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World of Warcraft is on the decline and Blizzard no longer expects to see growth. There are many reasons why former players have quit, but the most dominant reason is that the game is no longer the same. They miss the old days, which is why so many players are flocking to private servers.

Maybe you’ve considered the private server route but you’re wary of the potential consequences. What should you expect? Are they legal? Is it okay if you play on them? Let’s take a look at all of that.

Disclaimer: None of the information in this article should be considered as legal advice.

What Are Private Servers?

Technically, private server describes any server that is privately owned. That’s it. However, in this context, private servers are those that emulate the gameplay experience of online games. Server emulator is another term that’s often used interchangeably to describe the same thing.

Why would anyone play on a private server? After all, wouldn’t official servers offer the most enjoyable and worthwhile experience, especially because they are run by professionals and have the largest populations? Theoretically, yes, but it isn’t always that simple.

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Private servers are free. Well, they are most of the time. Down below we’ll see an example of a private server that employed a microtransaction model Is Free-To-Play Killing Competitive Online Gaming? [MUO Gaming] Is Free-To-Play Killing Competitive Online Gaming? [MUO Gaming] Who in their right mind would actually complain about something being free, right? That's a hard question to pin an answer on, but I'll bet that there are some very high-skilled online gamers who would... Read More that backfired on the owners. But if we ignore those exceptions, the most appealing aspect of private servers is the ability to play subscription games for free and we all know how popular free-to-play MMORPGs The 10 Greatest Free MMORPGs To Start Playing Now The 10 Greatest Free MMORPGs To Start Playing Now The landscape of MMORPG gaming has never been better than it is today. Some may pine for the good old days when games like Ultima Online, Everquest, and Dark Age of Camelot dominated the scene,... Read More are.

Private servers are different. Most private servers implement unique gameplay rules that deviate quite a bit from official servers. For example, experience rates might be 100x faster OR new characters might start at maximum level. Other differences can include custom items, special mobs, or unique in-game events.

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Private servers are convenient. They let you play games that you might not normally be able to play. For example, if a particular game is not offered in your region Hola Unblocker - Easily Access Region-Blocked Content Hola Unblocker - Easily Access Region-Blocked Content Access sites like Hulu, CBS, iTV and Pandora regardless of which country you're in. Even better, there's no need to change your DNS settings or set up a VPN. Hola Unblocker is an Android app,... Read More , private servers could fill that void. Similarly, if a game is discontinued and all official versions are taken down, private servers allow fans to keep playing.

I’m not saying that these reasons are appropriate and I’m not saying that these reasons justify the act of playing on a private server. These are simply explanations for why private servers are so popular.

Private Servers Are Everywhere

And indeed, private servers are widespread. They’ve been around for almost two decades now and their popularity continues to grow year after year. Despite constant mentions of the legal gray area where private servers are concerned, they cannot be killed. For each one that shuts down, three more rise up.

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Ultima Online is often credited as the first game to develop a passionate server emulation community. UO private servers, known as shards, can be traced back to 1998 when a program called Ultima Offline eXperiment was made open source. It spawned dozens of forked projects and numerous server hosts. The UO shard community still runs strong today.

Not long after, other MMORPGs were deconstructed by clever reverse engineers and private servers for these games began popping up all over the place. EQEmulator powers the emulation of EverQuest; Hercules powers hundreds of servers for Ragnarok Online; and then there’s CMaNGoS, which is the most popular server emulator for World of Warcraft.

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These servers are incredibly varied and each server has its own flavor that distinguishes it from every other:

  • Westfall WoW is a throwback to vanilla World of Warcraft.
  • Excalibur WoW is a popular Burning Crusade server with functional Arena PvP.
  • Molten WoW is the most successful network of WoW servers, regularly hosting over 21,000 concurrent players across 8 servers that range from Wrath of the Lich King to the Mists of Pandaria

This is just scratching the surface. As you can see, the demand for unofficial variants of World of Warcraft is enormous.

Threats of Lawsuit: The Bottom Line

Which brings us back to the original question: are these private servers legal? It’s a valid question that strikes reluctance into many players’ hearts, particularly since there have been a few emulator-related lawsuits over the past decade.

