Preservation Versus Piracy

I spent most of yesterday setting up my own World of Warcraft server. With a little Linux knowledge, a HowTo guide and a MySQL server, I compiled, configured and populated a little private server for myself and a couple of friends I used to play WoW with ‘back in the day’. Some people would immediately accuse me of piracy, and they do have a point. The license agreement I signed up to when I first fired up the European Open Beta precluded me from ever using the World of Warcraft client software with any servers other than Blizzard’s official paid-for ones, so I’m definitely in an “actionable position” right now, albeit a civil one rather than a criminal one. It’s arguable that a combination of the WoW client being available on any torrent site worth it’s salt along with freely available server software is a pirate’s dream, and that by doing this I’m being nothing but a Freetard. Those people who think that can go f*** themselves and stick their short-sightedness up their backsides.

There are of course millions of people who have exactly that freeloading attitude. One can obtain a pirate copy of any number of WoW client versions from any self-respecting torrent site, alter it’s connection settings to match one of the thousands of unofficial WoW servers out there, often run for financial gain, and be off and leveling all in less than an hour. I should probably make it perfectly clear right now that, as a former World of Warcraft beta tester myself, I have given Blizzard plenty of money – I bought the original game and the first two expansions on their respective launch days, then coughed up an awful lot of server access subscription fees into the bargain. The private server I have set up doesn’t contain any content I haven’t already paid for and I’m not making unauthorized use of anyone’s CPU time, RAM or hard drive space. I am not stealing or pirating anything, but I’m probably in a pretty small minority as far as that’s concerned. The number of “freetards” with little regard for these issues is massive, as the populations on the uncountable number of official servers freely available to make use of will tell you. It’s no surprise that most discussions about unofficial MMO server software is dominated by accusations of piratical intent, but the situation is a lot more complex than this simple premise would suggest.

The culture of our civilization has been quietly infiltrated by video games over the last few decades. They’ve gone from a solitary pastime for geeks cloistered in their bedrooms to billion-earning darlings of the media economy with TV adverts to entice audiences into the action and player-streamed content racking up more viewer-hours in a month than any major field sport can manage in a year. As such, video games are as worthy of being preserved in our cultural records of any other form of media – books, films, plays, TV shows, magazines, we keep copies of them all for future academic reference and performance. The vast majority of video games have already been preserved to some extent – today’s computers are more than capable of emulating yesterday’s computers and games consoles to a level most would consider perfect, while yesterday’s games are so small that entire system catalogs can be carried around on £5 USB sticks.

However, video games are becoming increasingly reliant on Internet-based services to provide core gameplay and content. Some games run all their mechanics on central servers, usually to support huge player bases or allow gameplay to continue while the player is offline. The culture preservation community has been scratching it’s collective head for years about how best these gaming experiences can kept alive for future generations. One day, no more companies will be interested in keeping Planetside up and running and it’ll disappear over the horizon. Wargaming will one day declare peace. World of Warcraft will be shut down. Legally speaking, the only way to maintain any record of these games will be through documentation – video records, written details, tourament score tables and our memories. That’s like saying you’ve preserved a book by copying it’s jacket blurb; a movie by writing a synopsis; a magazine by tearing off it’s front cover. If you can’t read a book, it’s lost. If you can’t watch a movie, it’s lost. If you can’t flick through a magazine, it’s lost. If you can’t play a video game, it’s lost.

Preserving video games of any kind is often illegal. No, not a legal minefield, it’s actually flat-out a civil violation to do so. You may own a SNES cartridge of Super Mario World and a SNES, and there’s a good chance they’re both borked by bit-rot and circuit board delamination, so the obvious thing to do is to download an emulator and a copy of the dumped ROM data, allowing you to play the game you bought on a virtual copy of the hardware you bought. BZZZZZZT! Copyright law says no. You might be able to get some kind of fair use case going if you’re a professor of digital archaeology, but for the vast majority of us, we’re putting ourselves at odds with the law by taking advantage of those opportunities we have to engage with our cultural history, all because some moron (probably a lobbyist for Disney) pushed for longer, more stringent copyright terms in case Steamboat Willy became public domain and deprived some corporate account somewhere of a couple hundred dollars.

Screw it. If I have to chose between letting Blizzard sue the crap out of me at will and aiding a project to digitally preserve a publicly available close-to-official-as-possible duplication of one of the most successful video games of all time, it’s no contest. As such, my own server is a pristine self-compiled version of the latest TrinityCore, using the freely available scripts and spawn database that come with it. I’ve already made a few bug reports back to the project’s issue tracker and I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to add as things progress. After all, this is pretty much all I’m able to do to help this particular cause. I’m a singularly unspectacular coder myself, mainly favouring the example cut-and-paste Tom Sawyer style of programming, and the TrinityCore project is a masterpiece of reverse engineering. Two of the major functions handled by Blizzard’s servers are line-of-sight determination and NPC pathfinding. The official servers use data produced during the original construction of the world, hand built, manually tested and optimized, and never released to the public. The fact that the cumulative efforts of everyone involved in the TrinityCore project have resulted in tools to calculate server-side LOS and map data from the client data files is simply astounding. These functions aren’t perfect, but they are definitely “good enough”.

However, me sitting here, client running on my desktop, poring over a WotLK Paladin talent calculator on my laptop, connected to my private server with a total population of 3 can’t really be described as an authentic WoW experience. There’s something really obvious missing. A few thousand other players on either side of the Alliance-Horde cold war, guilds and raid groups, leaders and trolls, content release progression, the auction house economy, everything that the player base as a gameplay feature in and of itself brought to World of Warcraft. In video game terms, our cultural history is not just about what we play, but how we play it, who we play it with, when we play, how long we play it for, every aspect of being a player in this particular of players. So maybe those “freetard” servers really do have an important role in the preservation of those aspects of our culture that rely on bringing a few thousand people together to do the same thing at the same time in the same virtual space.

I want to be able to sit a classroom full of kids down in 50 years time and not only show them what we used to play together when I was their age, but let them actually experience it, hands on, together as a group, meeting people in this virtual world, interacting with them, playing with them. I spent years of my childhood in school studying such great cultural works as To Kill A Mockingbird, Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and Haydn’s London Symphonies. The only reason there’s any legal problem denying proper cultural study of online video games is because some lawyer somewhere wrote an ineffectual anti-piracy passage into the EULA along the lines of “because we say so”. Why should we deny future generations the chance to look back in time on us because some selfish dickhead hasn’t got enough money?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Paladin to level.