We’re heading into the summer months, and every gamer knows what that means - the gaming drought is upon us. That should mean June is the perfect time to dust off an old MMO and see how it is faring in 2021, right? Right, except summer means other activities are ramping up as well. The kids are out of school, making interruptions to my gaming schedule an endless distraction, and this year’s annual family vacation came early.
With all that was going on, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hunker down and make it through the opening levels of any MMO, but I didn’t want to skip the whole month either. So instead of wasting the extra chunks of time I had available, I decided to explore another area of older MMOs - private servers.
I’ve always thought private servers were a niche thing. You know, a few friends with some coding skills getting together and doing their best to get an old MMO up and running so they could relive the glory days of their favorite MMOs of days past. Although some small servers are out there, I must admit that some popular servers have much larger communities.
As far as the coding skills thing goes, some of these projects go well beyond doing the bare minimum to get a server online. These people are pouring their hearts and souls into these projects. Some have started from scratch, spending god knows how many hours to reverse engineer server-side code and recreate art assets to give players an experience as close to the original as possible. This is way past the hack and patch work I had expected.
Then there are the teams going even further. These groups have taken their passion projects to the point where they have basically taken over the development of a dead game. They may have started by squashing bugs the original developers never fixed, but now they are redesigning core gameplay elements. It seems as though everything is on the table, from class overhauls all the way to new zones full of original quests and content. It’s just amazing what you can find.
When it comes to private servers, the passion of the players parallels that of the dev teams. Where I expected only to find small groups of friends running around, I also found several larger communities that have gravitated to one server or another. While their numbers may not be enough to generate the revenue that a big company would have needed to keep one of these MMOs alive, some of these projects have hundreds of regulars logging in day after day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about games that have been dead for a decade or more.
Unlike a regular MMO Reroll, I won’t be diving into the nuts and bolts of the current gameplay experience. If you’re interested in joining a private server, it doesn’t really matter what I think about the game; you’re gonna do it.
Instead of the usual topics, I decided to focus on two questions. First, do any of these servers have enough players to relive the old days, or are they ghost worlds filled with nothing but an empty void? I figured logging into a world that I once inhabited at or near its peak only to find it a desolate wasteland would be pretty depressing.
The other question I needed to answer for myself is whether it was worth the time and effort to get one of these MMOs up and running? My impression going into this was that all of these servers would require some tech-fu to get them up and running. I expected to be using batch files and command lines aplenty and searching far and wide across the internet to find all of the game files needed. I really don’t know where I got that idea, and as I started installing games, it quickly became apparent that I had over-romanticized the whole process.
Enough chatting about what I expected to find, though. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s get to it.
Star Wars Galaxies
Star Wars Galaxies officially shut down in 2011. Even before SOE flipped off the power, fans of SWG (or, more accurately, haters of how SOE was handling the IP) had already begun work on an emulator. From what I can tell, Star Wars Galaxies has more private servers than any other dead MMO I came across.
Whatever flavor of SWG you are looking for, you’ll find it. There are servers focused on both pre CU and NGE, many of which have custom rulesets. Some projects have even offered up new or improved content, adding additional planets and events, or going as far as completely revamping skills, classes, and crafting. And yes, new and enhanced Jedi classes exist.
As far as community goes, it’s no surprise that fans of the galaxy far, far away have taken up residence on SWG private servers. Even with the splintering from the choice of so many options, the more popular servers can have hundreds, or even thousands, of concurrent players. Websites and forums are alive and active, some more so than current, live MMOs.
Installation, whether choosing one of the pre-CU servers based on the SWGemu software or the leaked NGE server code, is pretty simple. I went through the installation process for SWG Legends, an NGE based server, and the most difficult part of the process was digging through my closet to find my original game disks. Yes, you do need a copy of Star Wars Galaxies to play. If you don’t have a copy, you can hit up your favorite e-tailer (eBay and Amazon both have copies available); be sure to check which versions of SWG your chosen server uses before making any purchase, though.
City of Heroes
Considered by many to be the greatest superhero MMO of all time, it should be no surprise that City of Heroes still has a thriving community almost a decade after the servers were shut down. The first half of 2019 saw a flurry of activity as confirmation of a fully functional rogue server was leaked. Since that time, many projects have popped up, giving fans of City of Heroes a chance to jump back into their beloved MMO. In its current state, I would unofficially place City of Heroes as the second most popular private server project, behind only the insane number of Star Wars Galaxies servers available.
Digging into the options for joining in CoH fun, I found several installers. Tequila, Sweet Tea, Cream Soda, these guys really like naming things after beverages. I decided to install City of Heroes Homecoming, mainly because it is the largest of the rogue server projects, but also because it was mentioned in a previous MMO Reroll discussion. There is a dedicated installer that made installation as simple as any modern game; there’s nothing extra to hunt down, just start the installer, and it will do the rest. While the game was installing I created an account, and once everything was set up I was back into one of the best MMOs of all time.
After spending well over an hour just browsing the costume choices, I was quickly reminded why so many people loved City of Heroes. I say loved, but it’s apparent many players still love the game. Heroes and villains alike have been flocking to CoH Homecoming over the last couple of years, and they now boast well over 100k accounts and at least 1-2k players online across their five servers at any given time. To give an idea of how passionate these players are, each month, the CoH Homecoming developers ask for donations to cover their expenses, and their goal is usually met within an hour or two at most.
