Everyone loves the David versus Goliath story where the underdog prevails against the powerful bully. Unfortunately, real life isn’t like that. In reality, the small guy usually loses against the big guy. In the world of video games, something similar happened recently.
A couple of weeks ago a private emulated World of Warcraft Burning Crusade server called Felmyst was shut down after the developer Gummy received a letter from Blizzard lawyers threatening legal action. The server took four year to develop and was a labor of love for Gummy who is unemployed due to his battle with muscular dystrophy which is an extremely debilitating uncurable disease. Kyle Orland over at Arstechnica has a comprehensive write up about what happened.
Given the legal issues with creating a legacy server, the creation of Felmyst was always a risky proposition. But Gummy felt he could operate under the radar because normally small private WoW servers do not reach the attention of Blizzard. But the problem is that Felmyst became too popular and because of this Blizzard felt the need to reach out with their massive resources and crush Felmyst with the cudgel of legal action. In an act which will live on in video game infamy, Blizzard squashed the hopes and dreams of a talented WoW fan who dedicated the last four years of his life to recreating WoW the way it used to be.
In recent years, vanilla WoW servers and TBC (The Burning Crusade — the first WoW expansion) servers have become very popular. Why is this? While the original incarnation of WoW was a masterpiece of game design but over the years — as I have chronicled on this blog — Blizzard has put profits before gameplay and community and dumbed down the core WoW experience to the degree that recent iterations of the venerable MMORPG barely resemble the early versions. Therefore players who crave the original and far superior WoW experience, have no choice but to create their own versions of classic WoW with the result that like-minded players in the hundreds of thousands have flocked to these servers. The ill-fated Nostalrious vanilla WoW server — also shut down by threats from Blizzard — being the best example.
Blizzard Refuses to Offer Legacy WoW Servers for their Fans
Despite public outcry, various petitions and public relations campaigns, and despite that no money changes hands and no profit is made, and despite that those who play on legacy servers have no interest in playing the current inferior version of WoW, Blizzard has adamantly refused to offer WoW fans who want to play the original WoW and The Burning Crusade the ability to do so on their own platform. To this day, they continue to come up with hollow rationales and weak excuses to justify their inaction and intransigence.
Additionally, Blizzard is not keen to solicit input from their fans on this issue and refuses to allow anyone that attends their annual BlizzCon events to ask them honest questions about legacy servers in their public Question and Answer panels as all questions are pre-screened and pre-selected. Despite the fact that the Nostalrious server shut was the biggest WoW story in 2016, Blizzard made no mention of legacy servers at BlizzCon 2016.
Blizzard could allow legacy servers to exist either officially as part of Blizzard or officially sanctioned independently run by fans. Instead, they have chosen not to embrace either option and anyone that wants to play a legacy version of WoW is unable to do so on Blizzard servers.
Other venerable MMORPG’s like EverQuest have officially approved fan run legacy servers such as Project 1999 and others. John Smedley the former CEO of Sony Online Entertainment and Daybreak Games who created EverQuest, saw the wisdom of the legacy server movement and actually cared enough about loyal EverQuest fans and the historical and cultural importance of EverQuest and consequently allowed anyone to run an emulated EQ server as long as no money changes hands.
MMOs and Virtual Worlds are Cultural Treasures
Video games are an important part of the cultural mosaic of Western civilization. You can still play the original arcade games from the 1970’s and 1980s on actual coin op machines and console and personal computers. But MMORPGs and virtual worlds are different. By virtue of the fact that they can be updated, altered and even erased by the developers, the original versions of these virtual worlds are lost with no way for a MMO player to go back in time to experience them like they can with video games.
The legacy MMORPG server movement staffed by passionate volunteers solves this problem by recreating these original MMORPGs with great authenticity and painstaking fidelity. Companies like Blizzard should be embracing the legacy server movement because these dedicated fans are saving their abandoned virtual worlds for posterity.
Volunteer WoW developers like Gummy should be applauded by Blizzard for his love of WoW and his tireless dedication to preserving The Burning Crusade WoW expansion.
