Private Servers, MMO Piracy and the Future of DRM

Blizzard was awarded $88 million in damages last week from its lawsuit against Scapegaming, a large private WoW server; meanwhile, the rest of the gaming industry is taking new copy protection cues from MMOs

While piracy in MMO gaming isn't as prevalent as in other video game markets, Activision-Blizzard and other publishers remain aggressive in their hunt for operators of rogue, "private servers." Last week World of Warcraft publisher Blizzard made headlines across the blogosphere after the company was awarded more than $88 million in damages in federal court; the complaint was originally filed in October 2009, alleging Alyson Reeves—the defendant and operator of a popular "Scapegaming" private server—broke the company's EULA by hosting the illegal server and selling in-game items for real money via PayPal.

The recent lawsuit is one of the most extreme cases of piracy in the MMO industry; Scapegaming hosted 427,393 total users, with 32,000 to 40,000 players online each day, according to the court order [via THR, Esq.]. But is piracy in MMOs a widespread problem for most of today's publishers? Or is online gaming, by nature, more prohibitive to "digital theft" than traditional video games? Some publishers are taking cues from the cloud-based nature of online gaming, adopting new forms of digital rights management (DRM) for single-player or "offline" games that rely on users' Internet connections to constantly validate their usage rights.

From the perspective of non-gamers and MMO rookies, the recent news fiasco might lead some readers to believe that piracy in the MMO market is running rampant, or that private servers like Scapegaming are robbing game publishers blind. While it's true that private MMO servers almost always have a negative impact on the industry (and we at ZAM would urge players to stay away from them for a variety of other reasons, as mentioned below), it's important to recognize the relative significance of this case, as opposed to the rest.

This is one of the largest of such private servers to be pursued in court by Blizzard; the defendant earned more than $3 million by collecting PayPal "donations" from users in exchange for leveling boosts and epic gear, according to Gamasutra. Reeves failed to show up in court to defend herself last week and Blizzard was awarded a default judgment of $88 million. That total equals "$3,053,339 in profits from the improper private server, $63,600 in attorneys' fees and a whopping $85,478,600 in statutory damages for willful infringement," according to Eriq Gardner of the THR, Esq. column. Blizzard later issued the following statement in response to the ruling:

"Our ultimate goal is to create the best games in the world, and that means we need to protect our games and safeguard our players’ experiences with them. Server emulators that use Blizzard’s IP facilitate piracy and offer unauthorized, inconsistent gaming experiences that can damage Blizzard’s reputation and goodwill with players. We take these types of threats very seriously and will continue to take every available measure to protect our rights globally."

Scapegaming was one of the largest and most popular private WoW servers in 2009 and Reeves was essentially selling in-game content in micro-transaction format, so it's no surprise that her server was at the top of Blizzard's hit list. As Scott Jennings notes in his BrokenToys blog, 420,000 users is huge; the size of most legitimate, "second-tier" MMOs, let alone the player base of a private server. This case is clearly an example of Blizzard setting a legal precedent, similar to its 2008 lawsuit against MDY Industries, retailer of WoWGlider (a utility that allowed players to "bot" and take advantage of other game client mechanics).

Legal actions like these aren't just about preserving a publisher's EULA and proprietary server technology, however; it's also about combating piracy under the broad wings of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which video game developers and publishers have been doing for years. Historically though, online gaming and MMOs were targeted much less than traditional PC and console games because of their intrinsic nature; the client requires a constant connection to the server, which also validates a user's game license.

But the advent of server emulation, free virtual private networks (VPNs), network tunneling and other technology has increased the accessibility of private servers in recent years, allowing users unlicensed access to MMOs and other online gaming. It's usually a game of cat-and-mouse with the smaller private servers; DMCA takedown notices are sent to the service provider, the server goes down and another one pops up to take its place. Sometimes private servers grow so big and popular that publishers get the FBI involved, as was the case in NCsoft's 2006 Lineage II private server takedown.

In the MMO realm, most community members regard private servers as shady and often dangerous; a back-alley endeavor that isn't worth the risk of getting caught and banned by the game's publisher, or having one's machine infected with malware and other unscrupulous logging software. Many private server invitations and registrations are a ruse in themselves, designed to trick users into providing login credentials and other personal information.

If you're not familiar with the term "private server," it's used—in the context of MMOs, at least—to describe a non-sanctioned server environment that allows users to play online, without accessing the publisher's official servers. Players use them for avoiding monthly subscription fees, gaining access to restricted content, testing purposes and more. Private and emulated servers are also used for other types of games, like first-person shooters and real-time strategy titles (usually for the same reason—to play online for free, using pirated copies of the game).

