The People Who Still Play World Of Warcraft Like It’s 2006

The People Who Still Play World Of Warcraft Like It’s 2006

We met on Tuesdays and Thursdays on the muddy shores of Lakeshire. There were 40 of us, alternatives in tow, laughing, buffing, flaunting. We exorcised our pre-raid jitters as best we could. North of Lakeshire lay the sinister Burning Steppes, home of Blackrock Mountain and home of our hopes and dreams. Blackwing Lair lingered at the top of the spire, promising extraordinary treasure and server-first accolades. On our leader’s mark, we rode together. It was dangerous to go alone.

Over the last few years there’s been a great deal of communal nostalgia for how Warcraft “used to be.” The game just celebrated its 10 year anniversary last November. That’s a decade of the map shrinking, of bad guys dying, of old friends disappearing into the internet’s ether.

The term they use for the original World of Warcraft is “vanilla Warcraft.” It means Warcraft before the expansions and innovations. For some diehards, this game has been trending downwards since the middle of the last decade. Some of this is real.

World of Warcraft is a different game than it was 10 years ago. In its massive success, its publisher, Blizzard, offered more and more convenience to players. In 2015 you can a press a button, be matched with other players cross-server, get teleported to a dungeon, and have loot automatically dropped into your bag. Journeys, like the ride from Lakeshire to Blackrock Mountain, are now blissfully quaint.

The gameplay is more streamlined now, but there’s a generation of players who remember hiking through Horde territory, hands on their hilts, hoping to make it to Scarlet Monastery in one piece. Some of that wonder was lost.

If you’re an old-timer or a newcomer who is curious about how things used to be, you can play the original World of Warcraft on private “vanilla” servers. These servers have existed since the launch of Burning Crusade, the first Warcraft expansion, but they have become prevalent as the game has gotten older. These servers are free to play on, and use cached files to load exactly how things were when Warcraft launched. Their existence is against the game’s terms of service, but Blizzard, the people who make WoW, generally turns a blind eye. We’re talking about old content being played by misty-eyed veterans, it’d be cruel to drop the hammer.

When you play on a vanilla server, you can’t copy your character or trade gold back to your account on sanctioned Blizzard-run servers. Instead, you start your journey on the private server exactly how you would in 2004: at level one with a hearthstone and a bundle of linen cloth to your name. One of the largest private servers is called Nostalrius, encompassing 5,000 players. It joins names like Kronos and Feenix, and lets you travel back in time to wherever you left your happiness.

But is it really possible to go back? Vanilla Warcraft is a mythical ideal. It is imaginary. It’s a place that exists in our heads, on a fulcrum of time, emotion, and digital space. You add 10 years and those old lands become spiritual. You might never be able to truly return to them, but you can try.

“I didn’t have any history as a gamer,” 63-year-old Terry Hutchinson recently told me as he recalled first getting sucked into WoW. “I was 53 years old and worked most of my adult life as a systems analyst. I had gone back to nursing school, and had been reading various periodicals referencing World of Warcraft. It just sounded interesting to me. I installed it in February of 2005, and I just got sucked into it immediately. I think I got close to 320 days played, which is like two per cent of my organic life.”

Hutchinson’s fondest memory playing World of Warcraft was a tight skirmish in Warsong Gulch, a game of player vs. player capture the flag. It went for three white-knuckle hours, before his side pulled out a victory.

“Of course, it wasn’t long after that,” he noted, “that Blizzard put a time-limit on Warsong. Sure, that prevents those long, drawn-out matches. But you’ll never again get to experience a really well-played game like that.”

Another World of Warcraft veteran, Josh, who prefers to keep his last name private, is from Kansas. He found himself in a top five — worldwide — raiding guild called Risen at the age of 18.

“I remember my buddy had thrown this big party while we were in high school, and I found myself in a bed with my prom date,” said Josh, now 28. “At 3:30am, my cell phone started going nuts, and I thought ‘oh shit, my parents,’ but it was this random number from Los Angeles. I picked it up and it was one of the officers in the guild. He told me I needed to get home, get on my computer, and help kill one of the Emerald Dragons that had just spawned. He said ‘welcome to the team’ and just hung up. That was the expectation. I’m an 18-year-old dude with this girl, and I had to say ‘I’ve gotta go kill this dragon.’ We weren’t hanging out for much longer.”

