I played 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. Earlier this month, 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 random youtube comment, and it was easy enough to download and install. I thought, “I’ll just try it for a minute, see what it’s like…” And 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.
This was surprising to me; I honestly thought that it was little more than curiosity that motivated me to install it in the first place. I had no idea I’d end up playing for as long as I did, and dragging in other friends to play with me as well. Especially when I was already paying for a monthly WoW subscription. Nostalrius scratched an itch that I didn’t realize I had, and I got sucked in, in very much the same way as I did way back when.
Fast forward to April of 2016… and it’s gone. While I understand and completely 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 necessary), 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. In order for WoW to have evolved to what it is today, decisions were made, and some of the aspects that made vanilla so wonderful were lost in the process.
Why did I want to play vanilla in the first place?
I admit, vanilla WoW is incredibly special to me. It was the first game I worked on as a game designer, and it was also a game I ended up playing seriously for years after launch. I spent hours, days, months; I’ve gotten to max level on several characters, I’ve bought every expansion, and I have never regretted any of it. To this day I treasure the time I’ve spent in Azeroth adventuring with good friends.
But slowly, over the years, that game I loved playing was lost to brand new expansion areas, legacy areas of the world were drastically changed by Cataclysm, and the game as we knew it was slowly altered as entirely new features and wide-sweeping class changes were added. This isn’t to say that the changes were bad; in fact I’d say that largely, they were awesome. But in adding the new, some of the old faded away.
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 on Nostalrius. I know this to be true of so many of the other players there as well. Playing actually became somewhat of a player study for me; I’d often ask players I grouped with why they were there. There was nostalgia, of course. And plenty of players that enjoyed the game systems in an earlier form; players that felt that the challenge was a better match for their sensibilities. For some of them, WoW was wrapped up even deeper in their memories; many played WoW as kids or early teens, and it became a part of their childhood or gave them a place to escape an unhappy home life. Playing on Nostalrius allowed them to feel a small piece of that again.
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?
To answer this, let’s shift gears and talk about accessibility and user experience. From the very beginning, the WoW team was focused on delivering to players the best experience possible. This not only meant fun and engaging content, it meant that the game needed to be accessible — easy to play — and be flexible enough to allow players to play the way they wanted.
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: The Challenge of Finding a Group
The dungeon group finder tool was designed to eliminate those annoying parts of preparing to play through WoWs instanced dungeons. It allows you to choose a dungeon and then enter into a queue, and then the game automatically matches you up with an appropriate group. In addition to finding the group for you, the system also teleports you to the dungeon, saving you the time of travelling there yourself.
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?
Or take the enhanced quest system and the numerous other changes to the game that have since made questing easier. In vanilla, quests were short (255 characters or less, to be exact), but you still had to read them to understand what to do. While I was a quest designer, it was mandated that every quest include the required information for players — there shouldn’t be any guessing. Questgiver, task, NPC name and location to return the quest were all included in each quest entry. All of the quest team knew the rules, and we followed them. We wanted players to be able to understand what they were being asked to do. (If you were one of the players looking for Mankrik’s wife… Yeah, sorry about that one 😀 )
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 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
In both of these instances, the systems were made easier to use; in the interest of making the game easier to play; more accessible. And it’s true, as a game gets more accessible, more people will be able to play it. You’ll have fewer players quit out of frustration.
From a game design perspective, this is where things get tricky. When a task is easy to do, more people can do it. This is true. 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 in every game targeted at a large audience.
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; it is the 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.
The Importance of Player Interaction
Changing both of these systems also had an impact on something very key to the success and longevity of multiplayer games: the quality and quantity of relationships between players. MMOs all strive towards one main goal, to build and maintain an active player base — it’s the only way these games survive. Part of the way that they do this is by cultivating relationships between players inside the game. There are organized ways of doing this; such as guilds, but there are also much more informal ones. Getting a group together for a dungeon falls into this category.
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? Absolutely. The point I’m making here is simply that this opportunity 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
In a world where you need to read a quest log, view a map, and ask other players questions in order to complete a quest, you have an opportunity to learn more about the game world that surrounds you. You’re navigating it yourself, you’re remembering landmarks, you’re gaining an intimate understanding of the lay of the land. And again, you’re interacting with the other players around you, who can tell you what to look for, if you’re in the right place, or where that quest giver is hiding. But add a system that marks everything on the minimap, and all of a sudden, you can completely disconnect from the game, yet still play it.
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 there. 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. They never have to ask anyone how to find the Gallina Winery in Stormwind, ever again. And the world becomes less immersive and interesting because of it.
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?
I loved playing on Nostalrius. Not only did I get to indulge my game designer nostalgia, but I also got to relive so many experiences that the current version of WoW wasn’t providing to me. Working to find a dungeon group led to making friends; random questing adventures led to joining a guild; I even got to relive some old school dungeon runs, complete with late nights and many corpse runs. Overall I found the community on Nostalrius to be friendly and helpful. This may have something to do with the audience that finds vanilla WoW appealing, but I think it’s also because the game inspires this by design. The game left some gaps; players jumped into those gaps and helped one another along.
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 (again) playing on Nostalrius.
Should Blizzard 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 suitable 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, and dealing with gold farmers and hackers, just for starters. 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 read J. Allen Brack’s response to the community regarding Nostalrius yesterday. 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 so often 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. And if they ever figure out a way to get a vanilla server up and running, well, I’ll be one of the first in line. Vanilla for life, yo.