World Of Warcraft is a living place. With each expansion it sails onwards, leaving old players behind as new ideas, faces and philosophies keep the 11-year-old MMO current. However, some players would prefer to step back in time and wander the world they knew, like revisiting the street you grew up on. Until April 10, Nostalrius existed to do just that. It was the largest private server running WOW patch 1.12 – the final build of the base game, free from expansions and adulteration. Nostalgia was so strong that 800,000 people registered Nostalrius accounts, and 150,000 were active players.
This took place without the approval of Activision Blizzard. The Battle.net EULA, which governs every Blizzard game, forbids the creation of private servers, despite WOW’s past surviving in no other form. So it was that Blizzard lawyers swooped down on Nostalrius, issuing a cease-and-desist order that gave 15 days to comply. Comply its operators did, and Nostalrius is now dark – but not in the least bit silent.
The outcry at Blizzard’s legal blow is unprecedented. At the time of writing, a petition addressed to Blizzard president Mike Morhaime has attracted nearly 260,000 signatures. Op-eds abound, and the Nostalrius team is preparing a colossal postmortem, intended to function as a DIY guide to building a record-breaking private server. Among the team is Nano, Nostalrius’s test lead, operating under a pseudonym.
“We are huge fans of Blizzard, and WOW specifically,” Nano says. “We love the game and wanted to see it preserved and felt nobody since Blizzard had done it properly. Nostalrius wasn’t a business, it was a passion project.”
It’s the team’s boundless enthusiasm that makes legal intervention seem like a hammer blow to fans. The feeling is that this must be a grey area – that private servers are a natural part of the gaming ecosystem for as long as the service can’t be obtained legitimately. Jas Purewal, of specialist videogame law firm Purewal & Partners, makes the distinction between ideals and legality unhappily clear.
“It’s fairly well established that running a private server without the consent of the game publisher will face legal issues of both intellectual property infringement and breach of contract – EULA breaches, for example,” Purewal tells us. “Although in theory there could be legal defenses in favor of the private server operator, in practice they have not been well received by either game publishers or, more importantly, judges. In fact, it’s Blizzard which has led the way in helping to set these precedents.”
In 2010, Blizzard was awarded $88 million in damages from Scapegaming, a private WOW server that used a range of microtransactions to profit from players. There was no uproar upon that ruling. Nostalrius, by contrast, was strictly non-profit, and the hosting costs became unwieldy as the playerbase soared, at one point surpassing 11,000 players on a single server – a feat unmatched by any other. As the financial drain rose to thousands of dollars per year, developers added a low-key donation link to the forums, taking it down whenever enough cash came in to keep the lights on for another three months. Many view the situation as Blizzard going after a charity.
“That’s all fair enough when it comes to legitimate philosophical questions about whether society should allow these kinds of things to happen where is there no profit motivation,” Purewal says. “But, again, the law isn’t really set up in that way, so forum-lawyer ideas about principles like fair use and whether they operate here are, unfortunately, not accurate for the most part.”
You have to wonder what Blizzard hoped to gain. Given its previous success in court, Blizzard may have expected Nostalrius to be snuffed out cheaply and without fuss (in a sense, it was). It might have been driven by the desire to see its EULA enforced consistently, or to send a signal to the market, but it’s likely an unexciting, corporate combination of the lot. In the wake of the closure and the surge in vocal support for vanilla WOW, however, there’s hope that Blizzard might finally cave to popular demand and establish its own legacy servers.
“I don’t think releasing official vanilla servers would completely kill the private servers that still exist today,” Nano says. “There are always a minority of people who will seek the cheapest possible alternative. Nostalrius proved you can provide an outstanding experience without resorting to microtransactions or pay-to-win elements. The fact that Nostalrius was the largest fan-run WOW server ever tells me that players want to have a pure, authentic experience.”
Until Blizzard serves that desire, it will be playing whack-a-mole with its adoring community. Nostalrius’s server-side code, along with a wealth of advice, will be released to fans who will go to any effort for another walk down memory lane.