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.