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Webcomics, in many ways, are like restaurant menus. See, you've got all these big main courses. You order something and you're bound to get a LOT of it (unless it's one of those restaurants that makes you pay a little for a lot).

And then after (or before!) that, you have "appetizers" that are pretty much main courses in and of themselves.

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Private Servers: RO's Agent Smith
October 2004

They're everywhere now—and amazingly, there are many who are unaware of it. When they do hear of it, the usual response is "WOW! A free RO server! I wanna join!"

Sadly, though, these "free RO servers"—or the more common name, "private servers"—are contributing to RO's decline. The RO private server community is filled with self-righteous people; they believe that they are fighting a jihad of sorts against Gravity KR (Gravity of Korea), and many intend to "free the people" by spamvertizing their private servers everywhere they can. In my discussions with some of them, many see themselves akin to Neo, the freedom fighting hacker from the Matrix.

In truth, the private servers and their advocates more akin to the main villain of the Matrix series, Agent Smith— a self-replicating virus that threatens to destroy everything. And like the Matrix, if these Agent Smiths manage to topple Neo, they'll destroy themselves in the process.

That's the funny thing—many private server advocates profess their love for Ragnarok Online, yet their actions are bringing the game closer to its demise.

Now, before you privateers out there come after me with a heavy ax to grind, I ask that you at least read through the rest of this article. Then you can send all the flame mail you want.

I'm going to cover some myths about private servers and the official servers (iRO specifically). However, there are other servers that share in iRO's plight, so the information is largely of general use.

Busting the Legal Myth

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about these "free RO servers" is that they're perfectly legal. They're not. The exact nature of the illegality depends on what type of server it is:

If the server is using a copy of Gravity KR's AEGIS server engine to run an RO server, it's illegal. Quite plain and simple, it's pirating a copy of the company's software. (Note: Gravity KR developed AEGIS. It's their own creation —or rather, was the creation of Gravity KR's founders.)

If the server is running an RO server simulator, it's still illegal one of the reasons for that is because the server is using intellectual property of Gravity KR and Myung-Jin Lee. The same principles are what go into the illegality of emulated video games.

Think of it this way—you've created a program and it has its own unique concepts/artwork/etc., and you start selling it. Someone comes along and, although not using any of your code, makes a program exactly identical to yours, using all your artwork and concepts, then proceeds to distribute it for free. See the problem? Even if the other program is not a copy of your code, it's still using other things of yours. (More on this later.)

So, the bottom line is—yes, private servers are illegal. However, for many, that's not a persuading reason not to play on them. I'm pretty sure quite a few of the pserv advocates reading this are going "Do I look like I give a crap?" As they read along.

I have to admit, I tend to place legal issues on a lower priority when it comes to whether or not I support a company; I am more concerned, personally, with the ethics and morals a company displays.

For example, I am not sympathetic to the RIAA and its signatory companies over the p2p issue (in fact, I want to see them get trust-busted). My reasoning for that, aside from the way they're dealing with it, is their constant manipulation of government legislature to try and take more rights from the artists they supposedly represent—they also do this with customers. I am also not sympathetic to Microsoft or members of the TCPA, due to Palladium. Look that up when you have the time. It'll scare you.

Gravity KR, on the other hand, has my sympathy and open support due to what I've learned.

So, let's continue on—

Private Servers Kill RO

Yes, believe it or not, if you play on a private server and you're not playing on an official server, you're contributing to RO's demise. Despite the rhetoric the private server community likes to flash around (many private servers pride themselves as being "the future of RO" ... yeah, right), they are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.

Economists have a saying: "There is no such thing as a free lunch." In other words, you might get something for free, but someone else is paying for it. If you were treated to a free lunch, then someone else had to pay your way—or, if you stole food from a certain restaurant, then that's money out of the restaurant's pocket. The restaurant's managers bought the ingredients and pay chefs to prepare it, but if no one actually buys the food, it hurts their business—they're losing money. If more and more people steal the food, then that restaurant will eventually have no money to continue, and will have to close down.

