Countless times through the ages, hundreds of thousands (if not more) fans and players of a multitude of MMOs have congregated in streets, fields, and other such spaces across their worlds; banded together in solitude against the breaking of the light as their preferred online space/game is forever shut down. After a night of dancing emotes, tearful goodbyes, exchanges of contact info, finally, the servers are turned off, and all goes black. Months and years of memories shared amongst friends, old and new, are lost to the ether of time.
The end never comes the same: a meteor collides with the game world, admins summon a legion of demons to murder the players over and over, or a silent simultaneous worldwide death descends on the remaining few. Regardless of method, the end of an MMO always feels like the end of an era for its playerbase. Many pump endless hours into these games, build massive social networks, and eek out every ounce of fun the game could possibly contain — and, when necessary, make their own. The freeform play of MMOs brings together all kinds, and when the bills can’t continue to be paid for upkeep, all of these people unite once more in the face of loss.
That is until those fans rob the grave and prop the body back up to keep the fun going.
For as long as MMOs have reigned amongst gamers, most every release has had a private server hosted somewhere alongside the official ones. Fan-run and hosted, these private servers typically utilized reverse-engineered code from the game client or, in some cases, source code that was obtained one way or another. The vast majority would feature tweaked EXP rates, higher chances to get rare items to drop, and custom events. All of these would differentiate the server from the official release (see: less grindy) and entice players to join in on the private fun, especially so if the official game required players to pay a subscription fee like World of Warcraft or Everquest.
But, one way in which these private servers prove to be more interesting than just allowing access to a game that would normally be paywalled was when they host a version of the game that no longer exists. For instance, as WoW’s seemingly endless parade of updates and expansions marched on, there was a growing number of folks desperate to return to the glory days of Vanilla.
Thankfully, as recorded in a very thorough forum post on WoW-exploit site OwnedCore, those that wished to harken back to a pre-Burning Crusade world could do so because of the hard work of the more technically inclined fans. By reverse engineering an old Alpha client of the game, a rising tide of emulators emerged that began iterating on the ongoing work to perfectly recreate WoW in its early days. Of course, we can now see that the popularity of Vanilla servers caught the eye of Blizzard themselves, as they recently released their own official Vanilla server… and then sent out a cease-and-desist to the most popular of these private servers before rolling out their own version shortly thereafter.
Corporations tackling fan-run versions of their games to capitalize on their popularity by re-launching their own server is a bit of an outlier situation, all things considered. However, the ongoing popularity of private servers and the idea of utilizing them to host MMOs in an archival sense piqued my interest. I gathered a small pile of MMOs that I once wanted to try but had missed my chance to and nostalgic games I thought were forever to be nothing more than a memory.
Interested in checking out Star Wars Galaxies, given the current pop-cultural zeitgeist, I was lucky to discover that SWG has been preserved in several forms, the most popular being pre- and post- Combat Update servers. Much like WoW’s marked shift over the years, SWG was met with a period of waning subscribers following the formers release. Attempting to capitalize on the hype of what made WoW unique at the time, the developers at SOE rolled out what would be known as the “Combat Update,” or CU for short. In its initial version, combat had players queue several moves up and execute them in order with the only cooldown being a universal timer between each attack. With the update, however, SWG introduced hotkey-focused combat with individual skills having independent cooldown timers.
A combination of the playerbase fracturing with the Combat Update and a continuation of the trend towards dwindling active subscribers eventually tanked the game, but thanks to the efforts of its fans you can play both versions, frozen in time, literally side-by-side. But, beyond the flavour of gameplay one wants, SWG’s key element has always been the community. The game is mechanically built on its cooperative playerbase, with extremely important and powerful buffs only able to be bestowed by Dancers or Musicians who populate cantinas on every planet. Typically, these characters are happy to help any wandering adventurer, asking for nothing more than a tip in return.
Thankfully, this charitable sense of community permeates both pre- and post-CU servers. For instance, as I wandered the deserts of Tatooine I found myself constantly dying. I’d stock up on buffs but still couldn’t manage in the wilds. My coffers running dry from tipping, a point came where I had to apologize for not being able to compensate a Musician. Perking up, they asked, “Are you new?”
