Update: Blizzard has responded with an official statement about the closure of the Nostalrius fan server.
Below is the full statement from World of Warcraft executive producer J. Allen Brack:
We wanted to let you know that we’ve been closely following the Nostalrius discussion and we appreciate your constructive thoughts and suggestions.
Our silence on this subject definitely doesn’t reflect our level of engagement and passion around this topic. We hear you. Many of us across Blizzard and the WoW Dev team have been passionate players ever since classic WoW. In fact, I personally work at Blizzard because of my love for classic WoW.
We have been discussing classic servers for years - it’s a topic every BlizzCon - and especially over the past few weeks. From active internal team discussions to after-hours meetings with leadership, this subject has been highly debated. Some of our current thoughts:
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.
We explored options for developing classic servers and none could be executed without great difficulty. If we could push a button and all of this would be created, we would. However, there are tremendous operational challenges to integrating classic servers, not to mention the ongoing support of multiple live versions for every aspect of WoW.
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.
One other note - we’ve recently been in contact with some of the folks who operated Nostalrius. They obviously care deeply about the game, and we look forward to more conversations with them in the coming weeks.
You, the Blizzard community, are the most dedicated, passionate players out there. We thank you for your constructive thoughts and suggestions. We are listening.
Original story: If you've never heard of it, Nostalrius is a fan-run server featuring a version of World of Warcraft that never moved beyond the original launch content. There were three communities: PVE, PVP, and a version that moved forward into The Burning Crusade. The servers were free and the community eventually came to feature 800,000 registered players. Nostalrius was about to launch the Ahn Qiraj raid soon.
Blizzard Entertainment has served Nostalrius with a cease-and-desist, shutting down the project.
"Yesterday, we received a letter of formal notice from US and French lawyers, acting on behalf of Blizzard Entertainment, preparing to stand trial against our hosting company OVH and ourselves in less than a week now," the operators of Nostalrius said in a statement on the official site. "This means the de facto end of Nostalrius under its current form. As soon as we received this letter, we decided to inform the team and players about the future of Nostalrius, where we have all passionately committed our time and energy as volunteers."
The servers are shutting down on April 10. The operators have vowed to released the source code and anonymized player data, so anyone can bring the servers back online elsewhere. Basically, they're stepping back in response to legal pressure, but if you want to stand in front of the firing squad, they're ready to help.
The folks behind Nostalrius also penned an open letter to Blizzard, offering to help with officially-sanctioned legacy servers for World of Warcraft.
"We never saw our community as a threat for Blizzard. It sounds more like a transverse place where players can continue to enjoy old World of Warcraft's games no longer available, maybe until a new expansion appears; a huge and powerful community of fans that remains attached to future Blizzard games, as we have in no other gaming company," says the letter on Change.org. "We don't have the pretention to come up with a complete solution regarding legacy servers that you and your company didn't already think about, but we'd be glad and honored to share it with you if you're interested, still on a volunteer basis."
Legacy servers aren't a new concept. MMOs move forward, adding new content and gameplay changes year-after-year, and some fans just prefer to play the game how it used to be. Some argue that classic servers are about preserving gaming culture. If you want to play Mega Man Legends in its original form, it might be hard to find a working PlayStation, but that's all you really need. Sure, it gets harder the farther back you jump - Jeremy can attest to that - but once you have the hardware, it's easy and legal to play classic games. There's no way to revisit original versions of an MMO.
There have been a number of fan-run servers for defunct MMOs or older versions of current MMOs, but they're hard to find or they don't last long. I've played on classic World of Warcraft servers once or twice. It's not my thing, but I understand those that like the option.
You may wonder why Blizzard doesn't just step up and run its own official vanilla World of Warcraft servers. Everquest has ongoing progression servers - Phinigel, Lockjaw, and Ragefire - that started in the game's original launch form and will slowly ramp up through the expansions. It's basically a way to hold onto customers who would otherwise play another MMO, or nothing. Blizzard could fold official vanilla or Burning Crusade servers into the current subscription price, or even charge those fans an additional fee ($5)on top of the regular subscription.
There's a few reasons Blizzard doesn't go this route. The first is that the company doesn't want to split its playerbase; it wants everyone playing on the latest World of Warcraft because that's where its development resources are focused. Players tend to forget that's why many of the recent changes to WoW have happened: Blizzard was making content that only a fraction of the playerbase got to see. It wasn't cost-efficient.
The second problem is once Blizzard offers an official service, it also has to provide customer support for that service. Players on a free fan server like Nostalrius expect bugs and issues. It's free, it's from the fans, so it probably will hiccup here and there. Move that into Blizzard proper and you have a service where Blizzard has to look into bugs and issues that were fixed in later expansions, and bring those fixes back to these distinct versions of the game.
Blizzard employees have commented on the official vanilla server idea before.
"I think the biggest challenges for an idea like this are would it be interesting enough to keep playing, and would there be enough sustained interest from other players to make the world feel alive. I could easily see the outcome being people logging in, going 'Wow, the game is so much better now,' and logging out," explained Blizzard community manager Josh "Lore" Allen when asked about vanilla servers.
"Sure, there's definitely interest, even internally. We just don't think there's enough to offset the costs, " he added. "Personally, I'd 100% expect it to be something almost everyone just pokes at for a week or two and then drops. Not really an effective use of time for devs who could be working on any number of features for the live game. Speaking for myself, I'd love to go back and poke at classic. I just don't think I'd play it for long. If that's the case, I think we'd rather focus on fixing the modern game."
"No," replied another Blizzard employee when asked about classic realms during a Blizzcon 2015 Q&A. "There's a lot of emotional desire but it hasn't done well in other MMOs. It's problematic because of going back to old code, fixing old bugs, etc."
Nostalrius boasted 150,000 active players with concurrent peaks of around 18,000 players, so there does seem to be some desire for legacy servers, but World of Warcraft subscriptions were still around 5.5 million the last time Blizzard gave us numbers. That puts the 150,000 players in some context from Blizzard's perspective. I think there's potential for the idea of World of Warcraft progression server, akin to Everquest's offering, but I'm certain Blizzard's costs would still be rather high given the effort required.
"The rest of the work was done on a 100% volunteer basis," explained one of Nostalrius' operators in a Reddit thread. "We did not pay any developers, any GMs, any person whatsoever involved in Nostalrius. We did not pay them because we did not make money - we resisted direct donations and in fact, we provided direct links for players to pay for the server upkeep directly. Even if you wanted to give us money, you couldn't and we would have refused it."
"As far as hours go, we did spend a lot of time on the project. Speaking for myself, I often spent 20-30 hours per week working with our development team, sifting through our bugtracker to validate or invalidate bug reports and helping lead the server in conjunction with the rest of the Core team. There were often weeks where some of the staff members did not sleep in order to work on the server."
All that work would have to be paid if Blizzard did it officially and that's how costs add up.
I honestly think that Blizzard will offer its own legacy servers eventually, but only when subscriber numbers drop to the point that it becomes financially lucrative to do so. Until then, fans will have to pass around Nostalrius' source code like some MMO Underground Railroad, dodging Blizzard's legal arm and moving from ISP to ISP. I wish them luck.