You can join in on discussions about City of Heroes Homecoming on their forums or Discord channel. If Homecoming doesn’t seem like the perfect fit for you, there are plenty of other servers to choose from; the City of Heroes Reddit has a list of servers to get you started.
I tried out Warhammer Online when it first launched. To be honest, it wasn’t my thing. Some people - not enough to keep it alive obviously - were really into the Warhammer setting and the group content that it offered. If you are one of those people and want to return to 2008 and relive your experiences, then you’ll want to check out Return of Reckoning.
Return of Reckoning is another project that consistently reaches 1000+ players online, especially over the weekend. Return of Reckoning’s forums are pretty active, as is its Discord channel, so you can expect to find a dedicated player base ready to welcome you into the fold; guilds are always looking for new cannon fodder.
There was only one issue when installing the game, and it was my fault, sort of. There’s a nice big “Download Game” button on the signup page with a “Download Torrent” button directly below it. The top button downloads a currently broken installer; I would have known this if I had read the note directly above the buttons telling me to use the torrent. I’ll take some of the blame, but how can anyone expect some old man to take the time to read instructions?
So, after reading the instructions and downloading RoR using the torrent, the installation went smoothly. On the initial run, there was a short wait for the obligatory file updates followed up by a restart or two as mentioned in the install instructions (see, I did read the instructions after all), and bam, I was headed back into Warhammer Online. I ran through all of the beginner quests and, to my surprise, I wasn’t the only low-level character. There was enough chatter and LFG in chat to know that the server isn’t a complete ghost town.
Return of Reckoning has been built from the ground up without using any of the original server code. The developers have not only done their best to bring back all that Warhammer Online once offered, but they are also continuing to forge new paths. Patches are applied every week or two to fix bugs, add new functionality, and balance gameplay. PvPers will be glad to know that Realm vs. Realm doesn’t just exist, it is pretty active.
Dark Age of Camelot
There may be multiple Dark Age of Camelot private servers to choose from, but the Phoenix Freeshard is the one I saw getting the most attention from the DAoC community. Like all of the larger servers here, the Phoenix Freeshard has a strong community. The forums and Discord are full of helpful players, as is the actual server itself. The forces of the three DAoC factions consistently number in the hundreds each, and the total server population can top out over 1000.
Installing and running Phoenix was almost as easy as getting up and running in the official DAoC server. I did have an issue where the game loader would stall right at the end of the load, and I had to run a fix to downgrade to a previous version to get the launcher to work.
Focused on the original EverQuest experience, Project 1999 is a flashback to old-school EverQuest. P99 sticks with the original UI and lacks the QOL updates you will find in the current EQ experience, so if you’re a purist, you’ll find like-minded players here. The level cap is 60 and only covers the original three continents. If you want to eventually continue into the expansions, going with an official EQ progression server may be the way to go.
One positive note here is that P99 was officially sanctioned by Daybreak, the current developer of EQ. This is important, especially for an emulation project of a currently live MMO, as there is no question about the legality of the project.
Since I don’t have a copy of the required Everquest Titanium (available on eBay and Amazon), I didn’t actually get a chance to check out the P99 servers. There is a guidebook for new players, and installation and setup looks pretty straightforward - create an account, install EQ Titanium, and run the P99 launcher, and everything else will be taken care of.
With Wildstar, I went down an internet rabbit hole that probably isn’t worth the time or effort unless, like me, you list Wildstar among one of your favorite MMOs of all time. Unlike the other “fully” functional private servers I’ve covered, Wildstar doesn’t appear to have a fully implemented emulator yet.
That doesn’t mean Wildstar isn’t getting any love. The NexusForever emulator project has a dedicated group that is slowly but surely working on building the server-side software. Everything you need to set up your own server (or work on coding) is available on Github. Doing so looks to be more than a simple install, so I didn’t even give it a try. Fortunately, there is at least one persistent server out there, Kirmmin’s Test Server, so I was able to give the Nexus Forever project a look-see.
The best leveling zone ever is now an empty wasteland. Maybe someday...
If you want to check out how things are progressing, you will need to install a copy of the original game, but Kirmmin has built a launcher that will get you onto their (or any other) server in no time. Functionality is somewhat limited. You can go through character creation and run around the world. Housing is operational, but stuff like combat and questing still need to be implemented. Even so, it was nice to jump in and take a tour of some of my favorite spots from before Wilstar shut down.
World of Warcraft
Unlike the EQ P1999 project, you can be assured that Blizzard hasn’t given the green light to any private server project out there. That doesn’t mean they are actively hunting down and giving the old cease and desist order, but it is always a threat to consider, and you could wake up one day to find the time and effort you put into one of these rogue servers wiped out.
As you might expect, WoW private servers attract a lot of ex-WoW players. Like EverQuest, I didn’t go through the installation of any of the WoW private servers. There are just too many choices covering multiple entry points into the WoW expansions, each one with a specific client to use for me to pick one that would represent the best of the best. There’s a lot of discussion about this, so do some homework and pick a server that suits your needs. Or just jump into WoW Classic, you know you want to.
There are so many private servers out there covering both dead and current MMOs that the handful above barely scratches the surface, but alas, I am out of time. Vanguard, Anarchy Online, UO, the list of MMOs I didn’t get to goes on and on; if you played it, there’s probably a private server out there for it.
In the overall scheme of things, the private server scene is, as I initially thought, niche. There might only be 6, 60, or 600 people on any given server, but the passion of the developers and players goes well beyond their small numbers, rivaling the level you find around current mainstream MMOs.