When someone plays exclusively on private servers, that person is not compensating Gravity KR for the work and money they sunk into making RO. Think about it. The folks at Gravity KR spent and continue to spend tons of money to develop RO—money for the computer programs, money to pay employees, money to pay for utilities (you know, power, water, etc.), money to upkeep the servers they run (kRO). That's why games like Ragnarok Online are not one-time payments—the process of managing and developing an MMORPG is a constant strain on the pocketbook.

Now, one might look at this and ask "What about people outside of Korea who play private servers? Wouldn't it just be hurting LUG (Philippines), Gravity LLC (International), or whatever?" No, it wouldn't be just hurting them. To understand why, a little history lesson has to be given:

Gravity KR's Relationship with the Hosting Companies

One reason many former iRO players are now pirate server advocates is because they were turned off by what they saw to be mismanagement. There were fiascoes like this which hurt iRO very badly, as more and more people left for private servers. However, I'll discuss iRO's "mismanagement" in a second.

Way back in the beginning of Ragnarok Online's history, Gravity KR was originally an independent company, and it had direct control over all servers. This is originally how Gravity KR intended to run things—that was, until they tried to go from beta to pay to play with kRO.

kRO first went pay to play around the start of iRO's first beta-2 period—you know, the one that abruptly closed down for vague reasons. However, when pay to play for kRO was announced, there was a group of non-Korean hackers who were furious when they found out they were unable to play on kRO any longer, and that a server was being made for their own country. Since they could no longer play on kRO, they would let no one play at all. These hackers violated Gravity KR's systems and wreaked havoc—destroying nearly everything. Development files, server software, everything.

Gravity KR went, in an instant, from being successful to on the verge of collapsing. They cannibalized iRO and used its resources to keep kRO going—this is why iRO suddenly shut down and was not back for most of 2002. During the period of iRO's nonexistence, Gravity KR was in serious trouble. The hacker attack forced Gravity KR's people to rebuild things from scratch, having lost much of their dev files. They were close to filing for bankruptcy.

Samsung offered to buy Gravity KR out and bail them out, which Gravity KR graciously accepted. However, the manager posted to oversee Gravity KR began forcing the new subsidiary to make RO according to his own image. Gravity KR's original staff wouldn't stand for it, and many—including the founder and most of the original talent—quit in protest. Samsung eventually replaced the manager with someone who gave Gravity KR free reign, but the damage from both the manager and the hacker attacks had been done.

Because Gravity KR no longer had the resources to personally run its servers, it came up with an alternate plan—set up or hire independent companies in other countries that would run the servers. These hosting companies would compensate Gravity KR by paying for a copy of AEGIS, as well as server upgrades—the episodes: things like Juno, Amatsu, and the other additions Gravity KR's dev team made over time. These upgrades (and AEGIS itself) have a big price tag.

A second option exists for the larger servers—Instead of buying the upgrades on their own terms, they can fork over a percentage of their income and in turn get updates automatically and without any extra cost, since they're already handing in a percentage of their income. This is available only to the servers with a large enough player base to generate any kind of meaningful income, such as jRO.

As you can see, Gravity KR is indirectly getting paid from players abroad through the money received by the hosting companies. When a player goes to play exclusively on a private server, he is indeed indirectly hurting Gravity KR, and not just the hosting company.

iRO: Mismanagement?

This is what Gravity LLC is—an independent company that runs iRO in the United States. This fact is something many people may not be aware of, since both companies are usually called "Gravity," and thus gives the misconception that the two companies are the same thing—that Gravity LLC is Gravity KR, and that Gravity KR has personal responsibility over iRO. They do not.

So, we've established that Gravity LLC (which I will refer to as iRO from now on) is not the same company as Gravity KR. Many former iRO users no longer play RO at all, or play on private servers, because of what they believe to be incompetency on iRO's part—things such as the slowness with which iRO updates, the hacker attacks, and iRO's secretiveness.

But, is it really incompetence?