The most frightening example has to be the 2010 case Blizzard Entertainment v. Alyson Reeves in which Scapegaming was slammed with $85 million in damages. During their run, Scapegaming had solicited over $1.5 million in player “donations” in exchange for in-game progress.

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Sometimes, leaked versions of official server software are used to run private servers, as in the case of Ragnarok Online servers running AEGIS. Other times, servers illegally host and distribute official client files, resulting in copyright infringement Understanding Copyright: 5 Myths Debunked! Understanding Copyright: 5 Myths Debunked! There's a lot of misunderstanding around Copyright law, especially when it's online. You could be breaching Copyright and not even know it. Read More lawsuits.

So, are private servers illegal? Well, there’s no easy answer.

  • If the server is profiting, it is certainly illegal.
  • If the server is running stolen or leaked software, it is certainly illegal.
  • If the server is distributing client files, it is certainly illegal.

Yet, even if the server “passes the test” on these three aspects, legality is not guaranteed. Companies will have less ground on which to sue, but depending on the circumstances, they may find enough dirt to punch through with a successful lawsuit. These risks mostly concern the server hosts only.

Then what about the legality of private servers for players?

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Before you can play on a private server, you need the game client. If you obtain a legitimate copy – that is, by purchasing it – then you must agree with the End User License Agreement (EULA) before you can use it.

For most MMORPGs, including World of Warcraft, the EULA forbids both modification of the client and participation on emulated servers. As the client often needs to be modified before it can log onto an emulated server, most of these players have breached both points.

What happens when you breach the EULA? Well, not much. There are instances when Blizzard has terminated the official accounts of those caught playing on emulated servers, but never has a private server player been hit with a lawsuit.

When all is told, private servers sit in a legal gray area full of moral ambiguity and MakeUseOf does not condone it. Do you play on private servers? What do you think about the whole controversy? Share with us in the comments.

  1. Brian
    March 21, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    EULA have questionable legality. I know of only instance in case law that a very narrow ruling was passed down by a local state judge in the U.S. on the legality of EULA. In my mind EULA at lest in the U.S. have no legal standing so I would never worry about what a EULA says.

    The big ruling in Blizzard case was the defendant just refused to show up at court and even fight the legal battle so pretty much any judge is going to rule in the Plaintiffs favor. It would be a crazy case of forcing that to go to a jury trial. The big Blizzard case were I think they would of won or at lest had a good case because it is established statutory law is that fact that they did and end around on DRM protections. Not sure of the technical aspect of what they really did to get around DRM. However from what I have read even though U.S. congress passed it in 1997 I would claim their is questionable legality at personally getting around DRM when you own the software. It would be interesting to see what the courts would due with the constitutionality of circumventing DRM protection and if that is in direct conflict with other laws. I am not sure about the case law though if the sever if profiting. If the client owns all the graphics and copyrighted protected images and writing then if the client want to go to another server with what they own and give profits to that company it actually might be legal. Again no one has really challenged all this stuff in court so there is no case law to really know what the force of the law is.

  2. DancesWithBears
    December 1, 2015 at 5:40 am

    There are only 3 private servers that seem to take things seriously and work hard on correcting bugs and keeping things as Blizz-like as possible - and they are:

    1 Nostalrius (Vanilla content - progressive)

    2 Dalaran-WoW Algalon server - (WotLK - progressive)

    3 Atlantiss - (Cata - progressive)

    To me, Atlantiss is the best of the best. They take bugs very seriously and have in-game GM's you can talk with. What MMO does that??

  3. David Craig
    July 30, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Hey guys!
    Have you ever heard about Theatre of Dreams? It's private server of World of Warcraft, actually it's the best scripted Polish server of Wrath of the Lich King. Recently ToD has changed the status from Polish serwer to international. Probably in 2016 this server will add the second realmlist: Mists of Pandaria. Additionally the transfers on this server are available and the characters will be transferred on MoP - so in fact it's quite good option.

    They have bilingual website: http://theatreofdreams.pl

    I think that if someone looks for chance to play from the beginning of MoP content, it's fantastic chance.

