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A few years ago I got into World of Warcraft in a big way. It was the second MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) I’d ever played (a brief flirtation with the original Guild Wars came to naught) and I was hooked. This was pre-BC WoW, for the MMO enthusiasts: the original, raw, brutally difficult anti-n00b wipe-fest that nevertheless took the internet by storm, broke every sales record for computer RPGs, and made Blizzard Entertainment even more insanely rich than they already were.

I was no stranger to the Warcraft franchise, even then. When I moved away from home to college I bought my very first computer (a Compaq Prolinea 486DX4/100 running Windows 3.1 on a 120MB HDD with an astonishing 16MB of RAM) and installed a store-bought copy of Warcraft II as the very second program (the first was a copy of Corel Wordperfect — this machine was for school after all.) I spent forever painstakingly mining gold, chopping wood, and drawing orcs against meticulously-ordered troop-formations where my Human Footmen could chop away at them while my Elven Archers shot them into little pixellated blood-smears. Years later, I found the MMO fun partly because they’d managed to keep that cartoony aesthetic from the old tile-based top-down strategy came and translate it to a 3D environment; I was running around Azeroth, a place where I’d already spent countless happy hours.

Due to a real-life crisis, I stopped playing WoW only a month or two before The Burning Crusade expansion was released. A couple of years later, I started dating The Wife™, who re-introduced me to WoW and let me use her account at a time when I could in no way justify the expense of a monthly subscription. Shortly before Wrath of the Lich King was released I ended up with my own account, and we were able to play together, which is an experience that no nerd-couple should live without. We’re very similar players, preferring PvE (Player-versus-Environment) to PvP (Player-versus-Player) so the continuous expansions of the core game were nice, allowing us to unlock new realms and adventures together.

Then came Cataclysm, and fucked it all up. I didn’t like the Cataclysm expansion because it fundamentally altered all the old environments, got rid of a lot of my favourite quest chains, and made the whole levelling and PvE experience secondary to PvP and so-called “endgame content”. The game had “matured”… but that original, authentic experience was gone. Blizzard had altered their paradigm-changing MMO to imitate the imitators. In short, the stuff I’d enjoyed about the game hadn’t been outright cut, but had definitely been sidelined. When my account got hacked a few months later, it just wasn’t worth rebuilding; I cancelled my subscription and never went back. The Wife™ and I moved on to different MMORPGs, particularly Star Wars: The Old Republic, since she was a fan of BioWare’s Dragon Age series and I had thoroughly enjoyed Mass Effect and the Knights of the Old Republic RPGs, which used pretty much the same game mechanics.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself missing World of Warcraft. Not post-Cataclysm WoW, but that clunky, buggy, n00b-hostile grindfest that I’d played back in the day. I figured that I couldn’t be the only fan who liked the old days, so I idly Googled “Classic WoW” and inadvertently discovered a nerd subculture.

It turns out that there are still enthusiasts for “Vanilla WoW“, as it’s called: version 1.15, the last major patch before the release of The Burning Crusade expansion. Or, as I look at it, the place and time where I was forced to abandon my original WoW account. Playing Vanilla WoW is, frankly, illegal: basically, one creates a free account on a “private” server; then one downloads an old pirated (read: stolen) release of World of Warcraft v1.15; installs it; manually edits certain lines of code in certain files so that the program doesn’t try to login to Blizzard’s servers but instead the private server one has signed up for; and then one plays.

This has the effect of creating a Free-to-Play game environment, which I suppose cheats Blizzard out of money… but Blizzard no longer offers this version of the game. If you want to play WoW on a legal, Blizzard-licensed server, you have to play Cataclysm. Period, end of list. The game that people are illegally playing is, for all intents and purposes, abandonware, so I’m not sure that it’s immoral to play Vanilla WoW. (I also assume that Blizzard isn’t actively pursuing the enthusiasts who are running these Vanilla WoW servers, since if I could find them with a simple Google search, I’m sure Blizzard Entertainment’s copyright division could too.)

The issue reminds me a great deal of the whole Star Wars franchise: George Lucas created the original trilogy, then later added scenes and altered scenes and played with the trilogy he created… and then he destroyed the originals. Aside from old and decaying VHS copies of the re-mastered original trilogy (like the box set I have in storage somewhere) there is literally no way for me to watch the films that I loved as a child. What I can watch is a CGI-enhanced remake with added scenes and stupid cartoony aliens in the background and edited explosions and so on. The Special Edition DVDs, while entertaining, are not the movies from my childhood, or at least not entirely.

Lucas’ bewildering decision to destroy the original movies in favour of his altered versions has been the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth online, so I won’t belabour it here (and if you’ve managed to tough out this post so far, you’re doubtlessly familiar with the debate) but I do have to point out one important thing: The original Star Wars trilogy had an enormous impact on popular culture and cinema. Destroying the originals was roughly equivalent to colourizing Citizen Kane and then burning the masters because “we couldn’t do colour back then but this version is what was intended.” The original film, as an artifact, ought to have been preserved, and it’s a loss to our culture that it hasn’t.

Which brings me to the second thing I wanted to mention on this subject: This weekend The Wife™ and I curled up on the couch with a couple of drinks and watched Harmy’s Despecialized Edition of the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope). This re-work of the film was a labour of love — or madness — by a Czechoslovakian Star Wars fan who moved mountains to erase George Lucas’ changes to the series. He restored the original movie to its original, pre-special-edition format. It was the film I watched and loved when I was a child, and I got to watch it in the arms of my wife, in what was simultaneously one of the most romantic and geekiest evenings of my life; Harmy’s efforts gave us back something we’d both loved and had thought lost.

It was magical.

It was also blatantly illegal, since Star Wars isn’t remotely in the public domain. Disney owns the rights to the whole thing now, and I have no doubt that The Walt Disney Company’s famously litigious copyright lawyers would flay Harmy alive on general principles if they thought they could get away with it without provoking the fans.

Without provoking the fans. That’s the key, isn’t it? Disney might own the rights to the Star Wars franchise, just as Blizzard owns the rights to Vanilla WoW… but what about the fans? The fanbase has rights too, doesn’t it? These aren’t just sterile intellectual properties, these are worlds, and they’re worlds where we used to play. Kids in my parent’s generation used to play “Cowboys and Indians”; we played “Star Wars.” (A winter like the one we’re having? Hoth. All day, every day.) It’s the same with Vanilla WoW, just on a smaller scale: there’s a hard-core group of enthusiasts who are trying to keep that original vision alive because it’s a world that they loved.

So much of what I used to love is gone. The landscape of my childhood been sold, or cut down, or burned down, or built up; suburban sprawl is a sad and wearying thing. The movies and games I enjoyed have been copy-righted, and licensed, and sequel-ed and prequel-ed and cartoon-adapted to utter fucking death. That’s not malice, I know, that’s just life… but it’s nice to know that I can return to certain worlds if I want, almost like opening an old and favourite book.

Of course, I don’t worry about being sued for copyright infringement for opening an old book, or even running a copy off my old Warcraft II disc in an emulator program. Indulging our nostalgia for something we used to enjoy has become a little strange in the shifting world of the digital present.