Massively Overthinking: Paying for MMORPG emulators, legal or otherwise


MassivelyOp reader Bryan recently wrote to us with a fun question about emulators, a topic that will simply never die as long as MMORPGs do.

“I recently viewed some comments claiming that official era servers wouldn’t acquire much of the player base from private servers, due the benefit of private servers typically being free to play. After thinking about it though, I actually know many people who have donated money or purchased cash shop items on private servers. And I have been in guilds that paid for guild website hosting and guild voice chat hosting for their private server guild. Free stuff is always nice, of course, but it seems as though while the benefit of free to play private servers is there, there’s still a decent amount of people willing to pay out of their pockets for them. I am wondering, how many MOP readers have donated or would be willing to spend real money on a private server?”

So let’s tackle the emulator question in this week’s Massively Overthinking. Have you ever played on an emulator? Under what circumstances? Which ones are you OK with, and which ones do you stay far away from? Are you OK with emulators raising money, and for what purpose? And have you ever donated money to or spent money on an MMO emulator?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’ve only played on emulators for dead games except once in high school for a friend that couldn’t afford to play Ragnarok Online. I’ve never spent money on them, and probably would only do it to keep the servers online. While I understand some people may want to turn that into their day job, at that point, I feel they should be using their experience and expertise to enter the field.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve a soft spot for emulators for dead MMOs, I admit it, and have played SWGemu probably more than any other, followed by City of Heroes’ Paragon Chat (though it’s not really a full emu). I did time in Ultima Online’s emulators long ago, when EA made clear it wouldn’t prosecute them and encouraged modders in its other games to charge money for mods (boy was that ever another era entirely).

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever donated money to one, and I feel a bit guilty about that on reflection. It’s something I should rectify the next time I return to SWGemu for sure. And I’d certainly chip in for a full-fledged CoH emulator too. I’ve bought and donated for plenty of mods in other games – yes, I am that weirdo who uses the “coffee tip jar button” and buys the “thank you” sideloading app – so these types of games shouldn’t really be different for me. Maybe the shadowy nature of them, and their potential to vanish overnight, has made that seem a thing I should avoid, but SWGemu has been around almost as long as the real game was, so I am silly to doubt it.

But then again, I can see why other people would be suspicious, and that’s because if you’ve paid any attention to the emulator communities, from UO to WoW, you know that some of them are much worse than merely shady, and you know you’re not just donating to keep the server up and the admin filled with caffeine. I mean, it’s a few bucks, so big deal, but I get why people stay far, far away.

Sort of?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): See, I’m… not an outlier, but I’m not exactly the target audience here, either. I wouldn’t spend money on a fan-run private server or emulator, but I also wouldn’t play one in the first place, making the question somewhat moot. I supposed if we’re talking about stuff like MADE’s emulation, that technically qualifies? That’s currently a hypothetical, though.

Regardless, I don’t tend to support them when they come up and don’t generally care for them much. I think emulators for defunct MMOs are at least justifiable, if not something I personally support, and I do approve of the existence of private server versions of games as fun projects for individuals to screw around with. But I’m not really a fan in the first place, and when the fan-run server is basically just filling the same role as a “classic” server in theory (rarely in practice), I tend to lose any interest right quick. Emulation of MMOs is something that I prefer for archival and reference purposes more than anything, and an appeal to remembered nostalgia fails that test.

Then again, I also have little interest in playing on classic-era servers run by the official companies, either! So I’m the wrong person to ask.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): As far as emulators, the only one I have played is Star Wars Galaxies, and that has been only a handful of times. But you better believe I’d be playing on the real thing if it were still here! I’ve never donated money though; I don’t really have the funds and I don’t play enough to try and justify the expense. It boggles my mind that there are emulators out there of a live game that also run a cash shop! Instead of paying the people who put the time into creating and developing the game, people are paying other individuals who are profiting off property that isn’t theirs. Yeah, that bothers me.

I, however, originally took this question to mean more private servers, in which case yes, yes I have spent money on them. In fact, I have three I currently pay for (two ARK and one Conan Exiles) and I am debating running more (like ECO). Other players help defray the cost by donations through my Patreon, but I still cover the bulk of it. I do it now, and I would do it again. I actually find I am preferring the private server route to combined worlds, except for a true MMORPG. Even then, I might very much like having one of those grand worlds as a private, invite only server to live on with friends and build a strong — if smaller — community. As a guild leader, I have also paid for or helped pay for website hosting many times as well as even voice servers. So, yes, I would pay to have a better experience, such as private servers for games, guild websites, and the like.

Your turn!


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Daedalus Machina

RIP ScapeGaming (WoW TBC Private Server). Oh what a time that was =D.

Also RIP InfiniteAion when official Retail Aion went F2P the people abandoned that flaming dumpster fire of a server so fast the admin decided to shut everything down shortly afterwards. Good riddance!

Private servers are the bane of today’s market!
While I’m happy for some of them being run by passionate and dedicated people with fair monetization systems, the majority of them are just ‘get rich quick with no effort’ schemes that deserve nobody’s time or attention.