Josh would progress with Risen all the way through the Ahn’Qiraj raid and onto C’Thun, one of the most infamous final bosses in World of Warcraft history. For a while he was in one of only three guilds making attempts on him. In modern World of Warcraft raiding, top guilds datamine encounters, learning the exact mechanics of a boss fight before they enter the room. That wasn’t the same with C’Thun.

“Nobody knew what the hell was going on back then,” Josh said. “We were trying to reflect his eye-beams off the gongs and shit like that. The game was just so different then. I love the datamining. You gotta use all the resources available, but it was just cool to try all that stuff. That’s what people miss, and it’s never going to come back.”

Alexey Chuenko worked at an internet cafe in Latvia. He could stay up all night, and play on distant U.S. servers.

“At that time my English wasn’t very good, so I couldn’t communicate with other players, but when I tried World of Warcraft it just blew my mind,” he said. “I may have wasted a lot of time in Warcraft, but it did teach me English. I can assure [you] that that was the biggest improvement in my life.”

Chuenko is Russian and had a skewed vision of the U.S. before he started playing World of Warcraft. But he found himself in an American guild and nurtured international relationships that was forged in the wipes, jeers, giggles, and brotherhood of a digital land. He lost contact with those friends when he moved his character to a European server, but he returned in 2011 to see if he could pick up the pieces.

“The guild was still around, so I created a new character and rejoined, I played to about level 30, but the people in the guild had changed and only a few of them remembered me. It just didn’t work for some reason,” he said. “As you get older you try to restore the memories of your youth, but it never seems to work.”

The tipping point most people point to is Cataclysm, the third World of Warcraft expansion which arrived in 2010. The premise was that Deathwing, a legendary dragon, had emerged from the world’s core, forever twisting its surface. It was all the justification Blizzard needed to revamp the old geography. They warped landscapes, removed and updated quests, making World of Warcraft a much more navigable place. Unfortunately, they also destroyed many of the things that now stoke the nostalgia.

“Sure you had to run around on foot in these massive zones, but that forced you to explore and see all the details,” said Andy Paquette, another player who started in Warcraft’s first era. “One of my best memories was playing on a 13-foot screen at this LAN center and questing in Feralas. All that green and the mountains, it was like nothing I’d seen before.”

Nostalrius is Terry Hutchinson’s first private server experience. He’s been travelling through his memories since January.

“I became so frustrated with the current expansion, and I realised I couldn’t play it anymore,” he said, “but I still wanted to do battlegrounds and run around the old world. I Googled ‘vanilla private servers’ and Nostalrius happened to come up. I figured it was a good time to cancel my subscription and give it a shot.”

Nostalrius does the legwork. It’s an ancient version of World of Warcraft, scrubbed clean of any expansionary blemishes. It’s not quite a transporter to the past, not if you’re a veteran WoW player, since you’re still walking into a virgin world with seasoned eyes. If you’re an old-timer, you’ve been there before. You’ll never not know what lies beyond the next border. Tapping into that wonder again is far more spiritual than mechanical.

“It was great in the way that it allowed you to embody your high school self and go through those early years again,” said Paquette, reflecting on his time in private servers. “I played a rogue like I did during vanilla, and I couldn’t wait to try and raid again. But after I hit 60 (the level cap), I spent three days trying to get a group together for Blackrock Depths, and it was impossible. People are too used to the convenience, and I realised that vanilla just can’t work anymore.”

The physical World of Warcraft does not exist, so it’s odd that it musters this sort of melancholic nostalgia. It’s not something I’d expect anyone who didn’t experience a decade in Azeroth to understand, but you can bury authentic feelings in these stoic, static, internet landmasses. There’s love in Ironforge, laughter in Stranglethorn Vale, brotherhood on the trail from Lakeshire to Blackrock Mountain.

“To tell you the truth, no, it doesn’t give me the same feeling.” said Tnas, a gamer who has been playing on Nostalrius since the beginning of April. “It’s not even close. I started playing here on the suggestion of a close friend who I played through vanilla with, but vanilla as it happened was the experience. We were part of one of the most influential moments in the history of gaming, and I don’t think anything will recapture that for us.”

