MMO On a Small Scale: A look at private MMO Servers
Back when MMO games began to grow in popularity, MMO gamers became jealous of a single player gamers ability to pirate their games. Free private server emulation was born. Today many of the latest games, including World of Warcraft, are available on free to play private servers.
What Is a Private Server?
Back when MMO games began to grow in popularity, MMO gamers became jealous of a single player gamers ability to pirate their games. Free private server emulation was born. Today many of the latest games, including World of Warcraft, are available on free to play private servers. But are they legal? And what is the benefit of playing on a private server?
A private server is the common name for a server emulator. Essentially, a private server emulates the functions of a normal MMO server. It allows users to login and play as they would on a normal retail server. Private servers have gained their player base by being free to play and through content customisation. At the same time, they have been criticised for poor performance and low player population. There is mixed truth on both sides.
How Is a Private Server Made?
A private server emulator is created by reverse engineering the data stream between the retail client and server. It is not an overnight job but most private server emulators are released as open source tools.
In some situations private servers used leaked code from the retail servers. The biggest case of this was AEGIS from Ragnarok Online. The server code was leaked and used to host private servers. In fact, the original code was considered so poor server emulator developers improved on it with their own code.
History of Private Servers
The first widely acknowledged private server appeared for Ultima Online, while the retail version was still in beta. An open source tool was released which allowed players to play without connecting to the Ultima Online server.
From this tool, several private server emulators spawned. Ultima Online now has many private servers, known as ‘Free Shards’, with enough customized content to rival the retail servers.
Older private servers for games like Ultima Online and Ragnarok Online have existed, with an active player base, for several years. Private servers are still being developed for recent games. Aion Online, released in 2009, has an emulator released and several private servers already exist.
Advantages of Private Servers
The primary benefit to playing on a private server is usually the financial bonus. You can have as many accounts as you like without paying a cent. Most private servers allow you to download the game client so you don’t even need to pay for that.
Another benefit is the customisation of a private server. Almost anything can be tweaked, modified, added or removed. Many private servers remove the levelling grind, many have completely custom events and areas and others raise the level cap and introduce their own classes.
For example, World of Warcraft servers exist which allow players to fly in Azeroth and there is a Ragnarok Private server which includes the ‘Jedi’ class. Yes, lightsaber included.
For some players the customized content is simply a bonus. To others, it is the sole reason to play on a private server. Whether a player wants to enjoy the game without the long hard grind or they have become weary of the retail server content, a private server can provide new entertainment in a game gone stale.
Disadvantages of Private Servers
The prominent disadvantage of playing on a private server is the limited resources. Private server developers and administrators do not have the resources of a large game company. They cannot afford the staff or hardware to compete.
The lack of hardware can result in latency issues which would be absent in a retail server. The lack of staff can lead to bugs, exploits and delayed updates. A good example of hardware limitations is the lack of an EVE Online private server. The EVE universe is so expansive it would be tough to match it with the hardware capability. While some software emulator options exist, there is no successful EVE online private server.
Not every private server has these issues. Some exist without bugs and it’s unlikely you will notice the latency difference. It is usually down to the individual servers and the emulators used.
The population is noticeably lower on a private server. Again, this is an example of the private server’s limitations when it comes to promotion. Some private servers can still have several thousand players but by retail server comparisons, it isn’t really a competition.
Game companies are not blind, they are aware of private servers. When they do not stop them, the next best thing is to have a section prohibiting the creation and use of private servers on the terms of service. If you are detected playing a private server, it is likely you will find yourself banned from official retail servers.
Profiting From a Private Server
One of the pivotal advantages of playing on a private server might be the lack of monthly subscription fees, but that has not stopped private servers making a profit.
The majority of private servers allow donations claiming they need money to help the server survive. In the case of heavily populated servers, the word ‘donation’ is purely for legality. The true motive is profit.
Most private servers offer in game rewards in exchange for donations. They are basically selling in game items for real money, but gain deniability by calling it a donation. With most private server communities, donators are disliked for possessing donated items. This is quite a paradox compared with most communities in which donators are considered a positive role.
Some private servers also offer a merchandise store. To avoid drawing further ire from the games companies, they tend to lack any in game graphics but you can get anything from a t-shirt to a pencil with the server logo and your character name.
Popular MMO Games With Private Servers
Private servers exist for many popular MMO games, both old and new. Older games such as the aforementioned Ultima Online and Ragnarok Online along with Runescape, Anarchy Online and Lineage 2 all have active private servers available. More recent games, such as World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies and Aion Online also have private servers and are developing quite a player base.
The general rule of thumb is, the newer the game the more unreliable the server. Older games have had longer to develop their private server emulators and tend to be more reliable.
Legality of Private Servers
The legality of private servers has been a hotly debated subject within gamer communities since their creation. If a private server is using leaked code, then it is illegal. AEGIS was leaked from Ragnarok Online official servers and its use broke copyright law. However, there is an argument that because most private servers create their own code there is no legal issues with hosting a private server.
Well, I think Blizzard would disagree.
‘Only Blizzard or its licensees have the right to host the Game. You may not host or provide matchmaking services for the Game, or intercept, emulate or redirect the proprietary communication protocols used by Blizzard in connection with the Program, regardless of the method used to do so. Such prohibited methods may include, but are not limited to, protocol emulation, reverse engineering, modifying the Program, adding unauthorized components to the Program, or using a packet sniffer while the Program is running.’ Blizzard, World of Warcraft EULA
When you want to consider legality, looking at Blizzards actions is the way to go. Blizzard has successfully shut down several major private WoW servers and BnetD, a Battle.Net server emulator. In the case of Blizzard vs BNETD, the reverse engineering and emulation of proprietary software circumvented the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and was deemed illegal.
Private servers are still around however, so there must be some gray area somewhere. Or perhaps game companies just haven’t the time to chase around private servers with small populations.