I’d love for ‘officially-endorsed’ private servers that pay a % fee to the official license holder (a flat rate) in exchange for the rights to run the server at their own expense and permission to monetize it. If you think about it, GameForge literally does this already since their servers are so different from the official non-EU ones (Aion & TERA being two noteworthy examples). Different but not in a good way :P

Tyler Collins

I think in the year 2018 we would pay for just about anything… so if we knew we were getting a quality game before hand I think those chances would even go up.


I would donate to a CoH emulator. I’ve donated to CoT, SoH, and VO so that’s probably not a huge surprise.


I have donated to an eq emulator, but only after making fairly sure all their donations go directly to hardware/network running costs and the people behind it does not get any pay whatsoever. And one time to Path of Diablo as well, which afaik also only use donations for hardware/network costs.
There are examples of WoW emulators that funneled money into the pockets of those who operate it, and that is where this grey area turns black. Also when emulators use any kind of f2p shop mechanics.. alarm bells alarm bells.
The owners kinda ruined their own games, and emulators offer me something the owners can’t/won’t, so I have very low morale issues with playing emulators. (The ship is going down because of bad maintenance and the captain isn’t even aware, so why not rebuild that solid boat from the planks before it disintegrate)


I have played on wow private servers of older expansions because i tried legion and it sucked.
Also tried a private server for Warhammer Online and was cool but the game doesnt have enough pve to keep me there. The games i would definitely love to see in private servers are Marvel Heroes and Swtor (in case they pull a gazilion move).
And as for the part of paying yes i have payed in the past to show my support to them and i would definitely pay for Marvel Heroes PS. I would not join a ps that requires you to pay though, i would like to donate on my own like i did on the past.


I’ve played SWGemu quite a few times over the years, but typically only for a few weeks at a time. I log in, create a character, then have some fun mastering my first profession or two. But, the emulator has never been in a particularly good state so I always run up against bugs that prevent me from enjoying the game. Beyond that, being EU based there has never been much of a community when I’ve been playing, so getting buffs, training or a group was often an issue.

I’ve also played Return of Reckoning on a couple of occasions. Again, too much content missing and too many bugs to make it enjoyable for more than a few days. It might be better now, it’s been a while since I last tried.

With both, I’ve never paid money. I think if I got to the point where I was playing regularly then I’d be willing to donate a bit of money for server upkeep, probably £5 per month.


I have played emulators. But, I wouldn’t never pay or donate to an illegal server which is why I never stick around an emu.

It is a curiosity, nothing more. I log in, look around, but the nostalgia passes rather quickly.

They aren’t the real deal. They are not owned and run by those who created the game in the first place. And no matter how innocent it may seem, it isn’t right. It is stealing, IMO. Yes even for dead games. That old dead MMO? It wasn’t yours. You didn’t own it. You paid for a service to play it. It is quite different from a single player game.

Sorry. Call me stick in the mud, but I view my relationship with devs in MMOs as a partnership. When the game is done, so is the partnership. To continue to use their code, assets and talent for my own gratification without their approval is piracy.

Ben Stone

No, I did play a couple of emulators for shut down games, but when you start paying for them that’s where it starts becoming questionable. That is people making money off someone else’s IP, not a fan project or bit of nostalgia.

John Kiser

I think it is okay to ask for donations because if you want a good experience servers and connections cost money. Beyond that though yep terrible. If they require you to pay to play on them and it isn’t donation based they can sod off.

Castagere Shaikura

This is the only way i would give money. And it has to be a dead game. To help with the tech involved to keep it running. Its BS to put a cash shop in any EMU.

Robert Mann

Never MMO emulators. I might play for a dead game, if people I knew were interested, and if the game had any interest for me.

Legality aside, I generally just move on to a game with ideas I like more at the moment, and people I want to spend time with in that game. There’s no shortage of games available, so the emulator would have to REALLY have something that was special to us for some reason.


I’ve been playing on private WoW servers for years and I’ve always made a donation to them generally to the tune of whatever a subscription to the retail version would be. Why not? It’s a trivial amount of money considering how long I play for each month and I like to support such projects. After all, it’s likely down to the success of private servers like Nostalrius that Blizzard have finally caved in and announced they’re going to launch their own Classic server, which is the best thing they’ve done in years. The legality or otherwise of private servers doesn’t concern me in the slightest. If I want to play a version of the game that the developers won’t support, but someone else will, then I’ll do it. It’s not like I’m going to get arrested and thrown in prison after all.

From my time on private servers, I’ve found that the majority of people I’ve spoken to would quite happily pay to play on an official server and the main reason given for why they’re on private ones rather than official ones mirrors my own: namely, that they don’t like the direction the official game has gone and prefer things the way they used to be. The money side of things isn’t an issue for most people. It’s a simple case of them preferring a version of the game that the developers, for whatever reason, refuse to support. Sure, you get the freeloaders who won’t pay for anything but they’re a definite minority from what I’ve seen.

In the case of WoW, I suspect most of the people playing on private servers will jump at the chance of playing on an official one, even if it carries a subscription. After all, who in their right mind would choose to play a 14 year old game in the “murky and dubious world” of private servers just because it’s free? If they just want to get their MMO fix, there are dozens of modern MMOs that are free to play. If you’re playing a 14 year old game on a private server, you’re doing it because that’s the version of the game you want to play.