Hutchinson understands this, and instead treats his time in Nostalrius like a pilgrimage.

“It gets close, closer than I expected,” he said. “Yes, it’s not like I’m going into these zones and experiencing them for the first time. But it’s close. One of the first things I did was hike down through the Barrens to the Thousand Needles so I could see the Great Lift. I remember what that was like. Sure, I knew it was there, and I knew what to expect. But I had to see it. I had to ride it.”

“I don’t play on private servers, because I know what would happen,” Josh said. “I’d just want to log off. Everybody tries to recreate the wonder. I recently played Guild Wars 2 and that has all the mysteriousness you want, but it won’t be the same, because you’re not that age again. It’s not 2004. You can’t just bury yourself in your bedroom and get immersed. I’ve got stuff going on. I’ve got a job, I’ve got a wife, I’m an adult. It’s not a bad thing, it’d be scarier if you hadn’t changed at all. You’re partially nostalgic for the game, but you’re mostly just missing that worry-free lifestyle.”

Vanilla World of Warcraft is not magical on its own. It’s just a video game. But if it came at the right time it could be profound. For me, it was the conduit for all those sophomore year tremors. My best memories in World of Warcraft aren’t the gear or the journey. They are the circumstances. It could be an insulated chamber, no responsibilities, the time nights felt infinite. For Josh, it was as a high schooler in Wichita, Kansas, for Alexey it was an internet cafe, for Terry it was in his mid-50s, back at school, resetting a career. For all of us, World of Warcraft was a simpler time.

“It’s all still happening,” Josh said. “If you were that age right now you wouldn’t be feeling nostalgia, because it’d still be new. Five years from now we’re going to be hearing kids talking about how great Warlords of Draenor was. I don’t wish World of Warcraft was new again. I just wish I could renew my situation.”

It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that video games probably won’t ever thrill you the way they did when you were younger. It’s harder when you’re talking about a game that fused real friendships across the void.

“I wasn’t at a good place in my real life during vanilla Warcraft, so maybe it was an escape for me,” said Vegard Haugland, 27 from Norway. “I felt closer to many of my in-game friends than the people around me at the time. I have very, very fond memories of messing around in Teamspeak with my guild buddies.”

Callinicus, Albinozod, there were moments where I cared about those guys more than anyone else in the world. Would we still relate? Do the blood pacts we made when our guilds fell apart still persist? Do you still remember the trail from Lakeshire to Blackrock Mountain? When you run into people you went to high school with, there’s not much conversation beyond rehashing old stories, but it’s still nice.

“The Yeti cave in Winterspring. It’s one of the places that didn’t get touched during Cataclysm,” Josh remembered, “It was the best place to farm leather. I spent so many hours there. I grinded all my characters to 60 there. I’m going to have a dog someday, and my dog is going to be named Yeti. My wife has no clue it will be from a video game, and when she finds out she’ll kill me. But if I could experience one place again, it’d be that.”

“Teldrassil. With the music, sometimes I just launch the soundtrack on YouTube and feel all those memories,” Alexey said. “That’s where it all started for me. You spend enough time in a virtual world, and it changes you.”

“Right now I’m in Hillsbrad, and the whole Tarren Mill area is littered with skeletons from world PvP, just like it used to be,” Terry said. “It will never be a brand new game again, but vanilla Warcraft feels alive to me in a way that I can’t find anymore in the retail product.”

Most people don’t get to touch their memories. They linger, vague and out of sight, with no visceral landmarks. You cannot stop time. You can never truly go back. But World of Warcraft will always be there. Even as it’s tamed, even as the armies we led fade into history, even as our era ends, I can still listen to the echoes on the path from Lakeshire to Blackrock Mountain. The jitters. The buzzy microphones. The rumble. This was your life, this was all of our lives. It’s over now, it’s not coming back. But for a moment, you’ll feel it.

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego and living in Austin, Texas. He writes about music, video games, professional wrestling, and whatever else interests him. You can find him on Twitter @luke_winkie.


  • Unfortunately, with an oceanic timezone and only 5,000 players on one of the bigger servers, this just does not sound viable for me.

    I have posted this in comments around here before, but I still don’t think anything used to beat joining an Alterac Valley in the morning, quit out to go to school/work, rejoining that same session after 8-9 hours and then still continuing it into the wee hours of the morning.