Here’s a Gummy’s letter to the Felmyst community for posterity:
I began this project roughly four years ago and last year when Blizzard began taking action more seriously it weighed heavily on me as not only was I already heavily invested into the work but others around me were as well. Because of my health situation I wasn’t in a position to cut losses and start over on something different, at least not something that would take four years to make. Last year’s news of what Blizzard was doing came at the absolute worst time for me, frankly, with so many years already invested. To explain what may appear as an odd series of decisions it seems worthwhile to disclose my condition, muscular dystrophy, which only one other person in the online sphere knew of until now.
Of course, that is why I’m not able to pick up and move to another country as an alternative means to host the server since I’m not really able to live on my own. That is also the reason I’ve been able to work mostly full time on this project as I’m unemployed, though I have sacrificed much of my well being dedicating everything I have to this. Why am I disclosing this? I’m not really sure, but I feel compelled to.
So the question instead becomes: why host it yourself? The problem with that is our popularity snowballed way too fast once the release date was set.
Before the release date was declared, most people expected the server to flounder with a small population, the irony of which quickly became a meme. Therefore, months ago I saw no reason to hand all of our work over to someone I didn’t know when the project had a reasonable chance to stay small enough to avoid the need. Though I have no problem contributing to honest developers, the market to wrongfully profit from this stuff is much too lucrative to hand it out on a whim. Had we time to smooth out the release, this certainly would have been something to explore. The warning signs to expect notice from Blizzard were there but receiving it that quickly was something I don’t think many expected.
So why did I make this project? I love the game and community, especially the community. The old game was a great way to meet people and see new faces. It makes me happy, and programming makes me happy. Of course, I am sad that things didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped but I don’t think I’d change any of the decisions I made. I gambled that we could cap the servers at 3k and enjoy a close community. Sadly, I did not win that gamble, though on some level it was nice to see so many people eager to enjoy something I worked on. This project gave the last four years of my life a sense of purpose that I thoroughly enjoyed.
So why not tell people of that plan ahead of time to stifle hype? The problem with private servers is that there is no middle ground. If people expect a server to “only” have 3000 (real) players then they just won’t play and you’ll instead end up with 300, which isn’t playable.
A lot of people are of course asking for the source code. Although it may not be in my best interest to distribute the whole thing in its entirety at this point, I’ll see what I can manage that would be beneficial to other programmers who are still learning.
Gummy’s letter to the fans is heartbreaking. I can only imagine how devastated he must feel after giving up the last four years of his life recreating an era of WoW that he fell in love with only to have his dreams and his purpose for living crushed by the might of a billion dollar corporation. Gummy’s sense of devastation is also felt by thousands of players who were excited about being able to go back in time to experience a pristine version of The Burning Crusade version of WoW which Blizzard refuses to provide.
While Blizzard has every right to protect their intellectual property, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. In their zeal to protect their IP, they have created a public relations disaster for themselves and in the process have come off looking mean-spirited, greedy and inept much like the tone deaf RIAA in 2003 who sued a grandmother and many others for downloading music and faced universal condemnation and ridicule for doing so.
For a company that never misses an opportunity to virtue signal their newly found progressive values, their callous treatment of a disabled WoW fan who had dedicated his life to recreating the magic of The Burning Crusade version of WoW is perplexing and is a revealing insight into their true values and priorities. The tragic thing is all of this could have been easily avoided as Blizzard could have easily made special accommodations and arrangements with private WoW servers to allow them to continue while simultaneously protecting their IP but they have chosen not to.
The story of how Blizzard treated Gummy needs to be spread far and wide. But this story is more than just about how Blizzard threatened legal action against one of their most loyal and dedicated fans who lovingly created a legacy server, it’s about how they’ve continually ignored hundreds of thousands of their fans who don’t want to play the current version of WoW and would prefer to play legacy servers instead.
Surely there must be some official way to harness the talent and skill of dedicated super fans like Gummy in helping Blizzard to preserve the legacy of their WoW franchise? Blizzard/Activision is a massive company with immense financial resources. Don’t believe me? News recently broke that Blizzard will be paying certain gamers $50,000 a year plus benefits to be a part of their esports Overwatch League. Blizzard certainly has the money to bring legacy servers into existence to honor their own impressive legacy of their blockbuster MMO and the memories of the millions of fans that treasure the early versions of WoW. All they need now is the will to make it happen.