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I am standing where it should not exist. It should not exist because in 2011 it was decided that this place and the countless people associated with it were no longer financially viable enough to warrant their existence. Four years ago, almost to this date, thousands of players gathered as I now stand to watch the final moments of the Star Wars galaxies.
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“When I was very young, I would create demo accounts for the game for hours and hours just to keep exploring,” Jun told me. “Even though I didn’t get out of Tatooine or the previous level 12, I fell in love.” This love is what inspired John, better known by his peers as aconite, to get involved in the community dedicated to preserving galaxies and restoring them to what they were before. It’s part of a growing trend of MMO games finding a second life through reverse engineering, simulation, and sometimes even stealing their biggest fans.
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In the end, John got enough money to pay the subscription fee and push himself beyond the first 12 levels. “I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed 24 hours just to finish tweaking the decorations in my house for a guild event. I loved the game for the community, the events, and definitely the decor.”
Standing here, in the yellow sandy streets of the Mos Isle spaceport, it is hard for me to imagine what I felt in those last moments. To feel that sense of loss when you finally break away from the server and stare at your second self at the screen, select the screen one last time. I wonder how many guys have initially pressed the call button hoping that, by some miracle, they’d log in again and not have to say goodbye.
The Star Wars galaxies will never live like they used to be. He is dead and gone, and these relationships, interactions, and culture are nothing more than memories. But thanks to an ongoing community of volunteers, the DNA of galaxies lives on in the form of dozens of simulated private servers.
Although he has been involved in several Star Wars Galaxies simulation projects over the years, Aconite recently worked as a community manager with SWG Reborn, a project he and two developers started, Seefo and Light. This is perhaps the most recent iteration of the galactic server simulator, which started just a few months ago in September, but has quickly grown into one of the most popular projects in part due to it being one of the only servers to use the controversial New Game Enhancement and combat upgrade updates.
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In 2005, Star Wars Galaxies underwent two controversial changes that greatly facilitated many of the game’s more complex mechanics. The updates were so divisive that even a decade later fans are still arguing about them. “The pre-combat upgrade version of the game is very popular,” Aconite tells me. “Considering that to this day, the MMO hasn’t done anything similar to its profession and combat system. However, the new game improvements have really speeded things up.”
As video games continue to depend on online connectivity, the gradual shift from owned products to rented services, maintaining them is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. But it’s one the MMORPG has been grappling with since Ultima Online’s first private servers a little less than two decades ago.
The most painful hurdle to jump is how the client software that players have installed on their computers deals with servers operated by game developers. While most of the heavy lifting takes place at the player’s end, servers publish information such as each character’s individual location and input along with other necessary operations such as storing character information (equipment and mission progress, for example). Grabbing a game’s raw resources can be as easy as copying them from a game disc, but server code is never released to the public because it would allow players to circumvent any form of control that game developers could exercise – including their ability to charge subscription fees.
Without access to this precious code, these hackers and amateur developers are left with a single solution. By studying the way client code behaves, simulation software developers design and reverse engineer software programs that simulate how the server interacts with the game client. Using software called a packet sniffer, they can peek at the encrypted information being sent from the game to the server and make assumptions about this relationship. For your normal game, the process might not be that complicated, but MMORPGs are huge, and the sheer amount of interactions that the client and server can share makes rebuilding that relationship a huge task. Few projects come close to completely replicating the games they emulate.
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But SWG Reborn is in a completely new legal world compared to other simulation projects because SWG Reborn is not technically a simulator at all. Aconite told me that in 2013, several members of another server left the team after contacting a former employee of Sony Online Entertainment and formed a new project called SWG Reveniens. This employee, whose identity has been kept confidential, stole the 2010 version of the Galaxies source code for the game server, client, and tools.
Due to infighting in the group, a somewhat garbled version of the source code was leaked to the public a year later. Albish was one of the members of a “UN-like summit” to decide how best to deal with source code, as fears that the entire community would “be wiped out like Alderaan by legal teams from different companies” continued to rise. “But in the end, some of us were able to focus on the bigger picture and look at the legal inconsistencies with the larger goal of getting our precious game back,” he says.
When talking with developers and other gamers, the feeling of “whatever it takes” is common. It’s a byproduct of an entire genre built around the social and emotional investment of players. When most games are lucky enough to take up a hundred hours of your time, it’s easy to find players who have invested thousands in an MMORPG.
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Unlike many other games, MMORPGs are rarely developed based solely on the strength of their systems. At best, they are made great by people who spend countless days of their lives filling and reviving those worlds. In some ways, it is a tragedy that those who bring these worlds to life are those who, sooner or later, will come together to witness a virtual apocalypse together. No screaming, no looting, no terror. Just the quiet quit where you’ve gone forever is something you spent a little bit of yourself on.
“The third Everquest expansion, The Shadows of Luclin, changed the textures of all races and most NPCs, and certain areas were completely revamped and lost over time,” says Neilbug. In 2008 he started Project 1999 as a way to relive his memories of playing Everquest before the game was changed drastically by implementing a new game engine. For him and many other fans of Everquest, The Shadows of Luclin also represents a clear departure from the vision they feel made Everquest great in the beginning. “Most people would agree that this third expansion was really the death of the Everquist classic. Things have changed a lot.”
When most are happy to play their long-lost favorite game in any way, Nilbog and his community are so closely tied to this ideal of “classic Everquest” that they’ve built a working model of it even as the official release continues to exist. It is the “ship of Theseus” for game design; As patch after patch and expansion after expansion slowly add and tweak features, at what point is it no longer the same game you fell in love with? For fans of MMORPGs, it’s been an unanswered question as developers struggle to find new ways to keep their worlds fresh and exciting. But
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