Server emulators have been around for quite some time. Soon after the release of Ultima Online, there arose multiple server emulators. The main idea of a server emulator is that it recreates to the best of its ability, the functions of the production servers that are implemented by the MMORPG companies. MMORPGs are obvious places for server emulators to arise because the games usually require a subscription fee to play the game, and certain users don’t want to pay that price for one reason or another. Server emulators can be looked at from a couple of perspectives, the two main point of views are: server emulators are a bad thing for the respective MMORPGs because it pulls users away from the subscription payment and software payments, the other main view point is the idea that server emulators increase interest in the MMORPG and will eventually lead those playing on the emulated servers to switch to the normal production version because the users want the most up-to-date features as well as a larger user base to interact with.
There are very strong arguments against server emulators, most of which are based around legal claims. Historically there has been a standard set to fight server emulators, because of that all of the existing legal documentation is set to punish anyone who sets up a server emulator. There are two major documents that set the standards for what can and cannot be done with respect to server emulators; the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and the EULA (End User License Agreement). The DMCA is a United States copyright law that criminalizes production and dissemination of technology intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA is the all-encompassing document that applies to all types of server emulators. There is also the EULA which is a contract between a producer and a user of computer software which grants the user a software license. The software license indicates the terms under which an end-user may utilize the licensed software. All of the major commercial MMORPGs have wording of some sort in their EULA that mentions server emulators and how they are not an intended use of the software. Those that run the server emulators do not argue that what they are doing is against the DMCA and the EULA, but they argue that what they are doing will bring a positive overall benefit to the company that owns the rights to the games.
The biggest issue that arises with server emulators is that they encourage piracy. Obviously if the user hasn’t purchased the game they need to obtain the game somehow, and that is usually done through downloading the game through unofficial means. Additionally, most emulated servers do not require the monthly payment that the production version, which also helps the argument for why emulated servers are a bad thing. The direct loss of revenue because of the downloading of the software seems clear, although the argument can be made that the individual wouldn’t have bought the game through normal means, so the ability to essentially try the game before buying it definitely has the potential to help the game overall.
Another area of interest for advocates against server emulators is the fact that they infringe on copyright and also that the developers of the server emulators infringe on the section of the DMCA that references reverse engineering. Although, there has been somewhat of a precedent set with respect to reverse engineering, in 1996 Lotus v. Borland demonstrated that recreating "methods of operation" is not a copyright infringement. Thus, emulating copyrighted material is not a breach. However, this demands that the complete emulator is a work of its own, which is actually the case for nearly all server emulators.
All of these laws, regulations, and stipulations are subject to the possible claim of fair use in certain circumstances. Obviously this doesn’t apply to just anyone. But if an academic wants to research a topic that is best suited for use on a local server of some kind, the use of a server emulator seems like an obvious choice because the MMORPG companies don’t traditionally allow anyone to run local servers. There has been really no situation where this has arisen yet. This situation leaves anyone who wants to do research with any type of private/local server in a gray area.
There is an alternative thinking in terms of the benefits of server emulators in the grand scheme of things. The idea that running server emulators benefits the overall product that the MMORPG companies are producing has some validity to it. Most MMORPGs offer some form of a free multiday trial of some kind, these trials are all loaded with limitations on what you can do before you actually purchase an account and the game. If someone is interested in testing out other aspects of the game besides those which they are limited to by the standard trial, then an emulated server would be a good place to turn to try those desired aspects. There is a very favorable probability that if someone enjoys their experience on an emulated server they will then move on to play the production version of that MMORPG.
Server emulators are always at least one step behind the actual version of the game, because every time an update of some kind is released on the production version of the game, the server emulator developers then need to attempt to recreate those through their own software. This intrinsic lag time is the factor that will always push users to the real version of the game. Users craze the latest and greatest features and updates. The value for them to get the latest features is more than worth the cost of the subscription. The amount of entertainment that users of MMORPGs get is among the highest value for any form of entertainment. The average subscriber to what is currently the most popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft, spends 88 hours a month playing. When considering the standard fifteen dollars per month subscription fee, it equates to about 17 cents per hour of entertainment. That is the best bang for your buck for users if they are looking for something to spend their time on and to get involved with. The point being that before the users make their marginal investment into something that they are going to spend a fair amount of time with they want to make sure that they are at least going to enjoy themselves. There are some surprising roles that some emulated servers have; some top guilds play on their own servers to practice certain encounters in a more controllable environment. These users are paying customers of the production version, yet they seek a specialized situation that isn’t available on the standard version. There are also some creative uses of the abilities users have on private servers; some servers setup obstacle courses made of in-game objects, such as boxes that are a series of difficult jumps and require certain movement tricks to get past. These types of events are just simply not feasible in the normal MMORPG experience.
There are just certain experiences that cannot be obtained without the ability to have complete control over the server. Unfortunately as the laws stand currently it isn’t really allowable for anyone to do so, with the possible exception of fair use claims. So many areas of copyright are in limbo as modern technology makes it easier and easier to reproduce/modify anything involving technology, and the realm of server emulation is right in the thick of it. As YouTube is full of remixed and redone copyrighted acts, people are still not allowed to run their own emulated server for their favorite MMORPG. The companies that run the major MMORPGs have their number one priority always in mind, and that is to make money, and they feel that the best way to do so is to completely restrict the ability to run server emulators. Until they change their mind the fight against emulated servers is here to stay. Even though all of the major companies are waging such a serious war against server emulators, users will always develop and maintain emulated servers for their favorite games. Hopefully some more formal research is done into the efficacy of server emulators and how they actually benefit or hurt the gaming industry.