I have seen MMORPGs rise and fall, but none of them felt as depressing as watching Nostalrius, the most popular private server for World of Warcraft, shut down on Sunday. It wasn't just the end of a wonderful community, but a stark reminder that, despite what the back of the box might say, MMORPGs are ultimately products first and virtual societies second. It doesn't matter that the thousands of hours people invested into the server transformed it into a living memory of what World of Warcraft used to be, somewhere a piece of paper said that it was illegal and so all of those virtual citizens were doomed to die.
But in the wake of Nostalrius closing, there's been plenty of discussion surrounding World of Warcraft, with fans begging Blizzard again and again to finally open legitimized servers that emulate how the game used to play in previous years. Aside from snarky comments from Blizzard staff on the subject, the biggest thing I'm seeing is many players trying to argue why Blizzard should create legitimate private servers. Here's the thing, of course we think they should. People want that. But what so few people are talking about is why they shouldn't.
The real problem that Nostalrius exposed wasn't that they were using stolen intellectual property that Blizzard had rights to, it was the fact that Nostalrius highlighted exactly what was wrong with World of Warcraft and offered many players a better alternative. I'm not suggesting that Blizzard shut the server down out of spite like some evil dictator trying to suppress dissenting views, but rather that Nostalrius extraordinary popularity completely undermined the direction World of Warcraft has been heading over the past several years. In a sense, it weakened World of Warcraft's branding because it showed players that where World of Warcraft is going isn't necessarily better than where it was coming from—and that's a far bigger threat to a company than the fact that people might be using their intellectual property in a way they can't control.
If Blizzard were to give into demands and open vanilla servers, a lot of people would be undoubtedly happy. But the more subtle message official vanilla servers would send to the audience is that, despite what the marketing team at Blizzard is trying to say, Legion isn't all that necessary. In fact, opening vanilla servers would suggest that every expansion since World of Warcraft first launched isn't totally necessary.
Considering the massive success of Nostalrius, which had over 800,000 registered accounts, we can only assume that legitimate vanilla servers would have just as many and probably well over that same amount. Considering World of Warcraft's rapidly declining subscription numbers, the success of vanilla WoW servers could imply a total failure of its expansions—and that's something that I think Blizzard just isn't willing to admit, at least not openly.
There's no denying that Warlords of Draenor was a huge flop. It certainly sold well, and the leveling process was incredibly fun, but Blizzard failed to turn a strong opening act into anything more. And there's no guarantee Legion won't be the exact same. When Blizzard first unveiled details on Legion last year, I know I wasn't the only one who had to roll their eyes at how desperate the bid seemed to earn back favor from its fans. I have to imagine that, following the flop of Draenor, it was finally decided to smash the glass covering the big red button on it that read "Demon Hunter Class."
But as much as Blizzard seems to be making Legion an expansion that will give the hardcore players what they want, I find it ironic that the one thing almost a million players are asking for is the one thing Blizzard will never give them. How could it? World of Warcraft isn't a brand measured by subscription numbers alone, it also needs to drive sales of new expansions and push forward into new territory. So what kind of message does it send about the future of the game when so many want do away with that future entirely?
When you look at other MMORPGs that have sanctioned private servers, the most notable being Everquest, it's not hard to see why that decision was so easy for the developers to make. Everquest has no where near the brand strength that World of Warcraft has, so letting fans play the game how they want doesn't undermine anything that they're trying to accomplish in any real way. Everquest's potential is spent, and at this point I'm sure they're grateful for every customer they still have. But the same can't be said for World of Warcraft.
Like everyone else, I want Blizzard to open vanilla servers—or at least stop prosecuting the most popular private ones. But doing so would also be an admission that the future of World of Warcraft isn't as enticing as they want you to believe it is. And with everyone contemplating how many subscribers WoW has lost over the past few years, and many more reaching for signs that WoW is entering its dying days. I can tell you that there will be no greater sign that World of Warcraft is finished than when Blizzard opens vanilla servers. Once that moment happens, you can rest assured that World of Warcraft as a brand is completely spent and Blizzard has shifted focus not towards gaining momentum but merely bailing out a sinking ship—and that's when they'll finally be willing to listen to whatever players have to say.