Blizzard is making official Vanilla World of Warcraft servers. That is a sentence that, a year ago, I never thought I’d ever write. With the eruptive rise and fall of private Vanilla servers and Blizzard’s continuing dismissal of the subject as out of reach, it seemed like a dream that would never come true. But moments ago, during the opening ceremonies of Blizzcon 2017, it was announced. Last week I sat down with Blizzard's senior vice president and executive producer, J. Allen Brack, to learn everything about the long journey to this moment. Blizzard isn’t talking about the specifics of how or when, but I still had a million other questions to ask. The biggest one was, after years of Vanilla World of Warcraft being such a hot topic, why now?
"This is something that we have just continued to hear from the community," Brack tells me. "This is something that we’ve continued to hear from current players, from former players, from people who work on World of Warcraft, even people working at Blizzard who are like, hey, you should find a way."
After years of searching, Blizzard finally has a way.
Back to Azeroth
Brack says that, as much as Blizzard has been aware of the desires of their community, until recently they just couldn’t see a way to make it happen. "The original problem was that we would have to run two MMOs," he says. "We would have to run Classic WoW, and then current WoW [at the same time]. Classic WoW and current WoW really don’t work the same way any more. Classic WoW has all kinds of bugs and problems, it has all kinds of exploits and hacks that everyone knows about. And in current WoW, we’d done an excellent job of reducing all of those problems, and we didn’t see how we could possibly run two MMOs like this."
The problem is one that goes much deeper than the surface, down to the very base-level programming and hardware that Vanilla World of Warcraft used in 2003. To run Classic servers, Blizzard would have to build an entirely separate server and client architecture different to the current version World of Warcraft uses today. It would mean running two separate, very large MMOs at the same time—a massive technical challenge. Their new solution is still challenging, but Brack says the team has made a breakthrough.
"We think we have a way to run the Classic servers on the modern technical infrastructure," Brack says. "The infrastructure is how we spin up instances and continents, how the database works. It’s those core fundamental pieces, and running two MMOs of that size is a daunting problem. But now we think we have a way to have the old WoW version work on the modern infrastructure and feel really good."
Brack is clear that using modern server architecture doesn’t mean that these Classic servers will have the same features that current World of Warcraft does. There won’t be cross-realm servers or Looking For Raid and Dungeon Finder automatic party matchmaking. There’s still a lot of questions about how the team will tackle it, but Brack says they’re committed to recreating an authentic Vanilla World of Warcraft experience. "One of the tenets of Classic WoW is none of the cross-server realms and different [server] sharding options that we have available to us today. There’s a lot of desire on part of the community that this is something that they don’t want."
This endeavour is being undertaken by an entirely separate team at Blizzard from the one working on World of Warcraft and its next expansion. That’s great news for players who don’t care about revisiting the past but are much more interested in Warcraft’s future. "We’re going to hire people specifically for this job, and we’re going to staff it with people who are interested in bringing back Classic WoW in the best, most authentic way," Brack says. "And that’s how we’ll be successful."
It’s a big project, which is why Blizzard isn’t committing to a deadline and keeping the specifics close to the chest. "What we’re announcing is actually extremely limited. We’re only saying that we’re doing it, that we’re committed to creating and releasing Classic servers. It’s a larger endeavor than people might imagine, but that we’re committed to doing it and we’re excited."
A change of heart
For the vocal fans who have been wanting this announcement for years, Brack’s enthusiasm might be ironic. Back during a panel at Blizzcon 2013, a fan asked about the possibility of Blizzard creating dedicated servers for previous expansions and Classic World of Warcraft. "No," Brack responded. "And, by the way, you don’t want to do that, either. You think you do, but you don’t."
That last sentence is one that, I suspect, haunts Brack. "It’s a pretty infamous moment at this point," he laughs.
"You think you do, but you don’t" became the first log on a bonfire that fueled resentment from players convinced Blizzard no longer cared about what they wanted. Brack says that’s not true. "I don’t know how exactly we got painted as we don’t like Classic World of Warcraft, but that’s certainly not the case. There was [always] the idea that if we could ever find a way, if we could flip a lightswitch and Classic WoW was working we would do that. We would flip that switch."
"The sentiment of what I was trying to express, very poorly back in that day, was that there is a thing called rose-colored glasses," Brack says. "There is a memory of this place, the time, and the stage of life that you were in that contribute to that nostalgia people feel [towards Classic World of Warcraft]. If you look back at all the things you have deep love for, you have to look at, OK, that was the thing, but what contributed to that being a thing?"
Brack compares it to his love of Star Wars. He says that, like most people, he cherishes the first movie because it’s so firmly rooted in his memories. It's nostalgic. If Stars Wars were to release today, would it have the same cultural or personal impact? Though that question still lingers, Blizzard is done telling people what to think. "It doesn’t matter what I think," Brack says bluntly. "This game is very powerful for a lot of people. This is a game that people have put hundreds and hundreds of hours into and have deep love for, and it’s not something that you can experience today. It’s not something that you’re able to go and play at a Blizzard-quality level, and that’s what we want to deliver."
Still, it will be interesting to see what the long-term response to Classic World of Warcraft will be. Some are quick to criticize the direction World of Warcraft has taken this past decade, the convenience of features like automated matchmaking for dungeon groups or faster ways of travelling the world. But Brack says there’s much smaller minutiae people have forgotten too—little design decisions that made Vanilla World of Warcraft much more arduous and time-consuming. It’s something the team discovered for themselves when they met with the Nostalrius private server team last year. Before their meeting, Brack says Nostalrius turned over its code to let Blizzard play and pick at it to see what they had accomplished.
"It was very surprising for us," Brack laughs. "I didn’t remember that after casting an intellect buff I had to drink [a potion], and then I’d cast it again on another party member and then I had to drink again. I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. You know, that’s not going to be for everyone."
He says that he expects quite a few "looky-loos" will stop by just to remember the good old days for a bit. He expects they’ll be a great deal that they’ve forgotten too, like having to farm fire resistance gear, feed pets, or buy ammunition—little nuisances that were eliminated years ago so players weren’t spending more time doing chores than adventuring.
As a longtime World of Warcraft player, even I don’t know whether Classic servers will be a success. My guess is once the initial wave of tourists dies down, there will only be a small core group of people left. "That’s OK," Brack assures me. "I don’t think that’s wrong. There will be a core group of people who are really excited, and that’s the game for them and that’s the thing they want to play.
"I think there will be a lot of tourists," he adds. "But it doesn’t matter what I think because once we’re committed to doing this at a Blizzard level, which we are, whatever happens is going to happen. If millions of people show up and play for years, that’s awesome. And if just tens of people show up and play for years, we’re fine either way. What’s important to us is that we have this Classic experience people can enjoy, that people do have the opportunity to go back to. This is an important game in videogame history and there’s not a way to go back and experience that today. This is also about preserving something that we think is really important.