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EFF to Preserve Online Play, Misses the Point

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By Nelson Schneider - 11/09/14 at 03:06 PM CT

I am not alone in my concerns regarding what happens to old videogames when their owners no longer find them profitable. This past week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation started making noise about creating a Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption to allow circumvention of software security for the purpose of creating unofficial servers for games that are no longer officially supported.

If the EFF gets its way with this exemption request, the idea that games don’t have an online expiration date should hopefully catch hold of both the gaming public and the developers/publishers behind the creation of entertainment software. Giving the hardcore fans who already run unofficial servers for their favorite games explicit permission to do so is a significant win for consumer rights.

Unfortunately, the EFF doesn’t quite go far enough. The exemption request specifically states that the ability to run private servers for old games should NOT apply to massively-multiplayer games. In my estimation, MMOs are the type of game that most needs such protection and preservation as time and technology move inexorably on into the future. If a regular game that just so happens to support online multi-player loses the online portion, little value is lost in the long run. The single-player experience remains untouched, as do any local multi-player modes. Online multi-player is – with a few extremely specific exceptions, like the ‘D___ Souls’ series – identical to local multi-player. Keeping the ability to play “Mario Kart Wii” vs. random strangers online offers nothing of particular value over the not-threatened-in-any-way ability to play “Mario Kart Wii” vs. friends in the same room (except lag and raging, which aren’t really worth preserving).

Without their official servers, MMOs are nothing. I can’t think of a single MMO title that also ‘works’ in any conceivable way without a persistent connection. Furthermore, MMOs provide a rather more significant time commitment than offline games that just happen to offer online modes, and without exception store players’ save data server side. When an MMO goes away, it’s simply gone, along with any characters that the players may have spent hundreds to thousands of hours honing to perfection.

Instead of simply allowing MMOs to disappear, the companies that create them should willingly hand-over their server data to a willing archivist, such as the EFF, to be curated until a suitable group is found to maintain private servers. With archived copies of the final states of the official servers, it should be trivial for a private server operator to restore any MMO game to its full glory, even keeping player data intact. It would be like nothing changed!

We already live in a world where GOG.com makes good money keeping old PC games up and running on new hardware with new operating systems. Why couldn’t GOG or a similar style of start-up take on the task of keeping old MMOs up and running? Even better, why not dedicate resources to reverse-engineer self-contained private server packages to sell to enthusiasts? While it is true that player data would have to be scrubbed out of a commercial private server product, as there would be nothing to stop unscrupulous folks from buying a private server simply to get at the username and password data contained within the official server’s archive, this type of clean slate could both bring in new players and foster a sense of individualism by allowing players to store their characters locally. Yes, local saves can be hacked, but with a limitless number of private servers available, players could pick and choose to play among those willing to hack or those who are hardcore clean. Such a commercial private server product for MMOs could also narrow the sometimes-overwhelming scope of those games to the same scale as a standard multi-player game, allowing a group of friends who would have normally formed a guild within the game to become the world’s sole player population.

The EFF is right to say that online gameplay needs to be preserved. But in ignoring a genre that is built on connectivity from the ground up in order to pay lip service to optional gameplay modes, they are missing the point completely.

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