The Vanilla Dream

In a sense, playing MMOs impairs our judgement. We can’t stand back and be impartial anymore, judging from on high. We can look back to the Elder Days but our vision is clouded by the fog of years and the memories of many, many man-hours in the trenches. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come in, look around and say something that makes everybody blink.

I started playing World of Warcraft around July of 2007. This was well into the Burning Crusade era, but other than starting Draenei or Blood Elf characters, I wouldn’t touch any of the expansion’s real meat for a long while yet. Changes were afoot then; the game was shifting under players’ feet even if they weren’t noticing. The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj had been opened long ago. XP rates had been accelerated and content gaps had been methodically filled in. Mechanical burdens on certain classes were being eased. Autoloot became available and quest trackers were starting to help lead players through the content. Even at low levels better gear became available in the starter zones, and thus in the auction house, and crafting was never retuned… and still hasn’t been to this day, making most crafting done below the tradeskill cap useless.

Even aside from the total revamp of level 1-60 content that Catacylsm brought, WoW has changed very substantially since it launched. Thousands of little things have changed, some called nerfs and others buffs, and some good and some bad, but the aggregate effect has been to make most gameplay easier and the world feel more programmed and structured. “Over-Managed” is, I think, the best way to put it. The game’s story is now Blizzard’s story rather than the story filled in by your imagination between pieces of Blizzard content.

It used to be that if you played on a PvP server you could only make characters of one faction or the other; you couldn’t have both Horde and Alliance on that server. By the time Blizzard lifted this restriction, almost nobody complained — because open-world PvP aside from the occasional random gank had almost completely ceased already. Blizzard had begun to gently herd PvP-oriented players into instanced battlegrounds and arenas where the gameplay could be more carefully controlled.

This process was already underway when I started in mid-2007. If I say that I think WoW was a more compelling game then than it is now, it would be tempting to call it nostalgia, and to be honest it would be hard to convince even myself that nostalgia wasn’t a factor; I’d just be nostalgic for mid-2007 or thereabouts instead of late 2005 or whatever.

Without any of this explicitly in mind I re-installed the WoW client a couple of weeks ago and fired up a trial (the so-called “starter edition”) account that I’ve had for some time now. I started playing a number of different characters including the new Pandaren, the slightly less new Goblin and the old-but-revamped Tauren. I didn’t break level 7 in any of these examples, and the whole process felt not just uncompelling but actually distasteful. A lot of good things have been brought to WoW over the years but it seems that a lot has been lost, and the direction, at least, of that chain of events is very clear. But is that just nostalgia talking? Do I just remember the Azeroth of 2007 fondly because those were the early days of my MMO hobby?

Maybe it’s possible to get an answer to this question; there’s been some talk of late in the MMO blogosphere about a project called Emerald Dream, a WoW ‘private server’ that replicates the state of the game in late 2006, before Burning Crusade patches started to hit, a time when the launch problems were straightened out but before the first of the major direction shifts away from the open world had taken place.

Now, I think there are reasons to be leery of the private server business. For one, it’s a murky gray legal area at best; basically at any point the Blizzard boot might come down and the server could be shut down. In this particular case the people responsible aren’t making any money from it (and don’t even appear to be taking donations as far as I can tell,) but they aren’t going to quite the same lengths as, say, some of the pre-NGE SWG “emulators” to insulate themselves against potential legal action by requiring you to obtain your own properly dated version of the client. Blizzard has come down hard in the past on people who were trying to make money off of private servers, but (apparently) not-for-profit private servers appear to be very abundant and not at all hard to find. It seems unlikely to me that Blizzard doesn’t know about them, and yet some appear to have been running for years.

Too, there are (admittedly interesting) technical challenges faced by a team running a private server without access to the actual server code; from my understanding the server-side part of the game is basically recreated from scratch by deciphering the packets sent out by the client. I’m not sure where the Emerald Dream folks are with this, but in the presumably similar cases of pre-NGE SWG projects, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s not working yet.

I’m not being coy in saying that I have never played on a private server and have generally stayed well clear of the whole slightly sordid (at best) business. Yet I have been tempted twice; in both cases not by games that I played years ago but by games I missed in their heyday: Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies and now Vanilla WoW. I was also tempted by and did indeed play on EQ’s “throwback” Fippy Darkpaw server, but that effort is not a true (or even really close) emulation of the classic game; rather, it is the modern game with some superficial changes made to it to make it look more like EQ as it was back then. Imagine a “vanilla” WoW server that took out flying mounts and expansion content, capped levels at 60 and maybe turned the XP gain rate down a bit, but was otherwise the same as the modern game — that’s basically what Fippy Darkpaw is. Nevertheless, this wasn’t why it didn’t work for me. With no nostalgic connection to the EQ of old or indeed much affection for the current game it has evolved into, I simply couldn’t overcome the sheer datedness of the whole thing, and I abandoned it after a couple of hours.

