When one perceives the words “video game”, immediately one imagines one or several examples. These examples are invariably determined based on one’s experience with video games. People who play mostly JRPGs may, for instance, think of Final Fantasy 7 or Dragon Quest 3. Meanwhile, those who play mostly Nintendo games may think of Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon. This conceptualisation of a word’s meaning or the imagining of prime examples on the basis of experience is the basis for the idea of conceptual metaphors and cognitive linguistics. It doesn’t matter that Final Fantasy 7 wasn’t the first JRPG; what matters is that one believes it to be the best representation of a video game. We won’t go into the specific mechanism of how this comes into being, but we will take a closer look at one specific video game in the context of one such a metaphor.
Saying “video game” will, of course, evoke different representations in the minds of the recipients based on their status as gamer or non-gamer. This, in itself, goes without saying. But when I utter different words than “video game” to the reception of gaming ears, I can evoke representations that may, in fact, relate to video games. When I say “controller”, “platform”, and “direction”, a gamer may think of an Xbox controller, the PC platform, and walking forwards, three concepts you won’t soon find in the mind of an active politician for example. So, when I say “nostalgia” in this context of gaming, one can be forgiven for thinking of Super Mario 64, arcades, or even the base game of World of Warcraft, colloquially known as vanilla WoW.
Warcraft has certainly seen its fair share of nostalgia trips. Ever since its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, players have in some manner of means complained about changes made, and may have wished to return to the time before the changes in doing so. It’s only in the years and expansions following the first expansion that this behaviour can rightly be attributed to nostalgia insofar as one can be nostalgic for yesterday, but never to the degree as for years ago. Another reason to consider this belated behaviour nostalgia is the fact that, over the expansions, different strands of gamers have expressed similar desires to return to different expansions. The one that truly stuck in the backs of the minds of the players, however, is the desire to return to the base game, to vanilla WoW.
Recently, Blizzard announced to make these wishes come true when they stated they were working on a so called Classic server where only vanilla WoW can be played, much to the excitement of hordes of players, of course. This in itself interesting anecdote is a development in this 10-year behavioural pattern of wanting things to stay the same. More interesting, however, is the part that the Nostalrius debacle played in this process. Thus, with what space remains, we will direct our attention to its role in the accomplishment of goading Blizzard into developing a Classic server.
The Nostalrius debacle, as I referred to it, pertains to the development and popularity of a “Blizzlike” World of Warcraft vanilla “private server” called “Nostalrius Begins”. Its nature as a Blizzlike server simply refers to the execution of the server itself, namely that the server was developed and hosted as though it were Blizzard at the helm. This means that the server is devoid of specially made items, donation incentives, teleportation prompts, drastically altered game mechanics such as faster levelling and increased gold drop rate, and a host of other factors that many private servers have tampered with over the years of their phenomenal existence. The label of the server as a “private” server denotes, in contradiction to the Blizzlike label, that the server is privately operated; in short, that Blizzard has nothing to do with its development or maintenance.
My use of the word “debacle” here pertains to the rise, fall, and media coverage surrounding the Nostalrius Begins server. Launching in early 2015, Nostalrius Begins quickly gained an enormous playerbase of 130k active players with a little under three-fourths one million accounts made. Just as quickly, however, Blizzard sent a cease and desist asking them to shut down all activity surrounding the operation of a private server, something that is, of course, completely in their right to do. What followed should not be completely unexpected; the gaming media lapped it up from head to toe. Indeed, if one would be so inclined to visit the Nostalrius Begins website today, one could be forgiven for confusing the website for a small social media platform. The webpage opens with a logo and some general news bulletins and is followed by a laundry list of references to news outlets, all of which covered the by now infamous cease and desist episode.
The impact and importance of the Nostalrius Begins debacle, in itself, can be seen as imperative to Blizzard’s decision to develop a Classic server; fundamental, even. The Nostalrius community certainly seems to think so. The laundry list of media coverage is headed simply by the line “they talk about us” and if one were so inclined to visit the official Twitter page, one is immediately prompted with a “YOU did it!” referring to the WoW playerbase and to the official announcement at Blizzcon 2017. I should have mentioned, perhaps, that earlier on in the drama as it was unfolding, the Nostalrius community bundled their efforts and signed a petition to Blizzard to hear them out, which, crazily enough, they actually did. But to claim wholesale responsibility for this development is perhaps more naïve than justifiable.
