“Hey, dude,” my friend Shawn said. “Wanna be a GM in UO?”

“Does the Pope crap in the woods?” I answered jubilantly.

It was obvious: Our prayers to be hired as Ultima Online (UO) game masters had finally been answered. EA rescinded their 18-and-over rule, as well as set aside their “must be willing to relocate” proviso, when they saw our resumes, which we never actually sent. Yes, it was time to celebrate, to tell the folks I’d landed my dream job, to laugh at my other friends who worked retail. Then the trap door opened.

“Ok, great,” he said. “I’m going to send you the files you need to host the shard.”

What?! I’d heard of a whispered “GM client,” originally leaked by a disgruntled GM at EA to clandestine hacking organizations believed to operate outside the States, but there was no way Shawn, barely a credible script kiddy, could get into one of those circles. What voodoo had good ol’ Shawn worked?

Turns out it wasn’t any sort of bizarre magic; Shawn just uncovered one of the many reverse engineering projects proliferated on the net. My dreams were crushed; how could my friend do that to me? Dangle my forlorn hopes in front of me, only to reveal we’d be in charge of the damn server? Wait a minute … we’d be in charge of the damn server! I immediately phoned my cable company to increase my outgoing bandwidth. Sure, we might get sued, but this was a noble mission: We were going to be kings of our domain, benevolently lording over thousands of adoring players. And besides, good luck effecting litigation on two 16-year-old kids hiding within the anonymity of the internet.

This kind of server “emulation” began when id released the source to ipxsetup, which allowed Doom users to connect to one another on a LAN. Suddenly, Doom fans with programming skills could shoot each other from coast to coast. Hosting and lobby services, most notably one called Doomserv, sprouted up and connected people in new ways at no charge to the consumer. Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and tons of the free services collapsed under their own weight. A few of the more popular lobbies are still around, namely Kali, which offers the “fastest and most accurate Internet Game Browser, guaranteed” for a $20 lifetime subscription.

While other communities built the foundation, Ultima Online‘s server emulator community was definitely one of the more successful ones. The guys who were really into it managed to keep up with EA’s patch schedule, and also engineered their own end-user terminals, which allowed aspiring system administrators to alter many of the game’s most basic tenants. Want a certain spell to do more damage? Sure. Want to create NPCs to do work for you, and also contribute to your skill gain when you’re offline? Go for it – just make sure you have a handle on C-based programming.

Some would-be world designers improved upon original designs, but many more managed to completely, utterly mangle good games. Team Fortress Classic server admins (not quite emulators, but player-run FPS servers are a legitimate cousin) loved to futz with the gravity settings, either causing snipers to float around in the air for minutes on end, or making the heavy weapons specialists squish flat upon jumping off a one-foot stair. You have about a one in 100 chance in finding something that really tickles your fancy, and about one in 1000 chance of finding something with as much polish as the genuine article. The first thing modders learn is how hard making a game really is, and fledgling server admins are likely to just throw up their hands and start looking for other places to play. It’s very Darwinian; if your server sucks, no one plays on it.

Despite the winner takes all outcome, server emulators were born of a spirit similar to standard emulation movements, like the Underdogs, and a number of illegal console emulator groups. People either wanted to keep playing only what they liked, didn’t like the way it was being run, or just wanted to see if they could do it. The concoction of motives led to communities such as the now-defunct EQHackers.com. EQH worked with a strong anti-corporate mission statement, allowing intrepid users the chance to host their own small EverQuest servers on local machines. Their goal was to stick it to The Man – they’d host cheat programs in addition to message boards detailing exploits along with emulation literature. The negativity in the place toward SOE, eventually led to a meltdown of internet drama. EQH was lost to the ages sometime in 2002, but other groups carried their momentum all the way to the present.

But emulating someone’s intellectual property is technically stealing, right? The owners definitely think so. As recently as late June, SOE sent a cease and desist order to Winter’s Roar, which was known as the largest player-run server in the EQ emulation community. World of Warcraft already has renegade servers all over the place, and Blizzard is extremely active, tracking down hosts and siccing the lawyers. According to one of the most popular server operators, “UO servers only manage to stay alive because UO‘s legal minefield is a tangled mess, so mangled that over the years EA’s lawyers have had trouble sifting through it.” As a result, player-run UO shards dance along the edge of legality by allowing their users to play for free. But as the mess becomes untangled (whether by EA’s lawyers or governmental regulation) they may not continue dancing.

Despite the legality issues, many hackers make the leap to legitimacy. A few job applications ago, I was asked for a resume of the server administration and world building I’d done on player-run servers. I actually didn’t make the grade because my “uhh, I dabbled in UO shards” wasn’t nearly as competitive as my peers’. Rumor has it they hired a guy who ran an entire infrastructure of reverse engineered worlds. Even though developers seem to cry foul at the thought of people using their technology in ways beyond their control, they still respect the process.

Further, not every developer is fanatical about shutting down servers hosted by enthusiasts. VIE, developers of Subspace, officially called their much loved, but poorly publicized efforts a wash in 1997, and players were able to crack game CDs to find server code included on the disk. The community spanned across the globe, diehard fans uniting to keep the game they loved from being lost in the annals of history. Eventually, two men – one of whom went on to found Kazaa – reverse engineered Subspace from scratch. They named their project Continuum, and it could be patched and updated at will. VIE eventually was able to pick up where they left off, and now host official servers in addition to those run by players.

Subspace‘s community is a great example of what can happen when good people come together to keep something they love alive. Unfortunately, though, a big chunk of player-run servers are cesspools. No matter the good intentions of their beginnings, they become havens for people too childish or depraved to conduct themselves on a regulation server. The most recent example is a UO shard called IPY (In Por Ylem – the power words of a bugged spell, capable of killing people instantly if cast). IPY was created under the pretense of restoring the game’s “golden age,” but it fell dramatically short. The admin who ran the shard, Azaroth, ended up having to close the server after disgruntled users began threatening him in real life over changes he made.

Even with examples like IPY, the good, outweighs the bad. For every hundred bastions of internet stupidity, there is one diamond in the rough that makes up for all the bad experiences. There’s satisfaction in knowing live teams aren’t the only guys who can hang when it comes to a game they created; that the little man is just as capable as the ones getting paychecks for their work. This is somehow reassuring for the future of games. There are a whole new crop of people out there who can and do create games worth playing.

Speaking of the future, there are no signs of communities stopping, and why should they? As Moore’s Law continues to fall behind its curve, home users are more than ever able to create server-like environments in the home. Just think about it, the machine on which you’re reading this could, at least passably, keep a few WoW zones up and running, and if you have the bandwidth, you and 100 of your closest friends could tool around Azeroth to your hearts’ content. Hey, I may never be a real GM in UO, but the brief moment I experienced on my little corner of Britannia was just as good. And as technology slows down and reverse engineering gains more credibility, maybe I’ll be able to set my own PvP rules in WoW as a consolation prize. The past is dotted with instances of bright-eyed individuals willing to step up, at great personal expense, to keep gaming alive, or to mold it how they see fit, and despite a few hiccups, games have been the better for it.

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