It was probably obvious, considering I was holding a low-level blaster and wore scrappy clothes. They took me under their wing, asking what I was working towards. Like a child saying what they wanted to be when they grew up, I told them, “A bounty hunter.” Without missing a beat, I was suddenly offered a trade and given a set of expensive armour befitting a bounty hunter, as well as pointed in the direction of a safer training ground until I could manage the stronger stuff.
Regardless of whatever game I chose to explore the reanimated corpse of, I was shocked to find that community was stronger than it had ever been in the majority of these games during their official run. Plunging the crypts of post-apocalyptic Tokyo in Shin Megami Tensei: IMAGINE’s fan-server, player cities that were once overflowing were now ghost-towns. But, the dedicated few who were assumably the life-blood and reason for the server’s existence still roamed, more than happy to provide assistance should you need it. These days, nearly the entirety of the server resides in a communal Discord, making it easy than ever to meet up with others playing.
Similarly, Toontown’s return to life takes a game that was once hindered by its age-gated community and turns it into a very lively experience. Normally, Disney’s MMO required players to prove their age to be able to freely speak, otherwise relegating players to a series of quick-chat pre-programmed phrases. Now, with no barriers, it’s become a surreal slapstick melting pot with die-hard fans returning from the original with a wealth of knowledge they’re eager to share. You’d be hard-pressed to walk through the city center without tripping over a dozen groups of people chatting, teaming up for quests, and partaking in various mini-games together.
No matter where I turned, these games had accumulated extremely small, tight-knit groups of established players eager to share the world with new ones. In their prime, these games would amass thousands upon thousands of players online at any given time, all too often leaving a sense of just being another face in the crowd — because you were. It doesn’t matter that you’re “The Chosen One” according to the story of Final Fantasy XIV, you’re always going to be one-in-a-million. Sure, EVE can have a stand-out hero in a story net some e-fame for a bit, but the vast majority of players will simply eke out existence on the edge of the galaxy with no glory heaped upon them for their journey.
That isn’t to say that modern MMOs are bad, but there’s certainly an opportunity to try to foster a greater sense of community that is often not tapped into. I suppose it isn’t exactly a surprise that the new torch-bearers of Always Online Interconnected Shared Worlds, Games as a Service, promote maintaining a connection to others in the game one way or another.
A recent example of this trend is the latest of Bungie’s massive, complex puzzles in Destiny 2 which actually forced players to have to band together if they wanted to overcome the challenge. Without going too deep into the byzantine labyrinth of what was required to solve the puzzle (here’s a very contextual walkthrough of the whole process), players would have to traverse the Corridors of Time in a specific way to reach an area that would reveal a series of symbols. These symbols were unique to each player, and the hundreds of permutations of how they could appear were integral to the final solution. A group of players handled data processing across several Discord servers, but individuals had to accumulate and share their personal symbols each day to reach the answer.
Requiring a large swath of players to collectively perform a task together isn’t exactly hard to do in these massive games, but making them each integral to the process and fostering the sense that they’re actually contributing to something is certainly a flourish. It’s quite the opposite of what Guild Wars 2 typically does with its Shared World Events, banding players together in opposition of a massive boss, but in those instances it’s easy to feel like yet another useless cog in what is effectively a giant Skinner Box.
No matter how many guild members are online in FFXIV, I’m never going to feel any connection to the denizens populating the streets of Gridania. They’re a faceless morass of quantum people, flitting in and out of existence should I choose to observe them. For all the good they do me, there may as well not even be a point to the game being online, the roles of everyone around me mostly able to be filled by bots to much the same effect.
Some dead MMOs may be lost forever, but for the few that are able to be saved, the whole populace of the game might as well be one big guild. In that packed Mos Eisley cantina, or fishing at Donald’s Dock, even when I’m fusing in the Cathedral of Shadows, the experience is changed into an episode of Cheers: everybody knows your name, and they’re glad you came.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.