    I don’t think I’ve created as many memories in any other game/series as I have with WoW and while I’ll forever love what it was, I can never happily return to what it has become which breaks my heart.

    • 15000 players online – at once – on Nostalrius now.

      Nost feels more alive than vanilla ever did in this sense. Vanilla catered for pops closer to 2500.

      I log on after work, and trust me, you’ve never seen WoW like this. The term “Horde”, for once, feels accurate.

      The biggest problem is that, the server population is so massive, that quest zones are completely overrun. Hundreds of players in every zone.

      • Crazy that you posted this comment almost a year after mine, then a few days later Nostalrius is gone. Sorry for your loss, man =\

  • For me the nostalgia was weird things. There use to be lvl 55 undead rogue called Gigli on the Archimonde server who always loitered around DarkShire 24/7. It was almost like a religious rite of passage to be ganked by him. He was always there. Killed by him countless of times, from 21 – 27. I went back there a few months later in full lightforge, and sure enough he was there… at 57. Pretty much every alliance on the server at the time knew who he was, and he pretty much went from being feared and hated to being a legend. I think those memories are what makes WoW special for me back then. To relive your first time is impossible, kind of like your first date, kiss and crush.

    • Yeah, you’re right.

      Is it sad though that I miss Vanilla more than I miss my first date, kiss and crush? =P

  • Great story.
    The line about it being scarier if you hadn’t changed really puts it in perspective.
    I miss those early days but looking back it wasn’t how much wow changed ( cata was the beginning of the end for me) it was definitely that me and my situation had.
    Still it nice to look back and smile, thanks wow i had a blast….

  • Its crushing really, to realize that the parts of the game you’re nostalgic for are actually your younger self, and you’ll never get that back.

    • I still find it amazing today when i look back and remember how i could constantly jump in Ironforge from the carts to the bank mail box again and again for hours on end. It was like having an unlimited amount of time. “Growing old? NEVAAAR”. To think all those hours wasted doing nothing, not even playing it properly. Youth is amazing.

  • This isn’t even just a WoW thing. This has happened for so many games I’ve tried to go back and play. Areas I’d love to re-explore. I’ve started playing CS GO a lot again recently and whilst it’s a lot of fun, I can’t justify sitting in the game playing match after match until the wee hours of the morning. Work, life, responsibilities. There’s too much to do sometimes to get any game time in!

    Still have fond memories of sessioning caverns in vanilla from level 17 to 28 so I could get the full embrace of the viper set. I think I ran it for 10 hours straight!

        • hit recognition is bonkers, there’s documented evidence that’s been sent to valve but nothings been done.

          • Yeah the hit rego is definitely an issue I’ve noticed as well. But I’m not super competitive anymore so not stressed about it 😛

  • I came back to wow for warlords to try and reignite a bit of the nostalgia. Although i didn’t really enjoy solo questing and grinding levels in vanilla at the time it’s the one thing that lets me partially relive those days. However blizzard largely ruined that too by making leveling so quick you cant even finish a zone before all the quests are greyed out. Leveling used to take so long back then that it sort of ruins it when today you can start a character from 1 in the morning and reach 40 that evening.

    • It does feel a little quick for sure, but I have been LOVING the heirloom gear system and the ability to just queue with a bunch of mates and power level through dungeons alone has been hilarious and a lot of fun 🙂

      I know what you mean though, to actually do the quests for the story etc, it’s pretty useless these days!

      • I know what you mean though, to actually do the quests for the story etc, it’s pretty useless these days!

        I’ll never understand that logic. The story is still there, just the quests are easier as you level and after a point you don’t get exp. At cap I’d still go back and quest in low level areas just for the story.

        • Mainly because I used to have a lot of mates hammering on about me getting to level cap, so I was always behind the 8-ball and felt very pressured!

    • Yeah I found this when I came back in MOP, I skipped full zones while leveling and it took me 4 days (I was on holidays) to get through it all without feeling like I was grinding or overdoing playtime. Everything feels too easy which on one hand allows people to see the content but on the other it takes away the awe you used to have when seeing people in unique recognisable gear.