Consider the nature of the host company's relationship with Gravity KR. In order to receive updated content for their servers, the host company must pay a hefty sum to Gravity KR in order to get the content. Ideally the money to upkeep the RO servers would come from the players—people paying to play RO.

As one would expect, servers with a larger player base can afford to pay for updates the moment they are made for release (or in the alternate payment plan, the larger servers get them automatically for a percentage of their income). Smaller servers will take far longer to update, because they have to accumulate the funds to do so. This is why small servers like iRO are slow about updates, and why big servers like jRO are not. iRO has only a few thousand people compared to the tens of thousands who play on jRO. jRO's company has enough money to easily pay for content upgrades, and enough of a surplus to sell merchandise, get more servers, and the like.

The money for iRO simply is not there—most of it is being spent on paying employees, paying for the upkeep of the servers, paying for office space, web hosting, utilities. During the surprising rush iRO made to upgrade to Juno, people I know who have contact with iRO told me that they were just breaking even.

To put it bluntly, the private servers that seem to be "so efficient in updating" are that way because they're pirating the content. They are literally not paying for thousands of dollars (or would that be won?) in RO server content files and upgrades. Now do you see why even emulated RO servers are stealing?

Myths about iRO and the Vicious Cycle

So, we've addressed iRO's slowness, something that many former iRO players use as an excuse to play on the "much more competently ran private servers." This misconception—which iRO doesn't actively try to fight—causes many to leave iRO for a private server. This means even less money is paid to iRO, which means they will update even slower. This in turn irritates more people, who in not realizing why this is happening, quit iRO or go to a private server and join the chorus of people going "iro suxorz ;p"

See a pattern? This vicious cycle was (and likely still is) bringing iRO to its knees.

There are other factors, too—such as the hacker attack back in the summer of 2003. You might remember that I commented on the incident, and wound up quitting RO for a while (mainly due to the fact that I simply couldn't find the time to play) over it. For those that don't know about the hacking incident ...

Back in June 2003 a few script kiddy lamers took advantage of a then-recently announced Microsoft security hole, and an error from installing iRO's copy of AEGIS. They managed to get into people's accounts, starting with the GM's, and wreaked havoc—especially when iRO's staff tried to stop them. In response to the iRO staff's attemps to stop them, the kiddies released a list of every iRO user's account name and password. What followed was an orgy of griefers getting on people's accounts and taking everything their characters owned.

They then claimed to have everyone's billing information, and went around on the major iRO communities announcing this, causing even more havoc. This is what caused many people to stop playing on iRO and go to a private server. In reality however, (and I learned this months after the fact), the hackers were lying—they were bluffing, exaggerating what they had found to scare users and cause them to quit iRO. Obviously, they were quite successful.

There have been other incidents too, which have also helped to give me a very negative view of the private server community in general. Soon after Juno was implemented on iRO Sakray, private server hackers DDoSed the iRO servers, causing major lag, in an attempt to keep the iRO staff busy. Their real goal was to find a security hole in Sakray with which to pirate the Juno server content files—the DDoS was a distraction.. They failed, although this incident annoyed many who did not know what was going on, and wound up blaming it on iRO's supposed incompetence—and most likely it annoyed some to the point of heading off for a private server, which is undoubtedly what the private server hackers were hoping to accomplish as a secondary goal.

As you can see, iRO's staff aren't as incompetent as many are led to believe—instead they are largely the victim of their own user base and private server advocates. Yet rather than being open about what's going on, iRO often attempts to cover things up whenever something bad happens.

Why is that? Largely, this is a practice in many companies —in my business classes, we are taught to use positive language and to communicate bad news without being blunt about it, or to avoid saying what bad things are going on (e.g., instead of making a notice saying that a certain entrance to a building is not available, you'd ideally tell people what other entrance they can use instead). The intent is to prevent customers from panicking or becoming distrusting of the company—ironically for iRO, it's backfiring.

Historically, iRO has also been secretive with contact information. They have their reasons, however counterproductive it is —there have been incidents were staff of online games have been beaten or killed by angry players. iRO's staff is trying to avoid receiving threats on their life, and so in a way, their secrecy is justifiable.

