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MMO Private Servers, Emulators, and Rogue Servers: What’s the Difference?

This genre sure does love nebulous terminology.

Playing an MMO in an unofficial capacity has evolved quite a lot in recent years. Way back when, Ultima Online fans set up private shards (or free shards) that would allow them to play custom versions of the game. Sometimes these would be just for themselves and a handful of friends to enjoy, and sometimes they’d see thousands of other players flock to them.

In time many other MMOs both popular and niche would find themselves in a similar position. Oftentimes, this was done to restore a version of the game that players preferred over the live game, where updates may have changed certain aspects of the experience. Just as popular these days however are servers which revive MMOs that have been shut down altogether.

There are no firmly defined ways to use the terms commonly associated with these different methods of playing MMOs, and admittedly I’m just as guilty of using them interchangeably here on this site. That’s something I’d like to rectify though as there are certain instances where it’s absolutely correct to use one term over another, and I think it would be to everyone’s benefit if the different types of ‘unofficial servers’ were more clearly defined.

This is a layman’s approach to things. I’ve absolutely no knowledge of how to reverse engineer a game myself and save from messing around a bit with local server set-ups I’ve never operated a game server of any kind. This is purely an attempt at adding a bit of clarification for those dipping their toes into these often murky waters.

What is an emulator?

In its simplest form, an emulator is a version of the original game which has been rebuilt from the ground up to replicate as closely as possible the game as it was at a certain point in time.

This is, in effect, the code which most private/rogue servers are running. The other being versions of a game’s source code which were released to the community either officially or leaked out into the public via some kind of security breach.

I would hasten to call leaked source code emulators as they’re not actually emulating anything. It’s not uncommon however for incomplete versions of source code to be obtained, with teams then working to ‘fill in the gaps’ with code which emulates the bits which were missing.

On the flipside, emulators may make changes or additions themselves to the game’s code. Just because they’re not emulating anything with this new code though, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t still emulators.

Examples of emulators include CMaNGOS (World of Warcraft), ACEmulator (Asheron’s Call), and EQEmu (EverQuest). While some emulation teams will also operate servers which run their code, these servers are not emulators themselves, but private/rogue servers e.g. SWGEmu (emulator) and Finalizer (the rogue server which the SWGEmu team operate).

What is a private server?

This is where things get a little bit trickier. Historically any server running an emulated MMOs code would be called a private server. But is a private server still a private server if they’re not trying to stay private? While some are more brazen than most, it’s fair to say that most private servers for games which are still in live operation try to keep a pretty low profile. That’s not to say that you need to know secret handshakes to get an invite (most are found with very simple searches), but it’s more likely that you’ll find them rather than they find you.

There are of course private servers of all types and sizes, and occasionally one will start to gain mainstream attention. This can end badly – such was the case with the WoW private server Nostalrius – or positively, as with Project 1999, which was officially sanctioned by EverQuest developer Daybreak.

Private servers and rogue servers alike often alter the code of an emulator – sometimes significantly – but as this new code isn’t emulating a pre-existing game it would be incorrect to label them as emulators.

What is a rogue server?

The term ‘rogue server’ isn’t one which has proliferated into general parlance yet, but the MMORPG website MassivelyOP has been using it with regularity in recent years. You might be surprised however to hear that the term can actually be dated as far back as 2005 when Edward Castronova described player-run servers in his book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.

With servers for long-shuttered games like Star Wars Galaxies, Warhammer Online, City of Heroes and Toontown reaching ever-wider audiences, it makes sense to designate them by a term which doesn’t lump them in with servers that are running alongside games which are still in live operation. Many of these servers have active communities across social platforms, have been featured on major gaming news sites, and present themselves in a legitimate manner. They’re really anything but private as they attempt to make as many old (and new) players aware of their existence.

That’s not to say that these servers have been officially sanctioned. Rather, it’s generally seen that they’re operating in some kind of legal grey area. So long as they’re not profiting from what they’re doing, it’s probably not in anybody’s interest to take action against these relatively small communities at the risk of engendering ill will towards future projects from the studios or IPs.

So, there we have it, from now on I’m going to try to follow the definitions I just set out in future articles that I write here at MMO Folklorist. Personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to differentiate between the two different server types, but what do you think? Will ‘rogue server’ ever catch on in general conversation? I’ve heard the term ‘zombie server’ used before, but I don’t think a shambling corpse is the best descriptor for the amazing work that volunteers have done in resurrecting, not to mention preserving these abandoned virtual worlds.

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  1. I personally don’t like the term “Rogue Server” it makes it sound like those who run them are like criminals and it’s underhand or shady when it’s generally the total opposite and those involved are just trying to give their community a fun place to play a game they enjoy.

    • I do understand this and I think it’s one of the reasons why no server has called themselves a rogue server. Any thoughts on an alternative, or do you think private server is sufficient to cover all the bases?

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