Blizzard Still Trying To Take Down WoW Vanilla Fan Servers While Refusing To Offer A Competing Product

from the no-fun-for-you dept

You will hopefully recall a post we did several years ago dealing with Blizzard’s decision to shut down a fan-run “vanilla” World of Warcraft server that stripped the game’s expansions out and let players play the game as it was originally released in 2004. As is so often the case in these kinds of disputes, we can at once stipulate that Blizzard was within its right to do this while still calling out whether it was the best decision it could make on the matter. The simple fact is that there were other avenues down which the company could travel other than threatening the fan-server into oblivion, such as working out a cheap licensing arrangement to make it official. The whole situation became all the more odd when you consider that Blizzard itself does not offer a competing experience with the fan-server, essentially ignoring what is clearly a desire within the fanbase for that kind of experience that Blizzard could monetize if it wanted. Instead, the fan-server shut itself down under the threat of a trademark lawsuit and Blizzard went on its merry way ignoring these customer desires.

Fast forward to today, some two years later, and it’s all happening again. Another fan-operated vanilla server, this one called Light’s Hope, is under attack from Blizzard for all the same reasons.

In recent years the project has captured the hearts of tens of thousands of die-hard WoW fans. At the time of writing, the most popular realm has more than 6,000 people playing from all over the world. Blizzard, however, is less excited.

The company has asked the developer platform GitHub to remove the code repository published by Light’s Hope. Blizzard’s notice targets several SQL databases stating that the layout and structure is nearly identical to the early WoW databases.

That, of course, is the entire point of the vanilla server. The very idea is to allow players to experience the roots of the massively popular online game. And it’s quite popular, too, with thousands of players playing this vanilla experience. If nothing else, this again should represent free market research and the uncovering of an entirely new and potentially lucrative market for Blizzard. It would be one thing if these takedowns were going on while coupled with statements from the company about its own competing service. But that’s not what’s happening. The takedowns happen and Blizzard ignores the market demands.

To be clear, again, Blizzard can do this. But, no matter the game of pretend its PR reps try to play, it certainly doesn’t have to do this. It could quite easily work something out with Light’s Hope to make it official and either monetize it directly or at least recognize that these types of fan projects do nothing but drive more interest and dollars towards the original product.

In the end, Blizzard comes off as anti-consumer and against its own passionate fan base. That’s not a good look.

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Comments on “Blizzard Still Trying To Take Down WoW Vanilla Fan Servers While Refusing To Offer A Competing Product”

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34 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

"In the end, Blizzard comes off as anti-consumer and against its own passionate fan base. That's not a good look." -- And they go on ignoring your advice, yet wildly popular! I don't get it! Don't they read Techdirt?

At least you have the decency to say that Buzzard has some right to control their products and deriving.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: "In the end, Blizzard comes off as anti-consumer and against its own passionate fan base. That's not a good look." -- And they go on ignoring your advice, yet wildly popular! I don't get it! Don't they read Techdirt?

Be sure to remind him of that during his next temper tantrum over being hidden (which the comment I just read and replied to was).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: "In the end, Blizzard comes off as anti-consumer and against its own passionate fan base. That's not a good look." -- And they go on ignoring your advice, yet wildly popular! I don't get it! Don't they read Techdirt?

Why wouldn’t he? Nobody at TD has ever stated that they shouldn’t, only that there’s far better ways to enforce things.

When you stop lying about people and listen to what they have to say, you might be able to start conversing with adults on their level. But, your committal to childish fiction even has you making up silly nicknames for the companies you are pretending to defend.

CaitlinP (profile) says:

I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

I do think that taking down the server was unnecessary on Blizzard’s part, since they don’t have a competing server now––I don’t think they’re ignoring market demand though.

At Blizzcon 2017, they announced that they were starting development on World of Warcraft Classic, which is supposed to be the original Vanilla experience.

At the very least, they’ve acknowledged and are acting on what their players want.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

“which is supposed to be the original Vanilla experience”

Well, there’s 2 things here:

First, why is it so difficult for them to get a vanilla experience up and running, if fans can do it so easily? I understand there may be support or other issues to be had but it always seems strange when a large company says they are starting work on something that unpaid fans in their bedrooms have already delivered using that company’s own product.

Secondly, it’s “supposed” to be the thing people have been asking for, but is it really? We will have to wait to see if they are actually delivering that or if it’s some other product.

All in all, we’ll have to wait and see what they deliver, but the demand for vanilla servers will continue to be made and met by other while we wait.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

First, why is it so difficult for them to get a vanilla experience up and running, if fans can do it so easily? I understand there may be support or other issues to be had but it always seems strange when a large company says they are starting work on something that unpaid fans in their bedrooms have already delivered using that company’s own product.

Because the private servers these sites host are hacked to pieces. They are often laggy, and do not always 100% work the way true Vanilla worked. Maybe they bypass some code here. Maybe their damage calculation on Fireball is incorrect. Maybe the server-side netcode is vulnerable. There’s a ton of reasons.