In addition, this explains the problems iRO is having with euRO and the new Austrailian/Oceania server, oRO. Because iRO's own userbase—which supposedly consists of those parts of the world without their own server—is so small, it stubbornly contests creation of new official servers and fights to keep what userbase it can. One has to remember that with the current setup, all the hosting companies are rivals.

For those who may have been furious over misleading information about euRO—The official euRO server was made in secret, without iRO knowing, so that iRO's staff could not protest (in fact, Gravity KR was lying to iRO's staff to keep them in the dark about euRO's creation). From the negotiations euRO had with Gravity KR, only a handful were allowed to transfer, which made players from countries like France—which were not allowed to transfer to euRO —furious. Yet the creation of euRO was a total loss for iRO—no reimbursement for the divided up user base.

iRO gets like this because it has very little money to work with, and stands to lose more as private servers feverishly try to advertise themselves (For example, one persistent private server lamer attempted to advertise on the RW boards. When he was banned, he got the AIM name of every registered member and began IMing them, "spreading the gospel about how RO should be free :) " ... I have also heard that private server advocates will go as far as to advertise at anime conventions, and even abuse iRO's free trial period to PM people about their server ... ) and as the international user base is carved up.

Summing Up

As I've discussed, the current setup of Ragnarok Online means that even if you don't live in Korea and pay to play on Gravity KR's servers directly, you will still hurt Gravity KR if you don't pay to play on an official server.

Private server advocates, as said earlier, like to think they're the future of RO—that they're the freedom fighters. However, as they continue to grow and leech people off of the official RO networks, they continue to hurt the company and the people that made Ragnarok Online.

When those hackers trashed Gravity KR's networks back in 2002, they managed to starve players of many things Gravity KR hoped to do. Because of them and the people who keep trying to push private servers, we've lost things such as:

* People being able to buy apartments/houses in cities and live there
* No loading time between maps
* Larger maps (double the size they are now)
* Satellite cities for every town (E.G., Izlude and Archer Village-like towns for Geffen, Morroc, Juno, Alberta, Comodo, and Al De Baran)
* The Mercenary system
* An actual PVP system (the one we have now is a hack job by the new dev team—originally, there was going to be a sophisticated arena at Izlude where server-wide tournaments could be held, as well as a multitude of other ideas, including private duel arenas)
* The original class system (the original class advancement system was: Novice -> First level class -> Second level class -> Third level class)
* Additional class branches (Did you know they wanted to make a Ranger for Swordsmen, and a Sorcerer for Mages? We won't be seeing those now ... thank you very much, private servers! )

Check out all the stuff we could have had if people didn't keep trying to sink Gravity KR, and kept trying to make RO free. All those private server advocates who go around advertising at expos, and on official servers, are contributing to this—as they continue their crusade, Gravity KR will have to forgo other ideas and places they hoped to make, and we will continue to lose out.

While I don't hate everyone who plays on a private server (many of my friends do, even though I disagree with it), I do have a very negative view of the community in general, specifically of those who are actively trying to bring Gravity KR down while chanting "we will win teh war ^^;;;; gravity suxorz lool" or some such. This is largely because of (as I said) their self-righteousness, their pervasiveness (advertising anywhere they possibly can), and because of how low they'll go to get what they want (such as the RW forums getting trolled by a bunch of pserv lamers, and the DDoSing of the main servers in an attempt to steal the Juno files).

So, I suppose the private server community is right—they are the future of RO, if they keep this up. It won't be a good future, either..

Think about that the next time you go find a private server to play on, will ya?

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Ragnarok Wisdom is © 2002 Irish Lightning Studios.
This notice does not imply any exclusive right to preexisting material by other authors featured in Ragnarok Wisdom.

Ragnarok Online is © 2001 Gravity Corp. All Rights Reserved.
Ragnarok: Into the Abyss is © 1995 Myung-Jin Lee. All Rights Reserved.

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