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Back from the dead: The people keeping old MMOs alive

Dozens of dead or abandoned MMOs are kept alive by teams of volunteers, many of whom struggle with the legal and financial implications of the task

This article refers to people by first names or aliases in order to protect their identities.

Few genres manage to evoke the same level of grandiose nostalgia as the MMORPG. Most were in the public eye for just a few short years, they made an impact, drew people into a genre who perhaps wouldn't have taken a second look at it before, then burned out as quickly as they appeared.

The genre is also a classic example of the ebb and flow of trends in the games industry. The incredible success of World of Warcraft inspired a generation of imitators (and innovators) before high profile failures such as APB: All Points Bulletin and Star Wars: The Old Republic made publishers think twice about investing in such complex and risky projects.

But for the fans, these were more than just projects. They were thriving communities where lifelong friendships were formed and passionate vocations found. It's therefore unsurprising that when an MMO's servers go dark, there's always a small cadre of enthusiasts who have the means and the desire to attempt a resurrection. But what is it really like to spend your free time working on someone else's game?

"I'm just an ordinary guy with a full time job, wife and a family" says Davros. "I'm unimportant in the grand scheme of things".

"There are a lot of paying customers here that Blizzard has turned a blind eye to for a very long time"

Davros is being quite modest, however, because in his spare time he is the head GM for Kronos, one of the largest private World of Warcraft servers around. He's just one of many enthusiasts who help run unofficial servers for old or abandoned MMOs.

Davros' relationship with WoW is quite typical of many fans. He started playing around the game's initial release, and met many of his best friends and even his future wife in the virtual world of Azeroth. He eventually became disillusioned with the gradual changes made to the retail version and sought out something that could provide him with the vanilla experience he loved so much. After a few months of playing on Kronos, he applied for a position as a moderator, worked his way up to head GM, and now he administers to over a million accounts.

From Davros' perspective, his very existence is a side-effect of Blizzard's inability to listen to its customers' needs. Unlike many in his community, who feel that Blizzard owes its fans a vanilla server, he bluntly states that, "the company's only obligation is to its investors." Yet this is where he personally feels that the publisher has failed.

"If the private project community was just a small handful of players spread throughout the world, we wouldn't be seeing the plethora of projects that currently exist, let alone the hundreds that have come and gone," he says. "If the community was really that small, then to me it would have just made sense to not even acknowledge our existence. But the community is not small. There are a lot of paying customers here that they have turned a blind eye to for a very long time."

Projects like Kronos 'paved the way' for Blizzard's official WoW classic servers

Davros believes that Blizzard "indirectly started a grassroots movement," and that its perceived loss of money is nothing more than the inevitable effect of a protest vote. "They're using their power by not giving the company their money" he says. "These players paved the way for classic servers."

This might sound like an honest but somewhat misinformed opinion from a genuine fan, but Davros' feelings on WoW's continued development are supported by some respected academics. In a recent interview with Gamasutra, game economy expert Ramin Shokrizade stated that "MMOGs have not been failing commercially from lack of consumer demand. They fail because they are thrown together almost randomly (what I call 'Frankenstein Style') without an understanding of the requisite systems for success."

"We had promises of private server files, which never happened, and now we're re-creating an emulator of something we were promised"

Shokrizade is referring mostly to the game's economy, as he devoted a large amount of his study to WoW's once rampant gold-farming problem. However, in an economy-driven, persistent world, this kind of problem is compounded when new mechanics are introduced and sweeping changes are made.

This issue hasn't escaped the attention of WoW's developers either. The game's director, Ion Hazzikostas, even admitted that by continually "adding and adding with every expansion, eventually what we end up with becomes very unwieldy. It's an issue that we weren't cognizant enough of early on because we were in uncharted territory."

Davros' desired legacy servers are now on the horizon for WoW fans, but many of the older MMO communities have not been so lucky. Asheron's Call (AC to the fans) was released in 1999, a few years before the meteoric rise of titles like WoW and Everquest 2 brought the MMO to the attention of the wider public. The game's servers shut down last year, amid an outpouring of heartbreak and frustration from the community, many of whom had been playing the game for nearly two decades.

Contacting the ReefCull team was difficult. Many of the active members of this private server project for Asheron's Call were outwardly fearful of any media attention. There's a very apparent concern among the majority that some lawyer is going to show up and destroy everything they've worked towards.

The ReefCull Asheron's Call community felt that Warner Bros. promised much and delivered little

To be fair, this caution is understandable. Many of these former customers were sold 'lifetime subscriptions' to the game back in 2014, only to have the servers go down a few years later. When owners Warner Bros. announced the plan to pull the plug in 2017, it removed the option to create new accounts, ensuring that previous players couldn't roll up a fresh character and experience the game one last time. Finally, it sent a cease-and-desist order to the first team that attempted to set up a private server, further cementing the idea that AC was being killed off in the minds of its former players.

