Were Blizzard Ever Serious About Vanilla World of Warcraft Servers?

When World of Warcraft launched I was captivated by the game. Taking part in the beta test and then into launch was a very exciting time. I invested many months of my life in Azeroth and I also ran a few very popular sites for the game; one of which I launched when the game was revealed at ECTS in London, where I attended the game’s press conference announcement. I get it. I understand the passion of Blizzard gamers and I understand the nostalgia surrounding the desire for vanilla servers.

Over the past couple of years, the demand for vanilla servers has become more mainstream and it hit a peak with Nostalrius. The Nostalrius team were serious about persuading Blizzard to launch official vanilla WoW servers following the company’s legal action against them. That legal threat was successful, and fans said their farewells to Nostalrius on 16 April 2016.

With the takedown complete, the community was reminded of that now famous quote from Blizzard. When asked at Blizzcon if would launch vanilla servers they said, “No, and by the way you don’t want to do that either. You think you do, but you don’t”. Old school World of Warcraft players disagreed with that sentiment.

But then there was a buzz in the World of Warcraft community. Blizzard appeared to finally be listening thanks to a Nostalrius-backed petition which received more than 280,000 signatures. Ex-Blizzard developer Mark Kern stepped in to try and make a legitimate case for vanilla servers by hand delivering the petition to Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime. Something was finally happening, and perhaps the company was ready to listen to its community.

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Kern drops into Blizzard to deliver the petition to Mike Morhaime

At the time the petition was being pushed, the good old phrase of “Blizzard knows best” was in the back of my mind. It’s a mantra I got used to hearing while involved with the Diablo 3community. Look how that turned out. Blizzard definitely doesn’t always know best when it comes to knowing what a community really wants, and I had a feeling that perhaps the meeting was no more than a PR exercise to calm the World of Warcraft community following the success of the petition.

When Blizzard then agreed to meet the Nostalrius team at their HQ in Irvine, the concept of restoring a vanilla WoW service looked possible. Blizzard had the source code but there were hurdles to overcome. According to the Nostalrius team that met with Blizzard, not all the information required to bring the original World of Warcraft back to life was under a version control system. It sounded as if it was possible, but there was going to be serious work involved to make it happen.

At the start of July last year, Nostalrius released their post-mortem of the meeting which revealed that restoring a vanilla WoW service was going to need Blizzard’s cooperation. With the World of Warcraft Legion expansion on the horizon, all Blizzard’s attention was on that and all communication from Blizzard to Nostalrius had ceased.

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Even prior to this post-mortem, there was an indication that Blizzard really had little interest in a vanilla service. During a Q&A stream on 16 June last year the petition was mentioned. The response from Blizzard was not what vanilla fans wanted to hear. Instead of a talking about vanilla legacy servers, they mentioned Pristine servers. Pristine servers would remove character transfers, heirloom gear, character boosts, Recruit-A-Friend bonuses, WoW Token, access to cross-realm zones, and group finder. A far cry from a full vanilla service.

Regarding Pristine servers, Blizzard stated, “It’s something we continue to talk about but obviously none of these ideas are dead or discarded. I wouldn’t expect to see anything on Pristine servers in the very near future. Right now our focus is Legion.”

At this point it was becoming clear that splitting the World of Warcraft community further with a vanilla service was not something Blizzard would consider. If a Pristine service could not get the green light what hope was there for vanilla?

In December 2016 Nostalrius folded into the Elysium service  but by 14 January Nostalrius had realised the error of their ways. By handing over their source and being involved with the new Elysium project, Nostalrius’ main goal of working with Blizzard and launching an official WoWvanilla service was effectively dead. It was obvious that if Nostalrius continued with an unofficial service Blizzard would never come back to the table. After tiring of Blizzard’s refusal to communicate further, the Nostalrius team had simply lost patience and made a rash decision.

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Looking back at the events of 2016, it was Blizzard’s best option to talk to the Nostalrius team. The community was becoming increasingly animated and frustrated. Blizzard needed to turn any negative PR into positive PR. They had to show they were really listening to the community, and they did that brilliantly by meeting with Mark Kern and the Nostalrius team. This is how it works. I know this from experience of sitting down at meetings with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team members. As long as they give the impression they are listening and have you leaving the room thinking something will be done, they have done their PR job. But once you’ve left the room, it’s unlikely that any action will be taken if it deviates from their plans.

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This week Blizzard issued another cease and desist demand to a new vanilla World of Warcraft service called Felmsyt. Felmsyt has been in development for four years by Gummy52. It lasted a mere few hours online before the server was pulled down. Gummy52 issued a statement on the Felmsyt website.

“I began this project roughly four years ago and last year when Blizzard began taking action more seriously it weighed heavily on me as not only was I already heavily invested into the work but others around me were as well. Because of my health situation I wasn’t in a position to cut losses and start over on something different, at least not something that would take four years to make. Last year’s news of what Blizzard was doing came at the absolute worst time for me, frankly, with so many years already invested. To explain what may appear as an odd series of decisions it seems worthwhile to disclose my condition, muscular dystrophy, which only one other person in the online sphere knew of until now.”

“So why did I make this project? I love the game and community, especially the community. The old game was a great way to meet people and see new faces. It makes me happy, and programming makes me happy. Of course, I am sad that things didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped but I don’t think I’d change any of the decisions I made. I gambled that we could cap the servers at 3k and enjoy a close community. Sadly, I did not win that gamble, though on some level it was nice to see so many people eager to enjoy something I worked on. This project gave the last four years of my life a sense of purpose that I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Gummy52 is obviously disappointed with the outcome and Blizzard is well within their rights to shut down Felmsyt. They need to protect their subscription model, community, and the World of Warcraft brand. I think most members of the community understand that.

Will there ever be an official World of Warcraft vanilla service? Based on the events of the past twelve months it’s highly unlikely. World of Warcraft is not the game we all knew and loved many years ago. Unless Blizzard has a dramatic change of heart, those who pine for official vanilla servers will need to move on.