  • WoW Vanilla released during a tough time for me. I was heavily in debt, abusing alcohol and generally depressed. My salary was going into credit card minimum payments and more alcohol. I was 27.

    Then WoW came out and I got hooked. The experience was painful and great at the same time. There was no Wowhead or quest markers. You asked for help in General Chat or looked up stuff on Thottbot, hoping someone else had already completed the quests and written something useful.

    I think the difficulty of the game had a lot to do with the enjoyment and the memories. If you work hard for weeks to craft an Arcanite Reaper, it’s going to mean more to you than to pick it up after 1 day of honor grinding.

    I played a druid at first, level to 60. Unfortunately, druids were in a horrid state in Vanilla. So I switched to a priest, and it was all uphill from there. Joined a guild, started raiding. It was like a second job and sometimes took more time than my 1st real job. I still remember how long it took to grind nature gear for Princess Huhu. The game needed serious player investment for progression. But then you would get some amazing gear and be the only one with it for a while and that was a fantastic feeling. I still remember when I got benediction; nothing in WoW today can compare, since everyone is a copy/paste of each other.

    Every month, I noticed I had more money in the bank. I was making more than the minimum payments on my credit cards. I was drinking once a week, instead of every day.

    I played well into TBC before losing interest and eventually quitting. By the time I quit, I was debt free and actually had some savings. And I was drinking a lot less.

    WoW was very good for me; I know it has also ruined some lives, but my personal experience was amazing.

    I tried to get back into it a few times. Even played for a bit after each expansion, but it has not been the same.

    The game has changed drastically over 10 years. It has been consumerized. For the current players, I think this is a good thing. They don’t need to invest as much time into it as Vanilla required. A video game should not be the cause of school failure, relationship break ups or getting fired from work.

    I think those of us who had a chance to be involved in Vanilla or TBC were exceptionally lucky to have that experience of a pioneering gaming framework. And for this, I am grateful.

  • Is that so? Or rather put it in a way that the people who are still playing this have created there own story with the game already so its good to look back anytime now.

  • Over 10 years in WOW and so many experiences… My wife and I would sit next to each other and play for hours. Tauren Mil, raids and epic AV battles that lasted hours, RAIDS in MC that had to be painfully coordinated,. Capturing and training your hunter pet, providing special food and making your own arrows or bullets, being chased down by angry bears or seeing the Crater for the first time and the bug towers in Silthus… It was, an experience that we look back on fondly, life long friends that we traveled to meet….all gone now. WOW is no longer the home we made it, even though I still know the old and new world like the back of my hand. But, as you know, you can’t go home again. I remember …. ah so many things…
    At any rate, it was sad to leave WOW late last year. I moved to EVE, it is not the same, but it is, if that makes sense. I will forever have great memories or Azeroth and everyone I met be they real or NPCs or the evil I had to defeat to get that one piece of gear I needed to push me down the path to new adventures. Thanks Blizzard, thanks for the memories.

  • I remember having to be ready at any moment to hunt those stupid green dragons… How I miss being so young!

  • I downloaded and installed one of the servers mentioned in this article and played for a bit… Man leveling in Vanilla WoW sucked balls! I forgot how bad it was. Give me modern WoW with Zygor guides, quest tracking, good mini-maps with co-ords, and Heirlooms any day of the week over this nostalgia crap.

  • I’ll always remember BC the most, and as the best. I was there for Vanilla but landing in Hell’s Peninsula for the first time and seeing the distant swirling stardust and planets … ugh it was beautiful. And the music.

  • Ahh Risen. My wife was in Risen on Proudmoore server in BC. not sure if it’s the same Risen mentioned in the article as they didn’t say server name but damn they were good.

  • There’s a private Aussie server that’s leaps and bounds ahead of these lag fest content lacking shit fests. is the place you want to be with TBC patch 2.4.3 quality of life improvements while keeping the vanilla flavour and charm.

    • Have to disagree with you. I’ve experienced no lag whatsoever on Nostalrius, Dalaran-WoW or Atlantiss – and I’m an Aussie player.

      Of the three of them, Atlantiss is my personal fave – very polished, they jump on bugs very quickly, they’re heavily focused on ensuring perfect end-game content and there are in-game GM’s one can talk with.

      Can the private aussie server claim all of that?

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