But, more to the point, I don’t think Blizzard is completely stupid. They know that players want the best of both worlds: the old quests and raid sizes and grindy stuff, while still having access to the nice quality of life improvements they’ve introduced over the years, like transmog or shared mounts or achievements (disclaimer: I am not a Blizzard rep, and have no knowledge of what their classic servers will eventuall look like. I’m just a consumer that has played their games long enough to know how they think).

Secondly, it’s "supposed" to be the thing people have been asking for, but is it really? We will have to wait to see if they are actually delivering that or if it’s some other product.

Yes, really. They’ve literally asked for it every year at BlizzCon during the WoW Q&A (or otherwise prefaced said Q&A with a ‘no questions about vanilla servers’). They’ve also been faced with the ever present spectre of said private servers. As Techdirt is always so fond of pointing out, piracy is just a symptom of an underserved market. It’s just that, until recently, the portion of players utilizing said private servers was small, and thus not worth the investment. However, as subscriber numbers have fallen, it begins to look more lucrative to bring those players back in-house and with an officially supported release.

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re: Re: I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

Your still argueing that it takes YEARS for a company to dust of their own old code. Did they just delete the entire original code base?

It should be pretty quick and simple job for the company that created the game to just install the original server side code and boot it up. I would buy them needing a few months to review the code and patch in some of their modern anti-cheating and security code.

The fans created a passable experience where they had to reverse engineer the entire thing and build it from scratch. Blizzard should have full access to the original source code and programmers experienced in building this game. They have zero excuse for taking longer than fans to produce this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

It’s not as simple as “dust[ing] off old code.” That old code has to be updated to run on modern server hardware, with whatever changes to networking code/systems Blizzard is using now.

It has to work with Blizzard’s new launcher & authenticator.

It has to have new security measures implemented (things they’ve learned since BC).

They can’t just take an old archive of the code and throw it onto a server with no QA. That would be a shitty experience for everyone involved.

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re: Re:3 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

That still is pretty trivial work compared to reverse engineering the entire project. You have the original code and you have the programmers who wrote your modern version. They shouldn’t have that hard a time comparing the old and the new and migrating security patches into the old.

Shoot with all the source code on hand this is probably a project you could hand to a few interns and have done in a few months. Just have a senior programmer oversee their work and knock that out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

You have the original code and you have the programmers who wrote your modern version. They shouldn’t have that hard a time comparing the old and the new and migrating security patches into the old.

You’ve clearly never done any enterprise development.

And while that is a jestful stab, there is truth to it. The original code was written likely by an entirely different team, with different goals, expectations, standards, etc. You have to give them time to ‘grok’ the way they think, and that’s not even thinking about the back-end stuff, like subscription validation servers that may have changed in the meantime. As an example, say they updated their back-end server from MySQL to Microsoft SQL Server at some point between Vanilla and the latest expansion. Now you have to comb through every line of code to verify that all the SQL has been converted to the same data and structure…and then test the ever-living crap out of it, because it has to take the abuse of half a million users.

Then think about their updated Battle.Net interface – it didn’t exist when Vanilla launched. So you’ve got to check everywhere that Battle.Net code shows up. There’s a reason it took so long to get cross-game chat.

And what about engine updates? They basically broke the engine and re-wrote it after Cataclysm. Can that updated engine be backported to the vanilla world without breaking anything?

These answers take time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

Correct. However, it should still take less time than trying to reverse engineer the entire thing from scratch. Because you still have to do all those things when reverse engineering it in addition to reverse engineering it. Blizzard doesn’t have to reverse engineer it, they just have to make sure it’s patched and ready for the tech of today.

Or are you saying that reverse engineering a system you know nothing about it takes far less time than patching a system you are at least tangentially familiar with and have the source code lying around in your backups for comparison?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

When did the work of reverse engineering the code for the vanilla server start? I’m betting many years ago after the first expansion or two. Haven’t looked myself but the vanilla server was probably not setup and configured in only a few months.

Also as was pointed out you have a lot of code updates that must be made. Hopefully it was all commented well or it will take longer.

Troy Wilson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

Virtual machines. I run old code on virtual machines that meet the old specs all the time. Put together a team and setup a VM that matches the original specs for the original servers. Install the software. Then start by updating the database backend to something newer while another team looks at optimizing the working code for a newer environment.

Time consuming, but not hard.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I agree that threatening a trademark lawsuit was a dick move but...

“Because the private servers these sites host are hacked to pieces. They are often laggy, and do not always 100% work the way true Vanilla worked. Maybe they bypass some code here. Maybe their damage calculation on Fireball is incorrect. Maybe the server-side netcode is vulnerable. There’s a ton of reasons.”

Well, that doesn’t really answer my question. Sure, the homebrewed stuff is hacked and not completely up to snuff – but that’s because they don’t have the original code. Blizzard do. As I mentioned, I understand that they will need to work out performance, etc. as they will need to provide support and peopler aren’t going to put up with as many problems with an official product as a known hacked version.

I get why some development is necessary, but it seems strange that they announced it as such a monumental task as it was. I don’t know their code structure or their full plans, but on the face of it, merely servicing the demand “we want the game to play like it used to” shouldn’t require years of development.

