Ever since computer games rocked our world there were certain individuals out there who were not willing to pay for it. The industry tried by any means to stop them. They ranged from simple methods of CD check or unique serial numbers to more complicated methods like DRMs or items needed to finish the game which came along with the original game box.
The more they tried, the less results they got. Games were and always will be pirated, unless of course, the perfect security system is invented. But when all seemed to be lost a hero came forth... the MMORPG! Due to its unique subscription system – online games seemed to be a permanent milking cow for the developers, with no chance for the pirates to steal a slice of the cake. And they were right... at first. As time passed by, crackers found a way to pirate online games too, although a bit more difficult: private servers. And the fight started all over again...
It might seem the perfect alternative to that blasted 15$ subscription fee but it's not quite that way. In this case, playing for free has its price. One of the worse things that might happen while playing on a private server is a wipe. It means that all the data gathered on the server including characters and accounts are deleted. All your hard work is lost in a matter of seconds. This mainly happens because unlike official servers that are supported financially from the fees and can afford some back-up, a fun-made server is in many cases a regular computer with a lot of bandwidth... and normal computers crash quite often (happened to me the other day too). This is why these servers also sometimes have long down-times. One other reason is because of the updates that need to be done. On a normal server this is done smoothly without the players even noticing. On the other hand, underground servers are custom made and updates have a high chance to fail... and when that happens, expect at least a major roll-back (if the admin was smart enough to save the data before the operation).
One other major draw back of private servers is the small world population whether because subscriptions are limited to avoid congestion or not too many people know about it - publicity costs money, and money is a hard thing to get under these circumstances. Furthermore it is not such a good idea to become too famous - after all, private servers are considered illegal and if the game producer believes you become too much of a threat, they may come after you... literally. Returning to the player base thing, due to its low value it can get quite difficult to make a party or get some decent PvP action or to sell your rare items at a reasonable price. Sometimes it may even seem that you are playing an offline game rather than an MMORPG.
Unlike a cracked single player game where there is virtually no difference between the original and the cracked version of the game, in case of MMOs the experience may be totally different. Even though the fans who want to create a server have the hole game data, the real thing that matters is the server information, which is never made public. So in order to make the server as much of a perfect copy as possible, administrators or volunteers have to play the original game and carefully analyze all aspects of the game, from the placement of MOBs and NPCs to the behavior and abilities of different creatures or evolution of quest – and this is not always a certain science. Things can go wrong and what you believe to be a pleasant gaming experience may turn into frustration. There are also other things like lag, due to limited bandwidth, which costs money that most of the times the team who created the servers doesn't have and, more important, limited support. Most MMOs have a team that answers players' questions and tries to solve them, while on a private server, there are only one or two, if any.
By now you must be convinced that private servers are evil, useless and frustrating, there's nothing good about them and all should be shut down. But it's not like that at all. Even though they have their flaws, fan-made servers are surviving, and getting better and better by the day, many players considering the benefits to be above the defects. And the main advantage is that they are free, and here, I'm not talking about subscription MMOs but about item mall based ones too. Besides not having to pay a monthly fee, you also get rid of those cursed items that if bought, with real money of course, give tremendous advantages to the character. If possible, the admin usually tries to eliminate them or, if lucky, to give it for free to all players, to avoid imbalances.
Another aspect to be taken into consideration is the elimination of grinding. This is achieved by manipulating the experience players get from quests and mobs they kill, increasing it by a factor of 5, 10, even 20 or more. This way the level cap can be easily achieved, and you don't have time to get bored. This may also happen with drop rates, rare items being quite easy to find. So, it a relatively short time, compared to the original game, you get to have a max level fully equipped character, ready to kick ass in PvP or raids, which in most games is the part where you have most fun. Because of this aspect, legitimate players use fan-made servers with increased XP rate in order to test new builds. The time taken is much shorter and the results are mostly the same, professional players and not only having the opportunity to create the type of character that suits them best when going official. Furthermore, players who want to test games which don't offer trials, before actually buying it, have the opportunity to do so using private servers. Another interesting thing that can be done with a bit of talent is moding the actual game. Was it there something that you didn't like in the original you can make it better on your server, basically anything is possible.
As always, game companies tried to counteract this type of piracy, and then again they have been mostly in vain. When I say mostly, I am talking about those rare MMOs that have neither a subscription fee nor an item mall. One such example, probably the best, is Guild Wars. The reason there aren't any private servers is that it simply isn't worth it. The 30$ you pay for the game without any other fees thereafter don't compensate for the faults of playing on a fan made server. Also, games that are totally free and which gain their money from donations and advertising basically eliminate the main reason for pirating – playing free. Other methods producers try in order to limit the expansion of private servers are to lower the subscription fee in order to widen its player base and in case of item malls, either sell only items that don't affect the gameplay or make the important ones cheap enough to be affordable. Even so, there is no guarantee, that out there, isn't a fan willing to sacrifice his time an money in order to create a game experience he believes is best.
I will not tell you to chose to buy and play your favorite online game on official servers neither to pirate it and play on a private-server. This choice is entirely up to you, the player. There are many reasons to chose either option and I have presented them above. But if you like a certain game and believe it's worth that few bucks they ask you monthly to let you play on their server, I believe it's only a form of respect to the creators of the game to pay and play officially, this of course, if you can afford it. On the other hand, if you think that the game is not worth a penny then you must assume the risks and faults of private servers. And a question rises: why play the game if you think it's not worth it? Think about it next time...
Either way, this choice is yours...
Official vs Private MMORPG servers