Vague Patch Notes: MMO emulation as a paean for the dead vs. a mockery of the living

    
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I don't like this, but hey, someone did.

If you ever need to know why we’ll happily cover Star Wars Galaxies emulators and not Ultima Online emulators here on Massively Overpowered, the reason is very simple: SWG is dead. UO is not. And that tells you quite a bit about the different sorts of emulation and how fans can approach it, but we’re going to need a few more words to cover all of that.

But before we dive wholly into that, let’s talk about Mystery Science Theater 3000.

One of the interesting aspects of MST3k fandom is that there has been a sentiment around for ages, frequently put forth by the creators themselves, that fans should keep circulating the tapes of old episodes. Yes, this is for a long-running series that will also happily sell you its two-hour-long episodes in multiple formats and offer others on Netflix or Hulu, along with offering some for free on YouTube. The creators outright encourage fans to just pass along and copy some of the show’s most beloved episodes. Why? Because that’s the only way those episodes will ever be seen again.

See, MST3k deals in a lot of bad movies, frequently bad old movies, and many of these movies wind up with ambiguous copyright snarls. Many others wind up with rights holders who don’t like the fact that the movies are being roundly mocked by a guy and three cheaply made robot puppets and are thus reluctant to sign off on later distribution. Still others realize that they can now ask for a lot more money for licensing due to the sudden popularity of the associated episode.

All of this combines to mean that sometimes these episodes are just not getting legally released for sale again, or at least not for the foreseeable future. And while the staff responsible for the shows would much prefer to be paid for the work done, the mantra of “keep circulating the tapes” means that these episodes are still out there. Better to have them available somehow, even if it’s not the ideal route.

Needless to say, the creators behind the series would probably be less happy if someone just taped episode 12×01 off of Netflix, then uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. This is not hypocrisy. The principle behind “keep circulating the tapes” is not “don’t pay us for anything”; it’s “we would prefer to share these things and sometimes circulating the tapes is the only way for that to happen.”

Wow.

A similar thing has happened and is still happening in console emulation. Emulators like MAME were originally developed not as a way to play games for free, but as a chance to make games available when they were otherwise lost. Some of them were never released in compiled ports; others were only available in ports which severely altered fundamental mechanics of the games. Emulators meant that in 2003, you could actually go and explore video games you might have never otherwise played.

This was certainly a good thing for me; it meant getting to play games like Live a LiveBahamut LagoonMother, and Treasure of the Rudras when they would otherwise be wholly unknown. But there was another side of the same coin, people who were using emulators to play newer games without having to actually buy the new titles or the platforms they were on.

It was easy to paint both of these with the same brush, but as mentioned before, it was a matter of two different philosophies. Bahamut Lagoon is never getting officially translated into English, and it has been largely forgotten. But it’s a fun game that in many ways serves as a forebear to games like Final Fantasy Tactics. It wasn’t being sold and thus was just going forgotten without people metaphorically “circulating the tapes.”

By contrast, people downloading Pokemon Ruby were not discovering a game that would otherwise be forgotten; they were people who wanted to avoid buying something easily buyable. The two are transparently different at a glance.

So let’s circle back to the original statement. Why will we cover SWG emulators positively but not, for example, UO emulators? Because without SWG emulators, no one will ever be able to play SWG again. The game exists only in memory and in emulated form. You don’t need to circulate the tapes to play UO; you can do that right now.

Not actually war ready.

“Oh, but the live game is different from past versions of the game! It isn’t the same; that’s why people want emulators of the past.”

Yes, this is true. There are lots of games with major changes that make prior versions functionally inaccessible. UO’s move away from open PvP, Final Fantasy XIV’s version 1.0, the talent trees of Star Wars: The Old Republic, any given five-minute interval in World of Warcraft. You cannot always experience things the way they were back in the day.

Similarly, you cannot experience exactly what it was like to be stranded on the side of a road without a cell phone any longer because we all have cell phones, let’s get real. That’s just the reality of living in a world with linear time, and it doesn’t change the underlying principle. You can play the game. You may not like all of the changes, but you can play it, and time has shown that a whole lot of people have been willing to, say, remake UO as fresh and legal new games with open PvP in the hopes that it’ll light the world on fire again.

And trying to traffic on “but I can’t play my favorite version of the game” is leaning heavily into the same territory that leads to, well… trying to just get the game for free. You know, the uncomfortable territory that people with an interest in preserving our past would prefer to avoid.