“They know that players want the best of both worlds: the old quests and raid sizes and grindy stuff, while still having access to the nice quality of life improvements they’ve introduced over the years”

Do they, though? If they’re trying to second guess what people want, they’re digging a hole for themselves. They still won’t be delivering what a lot of people are actually asking for, so these vanilla private servers will continue to be built.

Again, we shall see what they ultimately deliver, but if they’re responding to demands for a true vanilla version with some kind of hybrid, they’re asking for further trouble.

“It’s just that, until recently, the portion of players utilizing said private servers was small, and thus not worth the investment”

That in itself is fine. It’s the fact that they’re spending lots of money attacking the people who are servicing the demand that they refuse to service themselves that’s the problem. It doesn’t matter how good or bad their reason for not offering the product is, they cannot shut down the market for grey/black market products if they refuse to offer it themselves.

Anon E Mouse says:

Fascinating how two people can look at the same data and end up with opposite conclusions

First, I don’t see any reason for Light’s Hope to exist in the way they claim to operate. All the content they offer still exists in Blizzard’s official servers. Some of the details have changed with the various expansions, such as capital cities getting a facelift, but all the dungeons and most of the raids are still there, with nothing stopping players from “experiencing the roots” other than that pesky subscription price tag. Another argument that’s been raised is that modern WoW’s community is very different from the original release’s community, which is true, but no amount of unlicensed servers can turn time back. That community’s gone.
The sole missing raid is Necropolis Naxxramas version 1.0, which was moved to a different spot and re-adjusted for higher level player in the second expansion. Having an earlier version of that raid is the sole thing Light’s Hope has to offer that doesn’t exist in the official servers.

Second, I greatly disagree with the “Blizzard can do this” part. They’re not going after the operator of the unlicensed server, but a Github repo. The DMCA request targets two .sql files and a script folder. One of the .sql files is noted as having a “similar structure” as files Blizzard uses, which is just absurd. There’s a limited number of ways you can make sane table structures. Not being bad at initializing databases should not equal infringing intellectual property rights. The second .sql files’ case is even weirder. The request mentions the file contains several references to Nostalrius, another unlicensed server. Which ok yeah it does, but how does that make the file infringing on Blizzard’s rights? Then there’s the scripts folder, which contains fantasy names (seriously, that’s the given reason on why it’s infringing) and scripts that reference database records by ID. Apparently scripts and database referencing matching IDs is Blizzard’s property too?
I seriously don’t understand this complaint. Wanting to shut down an unlicensed server is a thing I approve of, using DMCA as the tool and having some rather creative justifications in the DMCA request are not.

Third, and this is just an observation unlike my two previous points, there’s the licensing arrangement thing.
Blizzard’s stance on game balance is that everyone who pays the subscription fee is on an even playing field, not letting out of game assets have an impact on ingame events. Light’s Hope’s stance is more along the lines of “donate money for ‘server upkeep’, receive powerful ingame equipment in return.” Some of the donation reward items aren’t even available by purely ingame means. Even if Blizzard was willing to sit down at the negotiation table to somehow reconcile the situation, I find it very unlikely that the private server’s operators would be willing to let go of this income stream. It’s far easier and probably more profitable to play victim and keep those donations rolling in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fascinating how two people can look at the same data and end up with opposite conclusions

It’s obvious that you don’t play WoW. The differences between current and vanilla are huge. Lots of old world quests have been removed. Dungeons have been changed (take a look at sunken temple before and after cataclysm for an example). Class quests are totally gone. etc. The differences aren’t just graphics.

Anon E Mouse says:

Re: Re: Fascinating how two people can look at the same data and end up with opposite conclusions

That’s less than a tenth of a percent of the original community of over eight million. I’d say a 99.94% reduction in userbase counts as “gone”. Not to mention there’s no telling how many of this new userbase are attracted by other things, like the lack of a subscription fee.

Anonymous Coward says:

>First, I don’t see any reason for Light’s Hope to exist in the way they claim to operate.

Nor do I, because I don’t play WoW. I don’t see any reason for lots of things… so long as someone does, there might be a market. Here, there is definitely a market. If I were to guess the reason, I might suspect the smaller player community, or the simpler interface, or more-easily-comprehended game rules. But I don’t know. (or, honestly, care.)

The legal question is moot, apparently. The economic question arises: why is Blizzard trying to depress the world economy by destroying a thing that some people consider valuable? Granted, again, Blizzard (like most of us) doesn’t have enough economic impact that most of the world would notice if we disappeared, but that’s no excuse for causing all the damage we can–little though it might be.

When there are all sorts of licensing schemes that might attract new players to Blizzard as well as allow the Amish-equivalents of the electronic age to build their own communities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Copyright is not even the problem here. Online games by design are made to never enter the public domain. Once the game shuts down its gone forever unless someone reverse engineers the server side. Companies have zero intentions of ever releasing the server code so in effect they get all the protections and rights that copyright offers without contributing anything to the public and society is none the wiser.

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