ChosenOne is the alias of one member of ReefCull's small development team. When speaking to him, the frustration is immediately evident. "How can any of us be understanding?" he asks. "If they'd followed through with their promises we would not be having this discussion today... We had promises of private server files, which never happened, and now we're re-creating an emulator of something we were promised. I'd say we're all still bitter about their actions and how it all unfolded."

"We're fairly confident that we are well within the law... We do not, and will not, generate any profit or revenue from the project"

ChosenOne's feelings on the closure of AC are typical of the wider community. Like many, he started playing back in 1999, when his uncle was in the beta. He vividly remembers searching all the software stores in his local area for a boxed copy on release day, then waiting several hours for his 56k modem to download the updates before he could log on. There is real love for Asheron's Call in this community, as well a deep sense that the team are protecting and preserving a work of art from those who would have it permanently hidden away.

Almost every attempt to discuss the legality of their server is met with terse responses. "No comment", "bad question" or "we're hobbyists, not lawyers" were just some of the replies. Only one of the five developers I spoke to had anything to say on the subject, stating that he simply hopes that the upcoming DCMA exemption ruling will allow discontinued MMO emulation efforts to remain unmolested.

The wider issue of game preservation is perhaps best explored in its own article, but there is a very strong precedent set that justifies the fears of the ReefCull community. As far back as 2010 Blizzard was winning lawsuits against private servers. Yet for the members of this community the issue isn't one of legality, but morality. As one of ChosenOne's colleagues states, "people had sunk thousands upon thousands of hours into this amazing game. They had quite the collection of characters, items and memories that have been lost forever."

For the members of ReefCull, the closure of Asheron's Call and the publisher's subsequent decisions are equivalent of the local government demolishing homes to build a new freeway or shopping mall. A place in which some of them spent the last 20 years is now gone forever, and from their perspective, nobody seems to care.

While the ReefCull team remains fearful of legal repercussions, London 2038's developers, who operate a Hellgate: London server, chose to approach the issue more directly. "We're fairly confident that we are well within the law" explains Demetrios, the project's community manager. "We do not, and will not, generate any profit or revenue from the project" he explains, before stating that they even consulted a legal team on the matter, just to be safe.

The team behind London 2038 accept that it will exist in a 'legal grey area' bu necessity

Hellgate: London was an interesting idea when it launched back in 2007. Designed by ex-Blizzard executives Bill Roper and David Brevik, it was touted as a spiritual successor to Diablo II, with features of the then hugely popular MMO genre mixed into the formula. Yet it was also fully playable as an offline single-player experience. This makes London 2038 unique among many private server projects, especially given that, just a few days ago, the original game's single-player variant re-appeared on Steam with a re-release date of November 15.

Founder and lead developer Omerta is slightly less certain about the legal stability of London 2038. "Consulting legal counsel about our private server made a few things clear to me," he begins. "First, the project will almost certainly exist in a legal grey area unless an unlikely formal agreement is reached. Second, involving money in any way is the biggest risk to the project. Finally, the best we can do is make it clear that it's a fan project with no claims to the intellectual property implied."

Omerta also doesn't share the optimism of the ReefCull team in any abandonware laws working in his favour. "The best we can do is keep our heads down and our hands clean," he says. "There is no guaranteed safe harbour for abandonware private servers, as some people seem to assume."

Omerta admits to being only "mildly concerned" about the upcoming re-release. Indeed, for Omerta and the London 2038 team, any current version of Hellgate: London is a separate entity, and might as well be a totally different piece of software. They have made substantial changes to the base game, transforming it into what they consider to be an entirely different project. The result of this, as Omerta points out, is a game with a totally different direction to the one that will soon be available on Steam. Omerta hopes they can co-exist peacefully, but it remains to be seen whether or not publisher HanbitSoft agree.

All three of the teams in this article have a single thing in common, and that's a sense of community. Their existence is somewhat reminiscent of an interesting chapter in the history of English football, when disgruntled fans of Manchester United FC splintered off and formed a new club, FC United of Manchester. They didn't care about the stadium, the physical property, or the considerable financial strength of their former team. They just shared a common love for the sport and a desire to remain as a community, with a place to meet up and share their hobby.

All of these servers are, in one way or another, formed in that spirit of community and shared passion. None of them appear to be attempts at a business venture. They are digital venues - town halls, churches and leisure centres - and much like the shared feelings of the ReefCull team, we have to consider the implications of taking that away.

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