Remember how long it took for the arguments about archiving versions of online games for historical purposes to be taken seriously? This is part of the reason. Because from a business standpoint, emulation is easy to paint with the same brush; the ESA cynically used that pretense as a tactic in its fight against preservation. It’s all copying a game and convincing it to run on different hardware. Arguing that there is a distinct philosophical difference between replicating otherwise inaccessible bits of gaming history and getting the game for free requires… you know, actual distinctions.

I love this genre. Heck, I love video games in general. It makes me sad to think about the titles we’ve lost over the years for various reasons, and I think I speak for everyone in saying that permanent maintenance mode for these titles would be infinitely preferable to having them wholly inaccessible. Given the choice between seeing them gone forever and seeing them in the hands of fans? That’s an easy choice.

But that’s a harder sale if you’ve got a whole lot of people who are, well, leaping from “we’re recreating the classic WoW experience because Blizzard won’t” to “well, now Blizzard is bringing back classic WoW, but… still pay for our emulated server anyhow because they’ll do it wrong.”

One of them is about circulating the tapes. The other is about stealing them.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

As expected, any cynical actions by the ESA are pretty much validated by some of the entitled opinions in the comments here.

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Schmidt.Capela

How I, personally, handle the moral issue:

– If I purchased a copy of the game then I consider myself entitled to playing it in any way I can, regardless of what the devs/publishers/etc consider acceptable; unofficial private servers, emulators, reimplemented engines, I will use whatever I have available to play the game in whichever way and on whatever platform I want. For example, since I purchased the base WoW game and the first few expansions, I consider myself entitled to play in any WotLK-based private server I want. This also includes using mods or cheats to alter the experience even when the devs are adamantly against it, except that I will only use cheats or mods in multiplayer if all involved players agree with it.
(when it comes to MMOs I will give preference to the official servers if it’s a close enough experience, mind; on the other hand, and again using WoW as an example, WotLK is a very different experience than either Vanilla or the current expansion, so if I want the WotLK experience I will use a private server and won’t even feel bad about it.)

– If I haven’t purchased a copy, but it isn’t available in any shape or way, then I will pirate it without a qualm and then use it as above. If the game is later offered for sale at a reasonable price I will either purchase it or stop playing it.

– If it’s a F2P game, and thus I can’t purchase a copy, then I consider myself entitled to playing it on emulators after I spend on it whichever amount similar B2P games typically go for.

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Cosmic Cleric

I would say that if the company who owns the game is still making money from said game, no emulation, up to an expiration date, as defined by the founding fathers, in duration (X number of years).

The rest is just noise.

(Good article, good read.)

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Steven Williams

I don’t agree with your sentiment completely. I’ve always been against the mentality that MMORPGs are exempt from any kind of personal consumer ownership.

Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 isn’t a good example of a game that shouldn’t be emulated – 1.0 and Realm Reborn are literal, different games with different installers, different patching systems, different server infrastructures, different design philosophies, etc. They have different storylines (sans the class/job stuff, which have been ported over), leveling, the list could go on. I have the collector’s edition looking pretty on my shelf, but if I tried to install it I would have an unplayable game. 1.0 is as valid in its emulation as SWG is, according to your logic.

I think it’s okay to emulate FFXI classic, EverQuest 1999/up to x expansion, RuneScape classic, RuneScape 2007 (before osrs), WoW classic (before wow classic became an official thing), and yes, even UO classic. Those games have had so many changes that they are, in every way but name, entirely different video games. It’s a grey area – if someone hosted a Realm Reborn or Legion private server, I’d look at them in confusion.

People are drawn to these emulations because (a) they played the game around that time, bought the game/it’s expansions, and want a way to play these- again, very different- video games that they bought with their own money back in the day. Or (b) people who want an old-school experience. Just playing a game that came out in the 2000s/late 90s but has been patched to hell and back doesn’t cut it. Hence the interest in classic WoW, classic FFXI, EverQuest 1999 and (the initial interest in, before it deviated w/ new patches) Oldschool RuneScape.

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ting

I think you contradicted yourself a bit in your own argument and I respectfully disagree with your subsequent analogy, here is why, you say

“MAME were originally developed not as a way to play games for free, but as a chance to make games available when they were otherwise lost. Some of them were never released in compiled ports; others were only available in ports which severely altered fundamental mechanics of the games.”