However, the use of private servers and VPNs to play online games for free isn't as easily-accessible as downloading a BitTorrent file, for example. The technology is becoming a bit more user-friendly for traditional PC games, though. Up until the past few years, those who downloaded pirated copies of games like Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect could only play the single-player campaigns; they weren't able to access the official servers to play online with other people, because the server checks to make sure each player is using a valid license. The emergence of easy-to-use VPN services like Hamachi, Wippien and Tunngle has changed the norm, allowing easier access to third-party servers with pirated video games.

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# Sep 06 2010 at 7:01 AM Rating: Decent
let me clarify, i dont agree with the defendants methods, OR blizzards. Or any corporate entity for that matter. I personally feel that we as a race make life much too complicated for ourselves. Life could be good if we could get off our pedestals and start living it just for the joy of being alive.
Greedy? Not entirely
# Sep 01 2010 at 7:14 AM Rating: Decent
For those of you saying Blizzard is the article, and look up the words you don't understand.

3 million of the awards was simply the 3 million that the defendant made from selling in-game content.

A tiny fraction was lawyer fees.

The vast majority of the damages was over 83 million in "statutory damages." This means that the court took the fee to play, multiplied by the number of player-months played on the illicit servers, and came up with that figure. Blizzard had nothing to do with it, aside from setting their prices, which I'd like to point out have not changed for nearly 6 years.

There are certain actions that, once started, leap out of the hands of the prosecuting parties, and are entirely decided by the court. However, Blizzard is within its rights to seek a lesser settlement if they choose, but we'll never see headlines if they do, because that's "not interesting."

If Blizzard WAS feeling greedy, they'd have pressed for punitive damages as well.

Personally, I agree with scumbags like this getting their lives ruined. After all, she made $3 million in illegal transactions! She KNEW she was breaking the law to a massive degree, but she didn't care. Someone that unethical should not be given any sympathy. Far too often I see horrible, immoral people getting a slap on the wrist and sent back out in the world to harm more people.
Greedy? Not entirely (Just mostly, thats ok :)
# Dec 13 2010 at 6:37 AM Rating: Decent
DFishpro wrote:
For those of you saying Blizzard is the article, and look up the words you don't understand.

Ok, so i played your silly little game. I read the article, AGAIN. as if i needed you to tell me to do so in the first place, you pompous windbag. So, now that ive read the article, and looked up the words i dont understand, (which... i didnt need to, because im not ignorant)
what do i do when my conclusion is still the same? Blizzard is greedy.

DFishpro wrote:
Personally, I agree with scumbags like this getting their lives ruined. After all, she made $3 million in illegal transactions! She KNEW she was breaking the law to a massive degree, but she didn't care. Someone that unethical should not be given any sympathy. Far too often I see horrible, immoral people getting a slap on the wrist and sent back out in the world to harm more people.

Yeah... because the law is always right, and looking out for the best interest of the good people of the world. Take gun laws for example, stripping the bad of their guns... right? i mean... obviously the 'bad' people will follow those laws right? i mean it wont be JUST the 'good' law abiding citizens who follow those laws? SURELY the 'bad' evil men people will also lay down their arms? because.. you know they [the bad scary people] got where they are today by abiding by our laws.

Anyway... yeah. ignorant people wont get my sarcasm. theyll think im serious. More power to your ignorance.

Edited, Dec 13th 2010 7:44am by aztathoth
Point missed
# Aug 26 2010 at 12:16 PM Rating: Default
I agree that stealing is stealing, and it is illegal for a reason, but here's my beef with this situation, Blizzard, last year alone made $4.28 billion. Last I checked, that is a HUGE profit margin, and I seriously doubt that the 400 some odd thousand of people on that server were missed by Blizzard. The game still claims to have a player base of over 10 million people. IMHO, they should have taken the money made from their IP, and thrown the people involved with running the server in jail for 5 years.
The ricockulous sum of 88 million is just ludicrous!! Really, is there any feasible way for the people involved to make that money? Maybe let them make 5 of the servers and collect that way. Blizzard just seems like a big ol' school bully on this one, but instead of taking your lunch money, they take your families and neighbors families money to boot.
The message I got from this is that all they really are about is the money, and **** any morality otherwise.
Point missed
# Dec 18 2012 at 3:35 PM Rating: Decent
gizmonix wrote:
and thrown the people involved with running the server in jail for 5 years.

