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With Secret World Legends launched and receiving regular updates, Richard Cobbett has decided to talk about all the times MMOs have gotten a second chance, both officially and with the help of private servers or emulators. We get to reminisce about the olden days of Ultima Online, and then we're treated to a rundown of all the MMOs that continue to exist despite being officially closed and a bit of a primer on the whole DMCA thing that makes that somewhat tricky. An excerpt:
Things really started with Ultima Online, back in 1997. It wasn’t the first MMO by any stretch and as far back as the days when universities were the only homes for text-based MUDs, people were running their own servers for games. Ultima Online, however, was the first commercial MMO where the idea of players running their own version of the game really hit off. Notably, the common term ‘shard’, for a player-run server, comes from its storyline, in which evil wizard Mondain’s Gem of Immortality shattered into a million shards. Fans reverse engineered the game, produced their own servers with their own rules, and EA largely chose to turn a blind eye to it.
Since then things have become both bigger business and more legally complicated. Laws like the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) make acts like poking around and packet sniffing easier targets for corporate lawyers, with only a few games, notably Minecraft, openly embracing players running their own servers and playing around with the rules. Many player-run servers for games for instance offer paid-for features to their community, or let everyone start at Level 70 to jump right into endgame content. The most famous, Nostalrius, intended to be a time-machine, letting World of Warcraft players go back to the original game, before the expansion packs. Even then though, it’s a confusing story, with the team trying to work with Blizzard for legitimacy, making a deal with another server to bring back their version of the game, and almost immediately splitting up again.
There are of course entirely legitimate, legal servers for games out there. The game typically credited as the first MMORPG, Meridian 59, is still ticking along quite happily courtesy of Near Death Studios… which is now actually dead… and its community. It no longer runs as a commercial thing, but as a fan-run project that takes donations to keep the server up and running. (Adorably, sign up to its forum and it still asks for an ICQ number…) One of its contemporaries, The Realm also bounced between a couple of companies, from Sierra to Codemasters to Norseman Games. This is ignoring the games that have simply been relaunched by their owners, such as the recent move from The Secret World to Secret World Legends.
One of the more interesting legal projects is Neocron Evolution. Neocron was one of those games that honestly deserved a lot better. It was one of the first MMOs to experiment with action-style combat, even if it was still bound to odd rules where a shot to the head from a Level 50 player did exponentially more damage than the same shot to the head from a new player. What I loved about it though was the world design of its titular city, a cyberpunk metropolis designed to feel like a working city, complete with restaurants, malls, strip-clubs, holographic combat arenas, offices for meetings, and something almost nobody has ever tried before or since, an in-game, in-character bulletin board system. Unfortunately, it was a mostly empty city. Neocron just didn’t take off. When I played it after launch, I regularly saw double-figure pop-counts.
Instead of just letting it die with though, the original creators handed it over to a team of fans, and Neocron Evolution is still running. This begs the obvious question of why more MMOs don’t do similar… and unfortunately the simple fact is that most of them can’t. Even when people are willing or companies are no longer around, the simple fact is that much of the code and design in a modern game isn’t the company’s to do that with – the amount of middleware or licensed content routinely gets in the way of just bundling everything together and saying “Here you go, enjoy.”
Even the will and presence of the original developers doesn’t guarantee anything. A couple of years after Neocron came a similar SF MMO called Face of Mankind, which similarly didn’t leave much of a mark. It launched in 2006 after a couple of years of testing and went offline in 2008 after a troubled year. It then came back again in 2009, to little fanfare, before developers NeXeon launched a Kickstarter to create a new version called Fall of the Dominion, which promptly took around $60,000, ran a quick open beta in 2014, and then completely disappeared. And that pretty much seems to be that, at least for the foreseeable future.