How I rediscovered the magic of MMOs in private servers

I'll never forget the first time I crossed through the gaping maw that is the front gate of Ironforge in World of Warcraft.. My dwarf hunter  had just taken its first steps in Azeroth, and as I passed through the threshold and rounded a corner, what I saw made me bristle with excitement. Hundreds of players were gathered in the main atrium, their conversations racing across my chat box. I walked into the crowd, stopping to gawk at sets of armor that I hoped I would one day wear, and a gnome priest approached me to ask if I would join his guild, so I did. I stayed in that guild for almost two years, becoming friends with that gnome and the two dozen who would later join.

Years later, I entered Ironforge again—probably for the thousandth time, and felt a sting of sadness. There were no crowds. The players who I did see ran silently past, each on their own quest. When I opened my guild window, all I saw were the names of characters who had long stopped logging in. I opened a different window, queuing for a dungeon that would automatically place me in a party with characters who didn't even live on my server. We wouldn't talk to one another—not unless one of us screwed up. It wasn't much later that I finally decided to just cancel my subscription and play something else. The magic of Ironforge was gone, and so was the magic of World of Warcraft. 

That same old song

For a long time I wandered between MMOs, and with each one I found, I desperately hoped it would give me that sensation I once had walking into Ironforge for the first time. But the decade of iteration on the formula that Warcraft popularized has become too familiar. Instead of being explorers in these worlds, we became conquerors, bending and breaking their systems to get the next prize. Then one day I took a chance on an emulator for the long-dead Star Wars Galaxies, and it made me a private server evangelist. The magic of World of Warcraft, I discovered, was alive and well.

I remember feeling genuinely stricken by the idea that someone would dedicate their time to helping me better enjoy mine.

There's no doubt that Nostalrius, the massive private server that Activision Blizzard shut down last month, was popular because it was a free version of a game that cost a monthly subscription. But there's so much more to enjoy about private servers than saving a couple of bucks, and it all starts with rediscovering that true sense of community.

When I logged into SWGEmu, the most popular Star Wars Galaxies private server, I was overwhelmed by its terribly outdated interface. I was lost, confused, and beginning to wonder if I made a mistake. That's when something cool happened. As I stood in a dusty settlement looking all too much like Mos Eisley, a blue twi'lek walked up to me.

"Are you new?" He said. "Would you like some help?"

After half an hour of asking questions and being told how to play, I finally felt comfortable with Galaxies. The twi’leke revealed that he spent most of his time helping out the newer players that drift in and out of the server. I remember feeling genuinely stricken by the idea that someone would dedicate their time to helping me better enjoy mine.

The roles we play

The more I play private servers, the more I'm convinced that it was a mistake to put 'massive' in front of 'multiplayer online role-playing game.' That, while the novelty of seeing thousands of people in one city was once powerful, it means nothing when the interactions you have with those characters are essentially nonexistent. In SWGEmu, however, there are just under 900 people playing at one time, and it's through that tiny community spread over a whole MMO that I began to discover the meaningful social interactions that made MMOs so alluring to begin with. For me, MMOs were never amazing because of the awesome gear or the awful grind it took to earn it. It was about the people who were beside me every step of the way.

As we few navigate landscapes designed for thousands, the importance of not going it alone becomes profound.

In many modern MMOs, those same people are treated completely differently. Instead of partners or peers, they are my competition. They roll for items I needed in dungeons or steal resources I was on my way to harvest, and there's never an incentive to do anything but shrug my shoulders and try again next time.

In private servers, there's this 'us against the world' feeling that binds me together with the people I meet. As we few navigate landscapes designed for thousands, the importance of not going it alone becomes profound. I feel compelled to be social because I'm always so painfully aware of how alone I am when playing. It's in these moments that the feeling of getting to know my first guild master is rekindled. That sense of community is a powerful thing, and it keeps me wanting to come back more than daily quests or arbitrary rewards ever could.

Grind my gear 

And speaking of rewards, well, private servers are usually better at those too. Because MMORPGs exist in a sad reality where being successful is more important than being good (yes, these are exclusive) there's never a single moment where your emotional satisfaction isn't being hung up like a carrot on a stick. Experience gains and grinding are both carefully tailored to make sure that carrot is so close you can almost taste it, but never close enough that you can actually have it. If you're not continually motivated to log in, the developers aren't making money. I'm not saying this to vilify them, it's just a reality of creating videogames in a genre that routinely take millions of dollars and half a decade to produce.

They dedicate evenings and weekends—days of their lives—to keeping these worlds alive.

But in private servers, there's no incentive to make money. They are projects created and maintained by people who love these games with every fibre of their being. They dedicate evenings and weekends—days of their lives—to keeping these worlds alive. And it's why many of these servers implement tweaks and changes that make playing much more enjoyable for the players, even if that would lead to financial ruin for a big publisher.

I am no longer a donkey chasing a carrot while pulling a cart, I am just a donkey running through a carrot patch eating my fill and having a blast the whole time. Ragnarok Online is an older Korean MMO famous for its mountainous grind, but the now defunct 'Quality Ragnarok Online' private server had experience rates jacked up to high heaven. The first monster I killed gave me over a dozen levels worth of experience, and when I hit the level cap I was all too excited to start over with a new class. Private servers offer me fun on my terms.

MMORPGs are beautiful games weighed down by their massive scale and the millions of dollars it takes to create them, and they always seem to live in a constant state of tension with those who play them. But that tension has subtly shaped how these games play, and that emphasis on doling out ever-more powerful rewards has made me only as valuable as the armor I wear. Private servers will never fix the distortions in that design, but they've found a way to live comfortably in the spaces in between.

Unsanctioned private servers exist in a swamp of legality. At the least, they violate EULAs, and at the worst, they may violate intellectual property laws. From an ethical perspective, these servers can potentially skirt subscription and microtransaction payments to companies who put a great deal of work and money into development. But when I hear of a new private server or emulation project, especially those rising from the ashes of a dead MMO that wasn’t operating anyway, I can't help but get excited. It’s another game liberated from the prison of its need to be successful by the fans who love it most, and a chance for people who once loved MMOs to rediscover why they ever did—to again feel enchanted by the idea that strangers from across the globe can meet as friends in a virtual world. 

Editor’s Note: As Steven says, unauthorized private servers can offer great experiences, but they also may be illegal to use or operate, and almost certainly violate a game’s EULA. We feel this story offers great criticism of MMO design and a passionate, personal take on the culture of server emulation, but PC Gamer does not advocate any illegal pirating or copyright infringement. 

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.