Yes, that's what we need. More people in jail, eating up tax payer dollars for some petty "crime" that shouldn't really BE a crime to begin with.

Fact of the matter is, blizzard doesn't lose a SINGLE DIME from private servers, neither does any other mmorpg. Their profit margin shows it. I guarantee it would not increase if servers didn't exist. The reason? Simple. People that play private server, either play the official game as well (and they're obviously not going to pay double if they don't play private servers *rolls eyes*) OR they won't play the official game, regardless of whether or not private servers exist. For example, when I used to play this old mmorpg, who's name I won't say for my own reasons, I eventually started playing its private server equivalent. I stopped playing the official game. Then, I stopped playing the private server. I never again played on the official server, not because of the private server, but simply because I stopped liking the game. That's just one example. Some people go to private servers because they don't like what the official server is doing. That means I can either enjoy the game the way I liked it on private servers, or not play it at all. Bottom line is, blizzard could get rid of every single private server in existence, and it would not increase their profit margin.

On another note, when did cheating become the all time wrong in gaming? When I want to ***** around in a game, I cheat! For years we've had cheat codes coded into games be their own developers for people to enjoy! But now all of these idiotic mmo gaming companies, like blizzard, are trying to vilify cheating to the point where it's becoming illegal! Blizzard owns my ram when their client is running? Lol, in their dreams maybe. It's a good thing I've never played any blizzard game, and that court verdict ensured nothing more than me NEVER playing a blizzard game EVER no matter what.

One last thing, to any legit player reading this. If you want to give a private server a shot, go for it. It's not as bad as all of these idiots make it out to be. If the server has a bunch of players (More than 50) then it's most likely fine. You won't get any malware, you won't get hacked, and you won't get banned by blizzard. They're never really going to find you, unless you advertise the fact that you play private servers, or advertise your official game accounts in some private server related website. Just make sure the server isn't brand spanking new, and has a decent player base (50 or more) and you'll be absolutely fine. Furthermore, if you're paranoid, just use a VPN, and Blizzard will never find you, even if they somehow manage to force your private server's owner to hand over a list of IPs like Sony did (unlikely) all they'll find in regards to you is a VPN's ip that won't be tied back to you. Just make sure the VPN doesn't store records of the people that used their service for more than 24-48 hours. You can find such VPNs on Google.

Edited, Dec 18th 2012 4:40pm by johnstevenson12345
Point missed
# Dec 13 2010 at 6:55 AM Rating: Decent
gizmonix wrote:
IMHO, they should have taken the money made from their IP, and thrown the people involved with running the server in jail for 5 years.

IMHO they should let her continue. I mean if i want my house built, and one carpenter does a better job at pleasing me than the other, why would i pay for the other guy? The Gods forbid anyone actually forces blizz to please their customers instead of rape them. Hurry guys shoot em down before they force you to be kind to your playerbase!! My point being, she must have been doing something right, at least in her customers eyes. Fair game i say. Blizzard has gryphons and lizard men and undead minions and dragons ETC. ETC.. ogres... and i dont see anyone suing blizzard for intellectual theft... im more than 99% positive blizzard arent the ones who made up gryphons... dragons... etc... i mean... in that case... id say blizz owes someone, if not a bunch of people.... a whole lot of money.

I mean hell with WCIII they GAVE us the tools of the game to rebuild it any way we saw fit. Theyve even incorporated some of the peoples ideas into their own mechanics. So.... why be a hypocrite about it? You cant lose what you never had in the first place blizz. that money she made, was never yours to begin with.

So stop crying blizzard. Im pretty sure youve made enough money to make many small to mid sized third world countries prosperous.

friggin babies.

Edited, Dec 14th 2010 5:12am by aztathoth
Point missed
# Aug 26 2010 at 10:24 PM Rating: Excellent
93 posts
Well, part of Blizzard's motivation in this case was to set a legal precedent, which I mentioned in the editorial (although that doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it).

As for the $88 million, unless the defendant is independently wealthy (which I'm pretty sure she's not), it's a civil judgment, so the court will set up some kind of payment system, or possible garnishment. She might be sending payments to Blizzard's counsel for the rest of her life, but there's a limit to how much money they can garnish based on her income, property and other assets. She will probably be paying for the rest of her life, but Blizzard will still only get a tiny fraction of the total amount. It's more about setting an example than anything else, but granted, it's at the expense of someone's financial future. I suppose you have to be either really crazy or really greedy to try and pull off what she was doing, but yeah, it still sucks as a lifelong punishment for one mistake.
define game
# Aug 25 2010 at 3:51 PM Rating: Decent
You can disagree with me all you want. But a game defines itself, and unless the game is actually about money, then it is NOT all about money. The majority of games are all about having fun. thats the point of a game, or competition. fun. unless u are using a game as a facade to rip people off, (which happens all to often in our society these days i might add. i wont mention any names.) or to teach selfish humans a lesson, as in the Saw movies, etc.

