Blizzard shuts down one of the world's most popular private WoW servers [UPDATED]

Nostalrius, a private World of Warcraft server hosting approximately 150,000 players, is set to close following legal notice from Blizzard Entertainment. UPDATE: Blizzard responds.

Online games can have different rules when it comes to hosting. Minecraft, for example, thrives on the creation of private servers basically anyone can create with the help of a simple guide. But Minecraft is a one-time purchase, barring any optional add-ons like skin packs for licensed characters -- whereas a game like World of Warcraft runs on a subscription model after an initial trial period, so if you want to play, it has to be on Blizzard's terms.

This becomes a bit of a conundrum for long-time fans of the game, however, because years of successive updates and expansions mean the game they first signed up for is not the one that currently exists. So, some fans turn to private servers like Nostalrius in order to play 'vanilla' or 'legacy' versions of World of Warcraft based on older editions of the game.

In the past, Blizzard has for the most part turned a blind eye toward these fan servers unless they were charging money -- WoW is still Blizzard's intellectual property, after all, so if someone's making money off it, legally it ought to be them or someone they've licensed it to. Nostalrius is notable in that it didn't charge its players for access to its vanilla WoW server, but Blizzard is shutting it down anyway. From the official site's update:

Yesterday, we received a letter of formal notice from US and french (sic) lawyers, acting on behalf of Blizzard Entertainment, preparing to stand trial against our hosting company OVH and ourselves in less than a week now. This means the de facto end of Nostalrius under its current form.

As soon as we received this letter, we decided to inform the team and players about the future of Nostalrius, where we have all passionately committed our time and energy as volunteers.

Nostalrius Begins PvP, Nostalrius Begins PvE & Nostalrius TBC and all related servers will be definitively shutdown at 23:00 server time on the 10th of April 2016, if our hosting company keeps the server online for that long. It feels kind of unreal, but we want to continue to serve our players as we did, and the best we can in the remaining time.

On the one hand, Blizzard is in its legal right to do this, because this is a game it created and runs. Many online games change over time -- some of them drastically -- and while some fans will remain very attached to a particular version of a game, that's the unrelenting forward march of time plus business for you.

On the other hand, there's very little work being done to preserve these online games and their history. Unlike offline games, something like World of Warcraft only really exists in any material sense if it's up on the net for someone to visit. If I wanted to play Chrono Trigger in its original version, I could scoop up some old Super Nintendo hardware (or emulator), a CRT monitor, and an original cartridge, and play it just like it was played back in 1995. Nintendo might not like it, and might prefer I buy the new edition of Chrono Trigger for the DS with the anime cutscenes that were added to the game with the Playstation release, but it can't really stop me from doing this. Whereas if you wanted to play World of Warcraft the way it was first released in 2004, the only way to do that is basically through piracy. This is actually a really pervasive problem in games right now and something a former colleague of mine, Frank Cifaldi, brought up at this year's Game Developers Conference.

So while Blizzard is certainly able to shut down fan servers like Nostalrius, it's kind of a bummer -- not just because it denies fans the chance to play a version of the game they really loved, but also because this is one of the only ways we can experience an MMO's history.

Nostalrius -- which claims about 800,000 registered accounts and 150,000 active users -- has set up a Change.org petition asking Blizzard to reconsider its position on private servers. You can be skeptical about the chances Blizzard might see or respond to the petition, but you can't deny there's a lot of real dedication among the fans who served as Nostalrius's administrators.

"We passionately reproduced the original progression you created throughout patches and content releases," reads the letter, which is addressed to Blizzard co-founder and CEO Michael Morhaime. "We dedicated our free time, health & money to recreate this version of World of Warcraft, more than 10 years after you released the first expansion. We trained several entire teams: development, software validation, customers service [...] as we wanted to be as professional as possible even as a completely volunteer team."

As noted in Nostalrius's open letter to players, the server will remain open until April 10th, barring premature shutdown from its hosting company.

UPDATE (4/26/2016): Blizzard community manager J. Allen Brack has responded to fan outcry stemming from the takedown.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM, and wants to remind you that if not for piracy, we wouldn't have restored copies of Metropolis or countless other silent era films either. You can find Kris on Twitter @KrisLigman.