    What do you think about it?

  4. OriginalWoWster
    April 24, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    I agree with RestoShammy on this. WoW is not the game now that it was when I began playing almost 10 years ago. I have no intention of ever going back to the retail version, where I would need to play the current content. I liked WoW up to and including WotLK, although even by then it was on a downward spiral for me.
    I found the only PvE server going: http://www.wowascension.com and it has been a return to the game I really got hooked on. Although it has a low population, and like all private servers, has some bugs, it's the community thing that drives it. That was lost altogether with the advent of cross-realm grouping, where people could flame, ninja, or just be generally nasty to others with no recourse, and many of them did exactly that.

    When I play a game, I like to have fun and relax. That's exactly what I can do where I am now, and it's great.

    Blizzard chose greed over the needs of their original core players, and that's the reason so many have left them. The new breed of retail WoW players are only up for instant gratification, and don't like to have to "work" for anything they get. I do. It makes what I do get so much more worthwhile.

  5. Cjin
    April 21, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Hello i have a Question. if the online games is totally shutdown and theres no official server an active. and i want to make a private server that is illegal? and if i have done with the private server and i want to continue to update that is illegal? thats all thank you.

  6. RestoShammy
    April 8, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Many WoW players - usually veterans - are indeed leaving retail for private servers because many now find that the whole game has become distasteful, dull, unimaginative - and quite simply an insult to their intelligence.

    There was also a great sense of community in old content - strangers thought nothing of creating groups with other strangers to complete difficult quest objectives. You made great new friends that way. Players actually spoke with one another.

    Thanks to private servers, those 'glory days' have been restored and veterans can once again enjoy that great sense of camaraderie - amongst many other things.

    Sure, old content isn't easy nor is it for the faint of heart - that's why some of us want it back, because achievements aren't a dime a dozen in the old content - they're hard-earned, not handed to you on a plastic platter (for a price, of course) with a condescending pat on the head, as the current retail version is reduced to doing for the sake of a tacky cash grab.

    If Blizz (or rather, their publisher, Activision) won't give players what they want - the return of old content - then players will go in search of it elsewhere and Blizz is just going to have to suck it up and whistle dixie.

  7. ShadowPriest
    April 4, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    I want to play a game that only exists through the private servers. The last several expansions made the official wow a different game and (besides the name) now it has almost nothing in common with the one i like. So the private servers are the only choice for me.
    I wouldn't play the official game even if it was free and the private servers didn't exist.
    So Blizzard isn't losing money from me for playing on private servers. They wouldn't get any of my money anyway. Well, unless they decide to open official servers for the old versions of the game, which is very unlikely.

  8. WoWBB
    March 13, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Visit wowbb.org if you would like scripts/tutorials and help with making world of warcraft private servers.

  9. KushPoe
    February 26, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    I remember playing Gunz: The Duel back in 2007 and it was a very fun yet basic game in it's own respect, yet the fan base didn't carry on so well after one company (Aeria game for those who don't know), couldn't carry the community or responsibility it came with. Yes, the game had plenty of glitches and hackers to the point that reports were constant, but that's the challenge or responsibility that company takes, and since then there's be spawns of private servers which have either been improvements or fails. Talk about a black sheep game look at Gunbound from ijji. These games were also examples of premium items up-sale, but Gunz players were able to fanbase their artwork into in-game items which in my opinion was pretty neat. But lack of effort led to the separation of the community except maybe those playing on Steam's server of Gunz 2. I don't mind the 2nd but i'm surprised they haven't put Gunz on the spotlight.

  10. Zombiebox
    January 12, 2015 at 10:12 am

    I', playing on one of the TBC servers and the reasons I do it are quite a few. First of all, it's my favorite expansion and something Blizzard can no longer provide. Even if I would lock a character at 70 it wouldn't be the same, the content would be a different experience and the amount of people to do content with would be rare and I would have to rely on boosts.

    The other reason, and the most important one, is that I can actually play. I do have WoD, I have payed for it every month to play since it came out, but I can't do it. The game crashes, it freezes, it crashes my computer, it's lagging, I have to force quit it... I can't get an enjoyable experience since WoD came out. Why would I want to pay for something I can't play when I can play something that actually works?