1    /geɪm/ Show Spelled [geym] noun, adjective, gam·er, gam·est, verb, gamed, gam·ing.
an amusement or pastime: children's games.
the material or equipment used in playing certain games: a store selling toys and games.
a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Build a better mousetrap ...
# Aug 24 2010 at 11:26 AM Rating: Good
773 posts
and they will just build a better mouse. Fact: Draconian DRM schemes don't work. Anything can be hacked. So go ahead and overprotect your games. The only people who will be left playing them are the hackers.
"We apologize for the inconvenience"
- SE Cruciatus Curse

GL blizz
# Aug 23 2010 at 12:37 PM Rating: Decent
Gl getting those $88 million
My $.02
# Aug 22 2010 at 8:14 PM Rating: Good
104 posts
I have to disagree with Aztathoth - seems to me you are missing the point that it *is about the money - this is these peoples' business, and there are few people investing tens of thousands of hours in developing high quality games for free. That they should try to protect their *business assets* is not unreasonable.

That said - while I understand the need for a software business to protect its software assets, I oppose *any online validatino requirement for standalone software. As a comptuer tech, I seem to have a much better picture than global software businesses of how many people do NOT have high-speed (or any!) internet connection - which I consider a sad statement. Live in the country? Expect to spend 20 minutes on hold waiting to validate your MS Windows. Some software manufacturers don't even *have an offline vlaidation option - but since you have opened the box, you can't return the app. Want to instal your single-user game on an offline system not subject to viruses and hacks? Tough luck. Have dial-up? (you'd be amazed how many people still do) well - get used to your 'periodic check' resulting in your game window randomly minimizing while your modem picks up to dial in.... Seems like it's time to find a better answer than that....
play monopoly!
# Aug 22 2010 at 10:52 AM Rating: Default
industry killing off the creative mind of the masses.

and actually "to play online for free" or "avoiding monthly subscription fees" used to be the norm, not to mention the hook line and sinker of blizzards success. oh yeah they reeled our a**es in with that free to play after purchase crap. remember diablo? starcraft? even warcraft at one point. yes i know its hard to believe warcraft was and still is free to play online, hooking little fishies for future generations of mmorpg fanbases. whats that saying "if they could charge u for air they would"? oh wait... they already do. oxygen bars. humanity is a parasite. we seem to excel at lopping off our own appendages and tripping on our own entrails. figuratively, and literally speaking. gg. /golfclap

side note: maybe if it stopped being all about money, it might actually approach being fun, instead of feeling more like work... that you pay for. i played a lot of Ultima Online free shards, yes i'll admit it. And a lot of them were more fun than the paid shards, at least in my opinion.
why? well i would say probably because most of the people who played these games at one point, like myself, wanted to escape from the world we live in, and have fun, and most of the free shards at that time, were created by normal people who broke away from the paid service to express their own definitions of what fun was. however, they are quickly becoming obsolete and illegal. anyways, off to be a hypocrite and play some wow now. taa taa.

Edited, Aug 22nd 2010 1:22pm by aztathoth
play monopoly!
# Aug 31 2010 at 11:22 AM Rating: Decent
Once the co-operate "MAN" has initally made "their" buck, they get hungry. Now with all the privatization by monoploizing of the whole game itself, Blizz has not only made their precedant, but it certianly going out on a witch hunt here, declaring whoever is a cheater, is a witch b4 they have been convicted.

But its GREED, the all powerful, that is our demise. We have set it. We only human, right? I guess we are devil's advocate then.. Money=Greed=power= what the %$#$ is next?

we did it to ourselves..
"you need online to play offline"
# Aug 22 2010 at 10:31 AM Rating: Decent
I have several friends who don't play games online and did I hear it when they bought a game that required an internet connection to play.

It's a hypocritical situation: you need an online connection to play an offline game? Seriously?
Great article
# Aug 19 2010 at 2:53 PM Rating: Default
Great article. Really enjoyed the read. Yes I am one of those old Doom LANers :-D
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