla server seems to be splitting the current community as well as former players.
It is this point we’ve now reached, where the argument remains front and center until it becomes apparent how Nostalrius’ meeting plays out with Blizzard and how (if at all) the Company decides to act on the data it is presented with. It became apparent yesterday via a forum post from Ion Hazzicostas that Blizzard is more than aware of the breadth and diversity of the existing player base, and that crucially involves a massive portion that don’t read forums, have no interest in Private Servers and just appear when an Expansion is released. To properly understand Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft that massive, silent majority needs to be part of the equation too, and that will mean more than simply a Google Docs questionnaire on the matter. What could then transpire as a result of this entire series of events? Well, there’s probably an infinite number of potential solutions, as a result let’s pick three with at least a measure of practicality:
1. Blizzard ‘licenses’ a form of Vanilla Content.
The most fan-accomodating answer to the problem, it seems to me at least, would be to ‘license’ the Nostalrius people to run their server under Blizzard’s wing. That however would require a serious, long-term commitment on the part of Nostalrius themselves that I am not sure currently exists. It would also mean that all the many and various other Private Servers that continue to flourish could gain a level of legitimacy that would in term create further issues along the line, and inevitably should force the further restriction and elimination of anyone not using the IP in a manner that Blizzard specifies. Shutting down these bases will undoubtedly prove problematic and costly, but if Blizzard were to ‘preferentially’ single out Nostalrius for attention? That would probably need to be a consideration going forward.
2. Blizzard produces their own form of Vanilla content inside the existing IP.
This options probably the most realistic appeasement for everybody, and would involve a version of content that Blizzard totally owned and oversaw, and that would exist in tandem with the current live Expansion. The problem with this, of course is that after you’ve played all the content that existed in the original Vanilla world, where do you go? By very definition it is not as if you would or could demand an Expansion or new content. The existence of Azeroth as created has to remain enough to engage long term, and any content added to this version of the IP will automatically evolve it away from the original Vanilla ‘concept.’ What would Blizzard do in this situation, because presumably after a massive uptake of interest many people would do as is the case in the current game, simply stop playing and go do something else. One cure for this could be a progression server which slowly adds expansions and updates to the game over time.
3. The Vanilla ‘issue’ is not addressed and the status quo remains.
For many people, this is already an expected outcome, but the intervention of Blizzard itself into the argument makes the ‘yeah we’ll listen but nothing will change’ outlook not as inevitable as many might first believe. What this whole debate has highlighted is the realisation that some people love parts of this game more than others, and that extends for some to an entirely different version of the IP. There has been speculation that the time it takes for each new Expansion is a key contributing factor to Nostalrius’ popularity this time around, and the fact it will be the longest end tier raiding cycle since the game began has probably got a lot to do with the exodus. The fact remains however that Blizzard’s commitment to Legion is considerable and largely unswaying at present. Expecting change by schism therefore is not an ideal way forward.
With Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft now pretty much inextricably intertwined, it is had to see how you create the perfect solution to this problem to begin with. Blizzard are stuck between the proverbial Blood and Night Elf: however, if I’m playing Vanilla the Sin’dorei don’t even exist, and the Burning Legion never entered the contest for ‘best Big Bad in an Expansion’ because there were never any to begin with. For people to be able to separate such elements that for others have become inextricably intertwined is no mean feat either, but this goes back to possibly the most fundamental issue that makes Nostalrius and the future of Warcraft something that everybody at least needs to consider. In the many articles I’ve read from supporters of the Vanilla cause, the sentiment is almost universally the same. These players miss what they consider the best days of Azeroth.
Whether they justify it with design decisions, or their own personal feelings, the result is the same. Something was lost between the past and the present that simply recreating the Universe as it was allows players to get back. It is, in essence, why people act out famous plays by Shakespeare in period dress: the words and the costumes allow you to lose yourself in the moment and briefly, tantalisingly, you can imagine you’re really in the Middle Ages. That’s what Vanilla gives players, the sense that somehow it’s still 2005. Social media didn’t exist, you were still in school/able to play all the time, and everything was perfect.
Except the reality of course is a little way from that truth.
What happens next of course is now firmly in Blizzard’s hands. I have no doubt that whatever is decided that somebody is already working out how to ensure that as many people as possible are kept happy. Yes, Blizzard are a multi-billion dollar company, but they understand more than a great many other organisations what it means to keep the customer base happy and coming back for more. If they can find a way to make it so that everybody has their cake and gets to eat it without guilt? I’m betting they’ll find a way to make it happen.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, News, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday