Vanilla – it’s a flavour of Warcraft that veterans remember fondly. Class raids to Stratholme, 40-player raids through Molten Core, and camping general chat to find dungeon groups. It was a time before transmogs, flying mounts, or pet battles. And now, in the form of Warcraft Classic, it’s making a return.
The WoW community was very different back then. Players chose a server and stuck to it, earning a reputation amongst their peers that would last for years. I even have my own memories – both good and bad – of what WoW was like back then. For some, overcoming the struggles of Vanilla WoW made a different type of player, and built a different type of community – one which some have clamoured to bring back.
But why has the concept been hard for Blizzard to implement? And what might have changed in order to persuade the studio to rethink? In essence, it’s likely taken a gradual overhaul of how WoW actually works, from a simple server setup, to a flexible landscape where the modern server engine and game content are completely seperate. How would it work? Read on…
Raid Like It’s 2005
Back in Vanilla, each Warcraft Realm ran on four physical servers – one for Kalimdor, one for Eastern Kingdoms, one for dungeons and raids, and one for looting and commerce. In the EU, these were HP ProLiant BL25p blades. If you’d like to see the innards, iFixit has a handy teardown.
This architecture had some obvious limitations, which manifested in predictable ways. During the early days, one of the two continents would occasionally go offline, while the other was still happily playable. Sometimes, loot would take time to transfer from a corpse or chest to a character, or the auction house would fail to respond. Capping it all was the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj event where players flooded into a zone in order to participate, bringing the sweating server to its knees.
Something had to change and, gradually, it did. The architecture that’s used in today’s World of Warcraft is radically different. supporting cross-realm play in more ways than ever before. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the physical infrastructure has long-since been disbanded, with realms existing simply as logical scaleable components in a more flexible cloud or hybrid environment. Put simply, a realm probably doesn’t exist as a single physical cluster any more.
Not In Hillsbrad Any More
Why is this a problem? As J.Allen Brack explained at Blizzcon this weekend, it means that bringing Vanilla realms back is a tricky task. The original hardware doesn’t exist any more, and bringing Warcraft back in the old way would also reintroduce the same old problems and limitations. Yes, it’d be possible to mimic that old hardware using virtualisation, but that doesn’t remove the limitations.
On top of that, there’s the huge range of Blizzard services that WoW now plugs into. Battle.net for authentication is an obvious one, but there are also subscription services, character services, the in-game store, and so on. Integration styles and methods have changed, and Warcraft Classic would need to be tweaked to plug into them. That either means updating the legacy code, or building a series of adapters to handle the translation between the old and the new.
Security is also a huge concern, especially as Blizzard has developed sophisticated techniques to identify and remove bots, spammers, scammers and other nefarious agents. Would rolling back the tide undo all that hard work, or would the studio need to build something new in order to keep a tight ship?
Making Shal’Dorei Silk Look Like Linen
So, what’s the solution? From the announcement, it’s clear that Blizzard has worked out a way to make Warcraft Classic a thing. The studio may also have picked up some hints from private servers on what that Vanilla experience actually means to players, and how they could enable it without taking too many steps back.
Private server operators never had the luxury of having the Blizzard code for Warcraft realms. Instead, they had a copy of the Vanilla client, some network monitoring tools, and detailed knowledge of what it should look like. From there, they had to work backwards, deciphering how to get that vanilla content and all the required systems up and running on easily obtainable (and cheap) virtual hosting.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the folks in Irvine have taken a similar approach. Instead of trying to emulate a server infrastructure that had known limitations, why not just migrate the classic content onto the new framework? It changes the problem from being an engineering one to a data modelling and migration one, which is much more solvable. Plus, all the platform improvements are preserved, making it a huge plus.
Vanilla on an Azerite Platter
Today, that more modern and resilient architecture is in place. We’ve seen the stones being laid through various expansions and patches – cross-realm dungeons and raids, zone sharing, and more. Now that game content is separated from the services that provide the game infrastructure, the prospect of Warcraft Classic is finally possible.
In fact, in interviews with both Eurogamer and PC Gamer, that seems to be the approach Blizzard is taking, with J. Allen Brack confirming that an internal version of Classic is already up and running on the modern infrastructure. Confident that it’s technically possible in some form, the studio now needs to decide on the details, which the community will be heavily involved in.
Much still remains to be decided. What patch will Warcraft Classic launch with? Will our old characters still exist? Will old achievements register against our more modern accounts? And, crucially, how much will we have to pay for it? Answers to all of these will come in time but, for now, the important news is that Blizzard has made that crucial first step.