  11. Akihiko Junichi
    December 14, 2014 at 5:49 am

    It is not illegal to play on the private servers. As these server give you and old expansion experience Which are kind of missing from Current blizz expansions. It bring back the old memories and these kind of servers give little boost in your leveling like 5x or 10x times more drops and experience. I have been playing on http://eternal-wow.com for a while and it is awesome experience.

  12. Tal
    December 2, 2014 at 12:59 am

    I'm waiting patiently for Kronos.. They are 79% complete currently.. I'd play on the blizzard servers if they would actually OPEN a 60's server. But they are too stupid to realize that there are literally thousands (if not a million) of people who would turn their accounts back on if we had the good ol' days back.

  13. bramse
    November 20, 2014 at 7:02 am

    I played on retail WoW servers from vanilla (hit 60 just before dire maul) and continued to play until my guild cleared firelands 25. Went back for a while for MoP but all of the significant changes left the game's raid content feel super nerfed, the sense of achievement for clearing content was gone.

    While it is great that more gamers have access to the content, it feels like playing a facebook game, no challenge and everything is gated by time investment not skill or knowledge.

    I chose in 2011 to begin my WoW private server career and though I have had breaks I have more fun clearing (and often wiping) to heroic 25LK than anything else in the game. While you may think it gets boring the people you play with and those connections are really whats important. Wow ran off so many dedicated raiders that I lost interest in finding new people to play with. In addition to that it turns out I really really hated the MoP storyline and art, it feels like a game designed for young children.

  14. ShiroWalker
    November 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    It's true, I miss the good old days especially the wotlk expasion...that's the main reason I quit retail..I'm currently playin' on eternal-wow(a wotlk private server) I finally found what I was looking for :P

  15. trashwow.tk
    November 3, 2014 at 12:03 am

    It's not illegal to play on WOW private server.
    And you can download the client on official blizzard website.

    Only on some private server you can experiment unique experiences, don't bother with that.

    PS: if you want to speak of private servers, wow official, without censorship of anykind here is a new forum I'm setting up http://www.trashwow.tk

  16. Anthony Salcedo
    October 14, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Final Fantasy XI private servers, only way to enjoy the game close to the way it was in its glory days. Retail now is garbage.

  17. Ed
    October 11, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    Well, Warcraft Belongs to Blizzard...you have to play the game by their terms. So...I would say...yes it seems pretty illegal to me. I played wow from vanilla raiding with 40 people 8 hours a day all week and withered my soul all the way up to Lich King. It was my first MMO and I was hooked. Like Finnen said, private servers depend on a handful of individuals to provide a humongous service. It's like trying to run a hospital with 3 people. Some stuff will work...some won't...you won't be happy with the service. You get what you pay for...

  18. habinpapa
    October 9, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I like to have the data packets coming into my computer to be clean, untempered, of known origin, and hosted by the entities with known fixed addresses and legal representatives so I can sue them if needed.

  19. Finnen
    October 9, 2014 at 6:17 am

    I used to play MU Online on private servers - they were quite fun and I prefered them over official, so called "Global Mu Online". I tried playing a few years ago World of Warcraft on private server, just out of curiosity, but it was an utter fail. I played WoW way too much on official servers and every single change I noticed was annoying me (and they were lore-breaking). I created an Orc and in the starting area (Durotar) there were big pigs from Blasted Lands (higher level area). Made no sense at all. Lots of things weren't working and here's the problem with MMOs on private servers - the beauty of a MMO game is the amount of content that you can participate in. Everything needs to be working great and you need to be overwhelmed with amount of things you can do - crafting, questing, achievements, dungeons, raids etc. If some quests are broken and other functions are not working properly then the game is instantly limited and doesn't feel as good as original. My story with WoW private severs was very short and I always prefered the official game :) Played for years and I intend to go back next month to see new expansion.

    • Joel Lee
      October 11, 2014 at 2:25 am

      Great point. The private server experience can be horrible when the emulator software isn't mature enough. Like you said, if you want the truest experience, it's best to stick with the official servers. :)

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