To this, I say a lot of LIVE MMOs are games that have been severely altered from their original release. Take SWG PRE-CU vs CU update, the recent AION revamp which took out huge zones of content. DAOC before ToA and “New Frontiers.” All these updates have changed and altered the fundamental mechanics of the game drastically. Some would even argue that anyone playing those LIVE MMOs today are playing a different game than what was once released.

In your argument you use the analogy, “you cannot experience exactly what it was like to be stranded on the side of a road without a cell phone any longer because we all have cell phones, let’s get real. That’s just the reality of living in a world with linear time, and it doesn’t change the underlying principle. You can play the game.”

In the same regard, you could find some altered version Nintento re-released in their latest Switch or countless other games that have been re-marketed, but the point isn’t that you can PLAY the game in some altered state. The point for MAME and other Emulators was that they restored what was once lost, and that was the original code in all it’s unaltered glory. While you may not have the ability to tear down every cell tower, you can choose to not carry a cell phone in the same way you choose not to play the LIVE version and play a classic emulator instead. MAME proved that their was a market for gamers who wanted old classic retro games, and the Emulators today are also proving there is the same market. You even see some companies trying to jump onto that “classic release” by using their LIVE code and they fail after 30-60 days for that same reason. It’s just not Classic.

kjempff
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kjempff

Kind of a grey area I guess.
Something like Everquest live vs an early emulator (extreme case p1999), there are hardly any similarities left; it is almost like different games.
Of course if we compare everquest progression server to an emulator, the difference is not that much but still quite substantial.
Not sure how much the difference is for pre nge swg vs a theoretical live swg ?

But yeah anyways, I don’t feel guilty for playing an emulator that also has a live game if the experience is substantially different, but on the other I find it completely fair for a company to use legal means to shut down an emulator. Especially if they like Blizzard are actually going to provide an experience that is (from what we know) very close to what the emulator gives… although, we all know what is next.. or am I the only one thinking WoW progression server ? :D

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Steven Williams

Also, not supporting Daybreak is a very good thing. ;3

It’s an unfortunate necessity that studios need to shut down private servers to protect their IP. I forgot – did SOE/Daybreak give EQ1999 permission to run?

kjempff
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kjempff

Yeah there is some kind of agreement between SoE/Daybreak and project1999. Not sure if it is a written agreement or a just a statement of intent. But I am pretty sure it doesn’t cover the other eq emulator projects, but they are probably not going to waste time/money and bad publicity on taking them down.

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Armsbend

You do not seem to have an issue with writing stories about illegal WoW emulators. Last I checked WoW is alive. You mention it in passing here…but only to avoid being called on it.

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Cosmic Cleric

You do not seem to have an issue with writing stories about illegal WoW emulators. Last I checked WoW is alive. You mention it in passing here…but only to avoid being called on it.

Not getting your point?

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Armsbend

MOP covers wow emulators all of the time and it has never seemed like a moral quandary. But UO? I guess that one is special.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Arms, we don’t, as a general rule, cover the general goings-on or updates or new openings of WoW emulators or UO emulators. Those kinds of illegal emus are not a regular beat for us. But “won’t cover” doesn’t mean “are never allowed to utter a word about no matter how relevant.” When Blizzard begins issuing legal threats on WoW emulators and the WoW emulator community goes into total meltdown trying to pressure Blizz to put up a vanilla server and then it happens, yeah, we’ll cover that and the fallout of that as it’s of general interest to the general MMO audience. It’s not friendly or promotional, and you’ll notice we don’t continue covering them outside of the drama that spills over into the greater community. And it’s by no reasonable definition “all of the time” either.

UO emulators have never really risen to the level of relevant outside of the niche UO playerbase the way WoW has. It’s not that it’s special, although you could certainly make an argument that as an indie company Broadsword has significantly more to lose than Blizzard.

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François Verret

UO is not a great example to use here. When applied to the servers that seek to emulate earlier versions of the game, sure, but the great thing about UO emulators is all the ways in which the game can be customized to basically become an engine for a brand-new game set in a different universe. Not a commercial product, obviously, because that would be wrong, but the ability to code completely new and different systems, create new clothes for the 2D paperdolls, and even build new maps has been a boon to small role-playing communities.