The astute reader by now has noticed the striking similarities between the name of this private server and the word used in the introduction of this article. It should come to no surprise to anyone that the words “nostalgia” and the name “Nostalrius” share the exact same syllables except for the last ones, the justifications and excuses for which I have yet to encounter. If one were to argue that the name derives simply from an old realm on the official servers, one would have to be disappointed to find out that no such realm ever existed, as a quick scan of the official English realm lists in the US and Europe will reveal. Moreover, if it did, this, too, would prove the eerie connection to this volatile quality in that it would be an even more blatant act of indulgence.
In much the same way, it should surprise no one that this server, specifically, would appear to play such a big and apparently direct part in the ten year-long crusade backwards. Blizzard is no stranger to cease and desist notices, handing them out as they see fit to anyone whom they deem to be encroaching on their copyrights. Additionally, it’s a mystery to no one that Blizzard has never approved of or even liked private servers in any respect. Players who actively discuss private servers are discouraged from doing so by the heavy banhammer that mostly looms and occasionally strikes down hard, unforgivingly so on those whom Blizzard knows has visited these servers. Yet it is this specific case that people remember and this specific case that has effectively become a marker of change. Even before the petition to Blizzard, the visit to their headquarters, and finally the announcement of official Classic servers, the media seemed to be completely enthralled by the goings on. One can hardly find a news article that elides any reference to Nostalrius Begins whenever vanilla WoW, Blizzard, and private servers are the topics of non-singular discussion.
Its insipid legacy as a reference in WoW history is more than merely the size of its servers. Or rather, its size is not the alpha and omega of its relevance, I should say. What should matter more is the non-discreet way in which millions of people were played like damn fiddles. I already mentioned the suspicious naming of the servers, but it goes beyond the number of the beast. Nostalgia trips for WoW players are as inevitable as the disappointment that follows when one realises that the private server does not satisfy the needs. Imagine their glee when they finally find a fully operational, yet uncorrupted Blizzlike server with a great name!
The cynical irony here is thicker than I could knowingly lay on. The obvious fact is that there has never been such a well-run server, and Nostalrius was no exception. Scripting is often the first thing to go wrong in base copycats, the most damning examples of which are raids and quests which are either completely broken or just barely operational. One can safely conclude that the corruption, evident in the donation incentives and fake weaponry, is born from this faulty scripting in an attempt to make good on the promise of being operational at all. The promise of a dedicated team working day and night to get raids and battlegrounds working seemed to be good enough. At least it meant not leveling to lvl255 and teleporting to GM island again.
The sheer veneer, the proverbial wool that was pulled over the eyes of the players, doesn’t so much start at the superficial however. Recall for a moment the fact that both nostalgia and Nostalrius share two syllables—two phonemes, moreover. Calling to mind the second word in the name allows us to pull back the wool entirely, however. In calling itself the beginning of itself, the server does more than pick a cool-sounding name for marketing purposes. The beginning of something has to be in opposition with the end; there is simply no other way to define both terms. Already starting in 2015, however, Nostalrius is quite late to the party for which I received no invitation, and one has to wonder what exactly it’s beginning. It’s not the first private server; it’s not the first Blizzlike server; and it’s certainly not the first server, that achievement being owned by Blizzard Entertainment, themselves. Yet the name sticks and naming the monster shows to be more important than anyone cared to remember.
Whenever referenced, the server was simply called Nostalrius, the second word in the name hardly or never being mentioned outside of the home webpage. If one is indeed to bank on the collective sensation to return to genesis, as Freud never put it, one would be remiss to insist on showing one’s hand, especially when the enviable volume of media coverage remained entirely free of charge. The only sensation that remains now is the fear that one day the words nostalgia and Nostalrius would become more than homophonous, instead becoming synonymous; a fear that might as easily be a hope depending on one’s perspective.