I Played Vanilla WoW on Nostalrius… Here’s Why.

I still have the Nostalrius WoW shortcut on my PC desktop. I just can’t bring myself to delete it, even though the server has been inactive for almost two weeks now. In April 2016, the dedicated team behind Nostalrius complied with a cease and desist order from Blizzard Entertainment to shut down their private WoW server that had amassed 150,000 active players. I was one of those players.

I can’t log in anymore. But for some reason, I still can’t delete that shortcut.

I played on the Nostalrius server for about six months. I found the server by chance in a YouTube comment, and it was easy enough to download and install. I’ll just try it for a minute, sure. The first time I started up the game, connected to the Nostalrius server, and woke up in Northshire Valley, it was like embracing an old friend after a very, very long absence. It was happy, and familiar, and wonderfully simple. I was home.

Fast forward a few months later and it’s gone. While I completely understand and agree with Blizzard Entertainment’s decision to demand the shutdown of this server (it’s well within their rights — and as a company they need to protect their IP in any way required), I still found myself deeply disappointed when I heard the news. As I processed this, I (in true game designer fashion) began to analyze my own response.

  • Why did I want to play vanilla in the first place?
  • What was I looking for that the current iteration of WoW wasn’t giving me?
  • Did I find what I was looking for, playing on Nostalrius?

I also found myself wondering…

  • Should Blizzard pay attention and respond to players that are asking for a classic WoW server?

In order to answer these questions, we’ll need to dive into some of the changes that were made to World of Warcraft over the years since its launch, and talk about how game design decisions are always trade-offs. When you make a decision, you will always give something up in order to get the benefit of something else. This concept is at the core of the reason that classic WoW realms like Nostalrius have emerged.

Why did I want to play vanilla?

But slowly, over the years, that game I loved playing was lost to brand new expansion areas (most notably Cataclysm, as it completely destroyed and changed many of the classic zones), altered as entirely new features and wide-sweeping class changes were added.

When I log into the current version of WoW, sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize that game I once worked on. I know it’s in there somewhere, but it’s wearing 17 sets of epic armor and carrying 86 legendary weapons and is riding shotgun on a two-seater flying mount. I sometimes see it pass by but barely have time to wave before it’s gone again.

So of course, I’d never deny that it was nostalgia that originally motivated me to play. I know this to be true of so many of the other players on Nostalrius as well. For some of them, WoW is often wrapped up even deeper in their memories; many played WoW as kids or early teens, and it became a part of their childhood.

It would be so easy to stop here. To say, yeah, it’s just people trying to relive the “good ol’ days” and leave it at that. It would partially be true. But the thing is, this goes much deeper than just nostalgia.

What was I looking for that the current iteration of WoW wasn’t giving me?

In classic WoW, you can see this reflected in things like:

— The friendliness of the starting areas — enemies don’t attack unless attacked first, and your character’s health regen is so fast that it’s almost impossible to die in the first 5 levels of the game.

— The death penalty is minor — just run back and you’re all good to go. In many MMOs prior to WoW, you might lose experience, all of your gear, or both!

— Players can play solo in WoW and expect to do well. This was markedly different from other MMOs of the time, which required grouping up with others to be successful.

There are many more examples but you get the idea. Overall, the WoW team had committed to providing a positive, accessible player experience with every aspect of the game. It was well understood that the game needed to be welcoming, fun and rewarding from the start in order to retain the huge audience we were hoping for. Largely, I’d say we were successful.

So it’s no huge surprise that this effort continued as the game evolved. Friction points in the game were identified and new features were added to make things even easier and more accessible for players. There are two specific examples of this that I want to talk about here, because they made such a huge impact: the dungeon group finder, and the enhanced questing system.

LFG

Prior to the dungeon group finder, players needed to do these things themselves. To find a group, they asked in trade chat, they sent private messages to friends, they yelled in the middle of Orgrimmar. Finding five players to do a dungeon was sometimes a difficult task. And then to make it more complicated, once players did find a group, then they had to wait while everyone traveled from various parts of the game world to the dungeon entrance. No teleporting, no shortcuts (unless the warlock got there first).

So it’s no wonder that doing a dungeon in vanilla was a huge time commitment. Getting a group together and getting to the dungeon usually averaged around an hour, and then the group still had to play through the content, which was usually a few hours just by itself. And sometimes, your group wasn’t skilled enough, wasn’t high enough level, or couldn’t seem to coordinate well enough, so even after all that, you still couldn’t complete the dungeon. With all these friction points, it makes sense that Blizzard would try to solve what they saw as a problem.

Where is Mankrik’s Wife?

But now, with the new system, reading a quest is a thing of the past. All you need to do is follow your minimap and you can complete quests like a pro. Enemy targets are marked, the quest giver is always a short distance away, and you’ll almost never find yourself wondering, “Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to do?”

The system has been made so easy, in fact, that you don’t have to read a single word. A couple of months ago, a friend and I played new characters up to around level 10. I never read a quest in that time, yet I accepted and completed tons of them. My friend and I chatted about life over ventrilo as we followed the markers on the minimap, and leveled up.

The Ultimate Goal of Accessibility

From a game design perspective, this is where things get tricky. When a task is easy to do, more people can do it. However, when a task is easy to do, a player feels less satisfaction in completing it. It feels less like an achievement; it has less value attached to it.