On the other hand, Fippy is run by SOE and is therefore far less troublesome to me. If Blizzard were to offer even a slapdash vanilla server or two I’m quite sure that they’d be boiling over with population and that lapsed people would resubscribe to play on them; the demand for such might be enough to keep a smaller MMO or two afloat. But it’s likely seen as a play for chump change by Blizzard, and the effort of setting such a server up is not trivial; if you think it is, then I would gently suggest that you have no idea what you are talking about. So I think that any official effort in this direction is very unlikely for the foreseeable future, although I can think of a couple of creative ways in which it might be done with official sanction from Blizzard.

Wilhelm floated the idea of subscribing to WoW but choosing to play on Emerald Dream instead; this would put a player in the ethical clear but perhaps not the legal one. On the other hand, if Blizzard were to offer some kind of classic or vanilla server then I would be strongly tempted to check that out, and I would feel a whole lot more comfortable with that.

3 responses to “The Vanilla Dream

  1. I can fully sympathise with this. I started in early 2007 myself and the World in World of Warcraft very much felt like a world to me back then. Blizzards obsession with queued instance content and linear/phased PVE drove me away before Mists even landed. I tried the beta for Mists but it’s not for me.

    The official time-locked server issue is an interesting one. I’ve seen threads on the official forums after every expansion asking for this. I suppose as you state Blizzard is unwilling or unable to commit the significant resources needed to do it well and on scale to cope with, I would agree, high interest in such a service from old/ex players.

    I too dislike the grey nature of unofficial servers, not least because it would be too easy to engineer malware and probably difficult for anyone other than Blizzard to guard against third party efforts in that space.

  2. As someone who did play EQ in 1999 (and ever since) I thought Fippy wasn’t at all a bad representation of life back then. Much better than the first attempt at a Progression server a few years earlier. I really enjoyed playing there for a few weeks and would have been happy enough to go all the way with it if it wasn’t that there are so many other new MMOs to be playing.

    I am also in exactly the same frame of mind as you over both Emerald Dawn and pre-NGE SWG private servers. I missed both of those MMOs in their prime and I would love to take a look. I am very wary of private servers for all kinds of reasons, though, and again there really just isn’t the time. Can’t go backwards for going forwards.

  3. My problem with Fippy wasn’t really that it was a bad representation of early era EQ; SOE did the best they could with what they had to work with. I just couldn’t be engaged by it. It wasn’t the graphics – I think EQ holds up remarkably well considering its age. But the interface and the time required killed it for me.

    Also, a brief addendum on why we aren’t going to see a throwback server, to the limits of my understanding. There is more to it than this, I’m sure.

    First of all, one doesn’t just “launch a retro server,” because most of the game happens on the client side. So you’d have to not only re-engineer the server but the client as well – which means you’d need a separate client entirely, running instead of the modern one. And then you have to figure out which version; lots of stuff happens under the hood, invisible to the players and with no obvious effect on the game or the world, but which devs might feel obligated not to throw away. Security measures are one obvious example of this kind of thing — would you play WoW without an authenticatior these days? So you can’t just grab a CD with some arbitrary past date on it and fire up the cluster, and some stuff that doeshave an obvious effect can depend on stuff that doesn’t and was put in for other reasons. Good code interlocks, and you write code objects to be as versatile as possible. Change one object and you can have a cascade effect where now you’re rewriting the three other things that used it, and then the three things that each of those touched, and so on. That’s if you even have archives of every build of both server and client. There’s really no reason to do so, and SOE for one says they don’t.

    Too, there’s going to be code in there that was written by people no longer on the team, possibly a lot of it on a project of WoW’s size. Figuring out other people’s code sucks unless there is excellent commenting, and there often isn’t. So, again, often this means rebuilding from scratch, and then you’ve got to test that to make sure that it doesn’t break something that wasn’t obvious.

    So you’re basically talking about a major, expansion-level rebuild of both server and client. That, for Blizzard, is probably most of their dev team over the span of two years or so. I doubt they have some philosophical objection to doing this kind of thing; it’s just impractical given that the number of people it’ll bring back is almost certainly small for an operation of Blizzard’s scale.