World of Warcraft Classic represents the greatest about-face in Blizzard history. For years, the company scoffed at the idea of reincarnating its flagship MMO in its adolescent form. "You think you do, but you don't," was the famed rebuke from current CEO J. Allen Brack. That's why, at 2017's Blizzcon, it was genuinely shocking to watch the Warcraft portion of the show begin with the announcement of a honest-to-god remake of vanilla WoW that is promised to go live in the summer of 2019. For a certain base of grizzled millennials, this was euphoria. Finally, a chance to return to the virgin lands of Azeroth with the hope of transmuting nostalgia back into the same sense of wonder we first felt in 2006. Blizzard proved it was willing to eat crow, and from my own experience, I can say that a lot of people I used to play Warcraft with are dusting off their keyboards for one last Ragnaros campaign.
All that being said, there's a giant, EULA-shaped elephant in the room. Because technically, anyone could've easily enjoyed World of Warcraft Classic over the years—they just had to use one of the illegal private servers that thrive in the deeper recesses of the internet. In fact, only a year before the announcement of Classic, Blizzard waged a gruff, controversial legal war with the arbiters of Nostalrius, the most popular unauthorized vanilla server at the time. Blizzard had the server closed for good, which created a lot of bad blood between the company and some of its most unyielding fans. The two other major private servers left, Kronos and Elysium, are still active, and most certainly won't be willfully ceasing their enterprises once Classic hits Battle.net next summer. It's the calm before the storm, and nobody on the wrong side of prohibition knows what's going to happen next.
"We have a mix of players who range between 'the sky is falling' and 'Elysium is our home—we aren't going anywhere,'" says the administrator of Elysium, who is in his late twenties and from Europe, and requested to remain anonymous. "I think things will become a lot more clear when Classic hits."
The imitation game
If you ask any vanilla Warcraft exile why they've been left cold by the game's latter-day expansions, they'll inevitably cite the same handful of coarse, crotchety reasons. Azeroth became a gentler realm as time went on and Blizzard defanged the MMO for broader appeal. Former tentpoles like group content and the stingy loot grind were put out to pasture in favor of something more malleable and approachable. In 2018, I can queue for any dungeon I'd like without ever seeing the instance portal firsthand, and I can truck around Zandalar in one of my 9,000 mounts for 'welfare epics'—powerful items given for free—that are regarded as little more than a log-in bonus. The bereaved 2006ers would argue, fairly convincingly, that those compromises radically changed World of Warcraft's DNA. Their only option was to start a new eden.
"Where before my character, my play style, my achievements were unique—they became watered down, commonplace, and less significant," says a 48-year-old from North Texas who serves as a community manager in Elysium. "This eroded the individual. And when the individual uniqueness of players becomes blurred, the community falters as everyone becomes one and the same."
Perhaps you would expect that Blizzard's hat-in-hand mea culpa would be especially validating for these folks, in the way that it always feels great when someone tells you you've been right all along. But if you're familiar with how stubborn the private server community can be, you'll know that isn't the case. Time (and repeated kiss-offs like Brack's famous reprise) has hardened the suspicions of Elysium's denizens into a near-impenetrable alloy. That makes them doubtful that Blizzard could ever replicate the same kismet they've found on their own, which is quite a thing to say, when you consider that something like Elysium is powered exclusively by Blizzard-hewn mechanics, and Blizzard-hewn assets, and Blizzard-hewn design philosophy.
Some of these anxieties are concrete. Blizzard has yet to confirm whether it'll implement server sharding technology into Classic—where players phase in and out of zones depending on density—which you can currently find in the live game. If the company decides to go that route, it'll summon up a lot of the same server-identity gripes that have been familiar to Warcraft's old guard for years. But by and large, Elysium's reticence is far more spiritual and intangible than anything a publisher can power behind the boards. To them, Blizzard can't create a perfect vanilla experience, because they already have.
"Its a community thing. What drove [vanilla] was the individual communities of each server. We knew who the great players were. We knew the great guilds. We knew the 'personalities' of each server. Who to look up to, who to follow, who to avoid. We had rivalries, adversaries, etc. This was all lost as Blizzard merged this and that and blurred the lines of our server communities," says the community manager. "Classic will devolve quickly in to a competition of numbers crunching guilds whose sole purpose is to achieve server firsts, then fade away as the community factors that kept people logging in after the server firsts have been accomplished are completely absent."
Essentially, the community manager believes the same cynical attitudes he perceives in modern Warcraft will quickly take root in Classic, and that Elysium is immune to those pitfalls because of its relatively small population, and the fact that the same people have been playing on the server for over two years. His word choice might be a little precious, but I do think the core argument carries weight. Those things he spoke about—the interconnected economy of quirks and personalities that make up a culture of a realm—have been vacuumed-sealed and protected on Elysium. It takes a certain enthralled fanaticism to roll a character on a private server. Classic, on the other hand, will be bombarded by a boatload of strangers who've grown fat on a version of World of Warcraft where you don't have to speak to each other. We have absolutely no idea if that formula can coalesce into a commonwealth, 14 years later.
"My staff here at Elysium is incredibly transparent and reachable. I personally know many of our 50,000 monthly players and speak with them daily," says the administrator. "The community here has a massive impact on decisions we make on the realm, and give us countless bug reports and suggestions. They have a chance to affect and be a part of the realm, rather than just having to settle for what Blizzard dictates."
Ultimately, both the community manager and the administrator know that they stand at a fork in the road. Classic will mark a "before" and an "after" for private server culture. Elysium's "product," as much as you can call it that, is being directly challenged by the mothership. Still, the administrator holds faith that Elysium will find its place, and that Classic and his server will find the same uneasy truce that's traditionally been maintained between the retail product and the bootleggers.
"People will want to check it out, experience it for themselves. Some people will choose to watch videos or streams," he says. "I personally expect a large amount of people to temporarily take some time and try Classic, but I don't think they'll give up on all of their achievements and friends they made on Elysium."
I suppose the same speculation holds true for Classic as a whole. There is a chance it takes off as a genuine phenomenon, like Jagex's Old School Runescape resurrection, forcing the company to pivot resources in order to add supplementary content for a humongous population of nostalgia artists. There is also a chance that the global Warcraft community exhales, and discovers it actually has zero interest in grinding out gold for an epic mount because oh my god why does everything take so long.
Only time will tell. This is an experiment in uncertainty. The only constant is that there will always be a small hamlet of hermits keeping the dream alive. Elysium's got the player-count to prove it, and they won't be turning out the lights anytime soon.