When Vaelanor heard the announcement of World of Warcraft Classic last Friday, he says he broke into tears. The veteran Warcraft player, whose real name we omitted because he helps run an unofficial legacy server, said he was so moved by news of a vanilla version of Blizzard's long-running multiplayer game, he couldn't help but cry.
"I welled up with tears," he said. "It's been a long journey filled with a lack of hope ... I always dreamed they would do it so I could go back to enjoying it as a player."
Vaelanor is one of nine underground developers I've spoken to over the past few days who have worked on unofficial servers that take World of Warcraft back through time. Thousands of people have played on those servers, where they can play "vanilla" versions of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), the way it was back in the early 2000s, before a decade of patches and expansion packs. For years, those underground developers have been meticulously crafting and curating these servers, without Blizzard's permission or blessing.
They believe that the current incarnation of World of Warcraft lacks the challenge and the community feel of the original game, so they have devoted many hours to fine-tuning, tweaking, and building a version of World of Warcraft that resembles the one they used to play, out of love for a game that no longer exists.
So you might think that these developers would be fuming at last Friday's news that Blizzard plans to release its own "vanilla" version of World of Warcraft. But they all tell me they're over the moon.
"I was actually sitting there crying for 15 minutes before I could actually say anything at all," said WhiteKidney, an administrator for one legacy server "This is a monumental victory to every single one of us, whether it be players or private server administrators. This was my end game."
The most popular of these legacy servers was Nostalrius, which had over 150,000 active players until Blizzard decided to shut it down last spring. Some of Nostalrius's developers and fans filtered over to other "vanilla" World of Warcraft legacy servers, the most popular of which still boast 10,000 concurrent players on an average evening.
Blizzard explained that it had to slam down the ban hammer to protect its intellectual property, but the move sent a message to the legacy server community: What they were doing was not kosher.
But Michael "Nano" Allred, who ran Nostalrius, tells Kotaku that, if anything, he's humbled if his server helped generate an audience for World of Warcraft Classic.
Allred said he watched last week's BlizzCon opening ceremony while sitting in a Starbucks, and once World of Warcraft project lead J. Allen Brack started talking about how people loved "vanilla" ice cream, a segue into the announcement, Allred says he began to cry.
Ultimately, Allred thinks that legacy servers are only worthwhile as a substitute for the original game, not as a replacement for it. "Legacy servers are a cloudy mirror that are ultimately flawed and incapable of reproducing the original content as it was," Allred told me.
"The only team capable of fully delivering on the promise of authentic classic content is Blizzard."
Allred says the endgame of Nostalrius was always to convince Blizzard that it was worth launching something like World of Warcraft Classic. Staden, the lead developer of the legacy server Light's Hope, feels similarly.
That's why he says he'll shut down his server and its 100,000 active accounts once World of Warcraft Classic launches. It's not a legal issue that spurred the dramatic decision, he says. It's that his goal was to offer an experience that wasn't available.
"Our job will be done, as far as we're concerned," Staden told me.
With his extra free time, Staden plans on grinding up levels on World of Warcraft Classic. "We look forward to getting our free time back only so we can lose it again on those servers," he said.
Blizzard did not respond to questions about how it will approach existing legacy servers once World of Warcraft Classic launches. Blizzard has said several times that the process of developing classic servers could only be executed with "great difficulty," citing "operational challenges to integrating classic servers, not to mention the ongoing support of multiple live versions for every aspect of World of Warcraft."
Yes, it sounds tricky — faithfully reproducing an early 2000s game to 2017's standards. Some legacy server veterans, who have experience overcoming this challenge, have openly mused whether Blizzard might hire them.
Namreeb, a developer who cut his teeth on World of Warcraft legacy servers for eight years, said that he knows a few unofficial authorities that Blizzard might want to tap.
He added that, if Blizzard did decide to answer questions about all this, "We'd love to know if we will get sued if we apply for a job and cite our experience with classic WoW :)."