So by removing all the barriers to things like dungeons and questing, these activities have become inherently less valuable. There is less satisfaction to be gained by completing them. And that’s because the struggle itself is essential — overcoming a challenge leads to a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Without the challenge, that doesn’t happen. The easier the challenge is to overcome, the less satisfying it is from a player perspective.

It may sound like I am arguing against the dungeon group finder and the enhanced quest system right now, and I’m not — to be completely honest, I probably would have made the exact same changes had I been the designer tasked to fixing those problem areas, so I can completely understand the analysis that got Blizzard to where things are now. Accessibility is incredibly important and essential to retaining players and it needs to be a priority.

But taking a look at the systems now in practice, it’s clear that maximizing accessibility comes at a cost. To make your game as accessible as possible, you must give up something in return. What you most often give up is the powerful moments in a game where a player overcomes a challenge; that challenge that drives players forward and keeps them engaged. It’s up to you as a designer to figure out where the challenge is appropriate, and where it is not — hardly an easy issue to tackle, much more of a gray area when compared to other decisions a designer needs to make.

Wanna Join My Guild?

Sure, it might take an hour to get your group together, but during this time, you’re doing something very crucial to building community: talking. You’re communicating with players who you may have never met before, and in doing that, there is the potential to build relationships. Any MMO designer will tell you that part of good MMO design is to ensure that your players have opportunities to interact with each other, where they can focus on completing a task together (even if that task is simply getting your group together to play). MMOs need player interaction for them to survive long term.

The dungeon group finder eliminated the challenges involved with getting a group together and getting to the dungeon location, but as a side effect, it also completely eliminated the need to talk to other players to do a dungeon. Players lost the opportunity to build relationships here. The dungeon group finder made dungeons more accessible, but eliminated a place where players had the chance to meet one another. Are there other opportunities? Sure, but my point is simply that this one in particular was lost due to a change made in the interest of accessibility.

Design decisions are trade-offs. As a designer, problems like these are the toughest to solve, because it’s often less about the “right” answer, and more about clearly defining your goals and understanding the consequences of your decisions. Even if you decide in favor of making something more accessible, it’s good to understand what you’re giving up.

Lost in Stormwind… Again

The closest real world equivalent to this is using Google Maps or Waze to get to a destination. It’s so easy to zone out and just let the app worry about how to get to your destination. Asking for directions? Memorizing landmarks and street names? Backtracking to find your way home on your own? Who cares! There’s no need to learn your surroundings if it’s someone else’s job to tell you how to get to your destination. And in the same way that I still have to use my GPS app to get to locations I’ve been to multiple times, WoW players are not learning their surroundings anymore, either, because the quest system handles it for them. And the world becomes less immersive and interesting.

The current WoW quest system is incredibly accessible. But that accessibility comes at the cost of immersion. For a game that relies on rich backstory and lore, thoughtful design and breathtakingly beautiful scenery, the enhanced questing system actually becomes a detriment. It helps players figure out where to go next, but it also drives a huge divider between players and the world itself. If I’m too busy watching a marker on my map, I’m not going to pay any attention to the world around me.

Vanilla WoW, even with its imperfect questing system, ensured that players really learned their way around the game. It’s less accessible in that the player has to do more work in order to find success. However, because of that, completing a quest actually feels more meaningful; it becomes more of an accomplishment. And in simply questing, that player gets to know the world around them.

Did I find what I was looking for, playing on Nostalrius?

When players ask for a vanilla WoW server, they are asking for so much more than just nostalgia; what they are really asking for is meaningful experiences. Experiences where they have the opportunity to build relationships, to overcome challenges, and to feel that sweet satisfaction of victory. Vanilla WoW provided a meaningful, memorable experience to millions of players. And that’s what I found playing on Nostalrius. So largely, yes, I did find what I was looking for.

Should Blizzard pay attention and respond to players that are asking for a classic WoW server?

To me, this question has no clear answer. Running a vanilla WoW server is an undertaking that has a considerable cost attached, even for Blizzard. It means not only the hardware to support the servers and developing a viable vanilla build, but also integration into Battle.net, a community support team, a tech support team, GMs, QA, a minimal dev team to address issues, dealing with gold farmers and hackers. It wouldn’t be free or easy to do this, and it’s questionable whether or not there would be enough players to justify it, even if Blizzard did take this all on.

All that aside, I was both surprised and happy to see J. Allen Brack’s response to the community regarding Nostalrius. To see that the issue has been elevated to this level — that there’s any internal discussion about it at all — it’s clear that no matter how big Blizzard has become, at the core it’s still a company that cares deeply about its players. And that’s a wonderful reassurance in an industry that from the inside often feels so very corporate, decisions driven by stock price and shareholder concerns rather than by what players want.

Whether or not Blizzard ever decides to run a vanilla server, I’m sure they have learned a lot about the impact of the changes they’ve made to WoW over time. It’s likely that every single person on that team has ideas about what they’d do differently if given the chance to do it over again, and that the lessons they’ve learned will impact all their future titles for the better.

Did you play on Nostalrius? Let me know what motivated you to play, and if you plan on playing WoW Classic when it launches!

This article was originally posted on christinebrownell.com on April 28, 2016.