TLDR in video form:
Acquiring the Alpha
Hey everyone! With the release of Shadowlands, I’ve been playing a ton of WoW and it’s had me thinking back on the many private servers I played throughout the years before the release of classic. Some of my best MMO experiences took place on WoW private servers so I thought why not dig into their history? At the center of the birth of WoW emulation is a man nicknamed Skull. The year is 2003 and Skull was a huge fan of the Warcraft RTS series and was determined to get his hands on a copy of the then rumored vanilla World of Warcraft’s alpha. Skull assembled a team of friends and tried to hack into Blizzard to steal himself a copy, this didn’t work due to what Skull calls major flaws. What came next is a bit hazy, but the prevailing theory is that Skull made a contact within Blizzard who snuck the alpha client into his hands. No one is sure who this contact was, if he even exists but somehow or another, the client was leaked to Skull and his team. Skull made an announcement to various warez scene members and sites that he had successfully obtained access to the friends and family alpha, across the warez scene this message was posted everywhere.
"Open-source proponents, crackers, and anarchists alike rejoice as an alpha version of World of Warcraft has allegedly been secured and is now supposedly making its way around warez circles. This news comes from Skull’s Hack Site who says WarForge (infamous for their work in battle.net emulation for the War3 and TFT betas) is already working on server software for the WoW leak.
Availability for those outside of cracking groups is limited at best and the situation has just now grown past rumor, but details and screenshots can be found here and here if you wish to judge for yourself."
It didn’t take long for the scene to verify what Skull was saying was true, he did, in fact, have an authentic copy of the game. The alpha client was quickly distributed via torrents with thousands now hosting the files on their computer. There was one little problem, however, there was no way for anyone to play the game. There was no server for those with this leaked alpha client. At this point, Blizzard hadn’t even announced publicly that they were working on an MMO, let alone a Warcraft one. The release of this alpha client to the public had made the announcement for them, Blizzard addressed the leak with this statement:
"As many of you know, we are currently conducting an internal Alpha test for World of Warcraft. Our goal for this Alpha test is to provide the best possible experience for players when the Beta launches in early 2004. In order to accelerate the testing process, we recently allowed a small group of external testers to play the game. During this process, a collection of files was leaked to the Internet. While these files contain alpha content from the game, they are not fully playable and therefore do not convey the experience that World of Warcraft will provide when it is released.” We are currently investigating this matter and will take serious action against those involved. As always, we appreciate the interest and enthusiasm that players around the world have for World of Warcraft, and we look forward to delivering a massively multiplayer game unlike any you have ever experienced. Until then, we ask that you refrain from sharing any content that doesn’t come directly from Blizzard Entertainment."
Word of the leak had reached a programmer with the alias of Lax, known for his MMO botting programs at the time. Lax set about reverse engineering the alpha client with the few packet logs that had remained in the files of the leaked alpha client. With these few logs, Lax was able to create a small sandbox client for himself and his friends. He was able to create a character named Lax, run around and explore the world somewhat. He passed the code onto a friend named Coldice, who would then host this server as ‘Stormcraft Sandbox’. The very first World of Warcraft emulator had come before the game had even been released, though it was extremely barebones, it would be the foundation upon which all future servers were built. Following the release of his sandbox, Lax joined together with a few other programmers to make the Stormcraft Town Hall server. Along with his new team, they spent a week building server architecture and adding various features. As time went on, the team switched their focus to things like spells, pathfinding, quests and individual classes. Others had attempted to work with Lax’s code, but would never be able to catch his team’s speed and skill, Coldice would continue to host public tests of the Town Hall, reaching around 200 players at its peak, all clustered in a few tiny areas with limited things to do, however, they could explore this new and exciting world. At this point, Lax would return to another of his projects, Macroquest2, a botting program for Everquest. Generin, another team member would emerge as the new leader of the team and would go about releasing Generin’s Abyss, built off of the Stormcraft town hall. Generin would work hard on this new server, reverse engineering the WoW.exe allowing him to add even more features to the game. Slowly, the team would split apart and the project would become abandoned, but as we all know, this wouldn’t be the end of WoW private servers.
A Community is Born
Tons of various teams would come about, making their own attempts at hosting their very own server. A few of note were Rift, a server created by one man, AlexM. Written in Visual Basic, Rift was the first server to get WoW’s chat system working, though at the cost of being able to see anyone. Next came Future WoW, written in Delphi by Stanz, AlexM would eventually join this project as well. Future WoW lasted until 2006, when the workload became too much as they realized they would need to rewrite the code from scratch to make further progress. Next came the much larger Team Python, consisting of 16 programmers who rewrote the whole thing ironically in C++. With the release of WoW, Team Python employed packet sniffing programs to make further progress with the game. Team Python was able to add things like vendors, mounts, items, a combat system, flight paths and 2 whole working abilities. Team Python also developed the majority of the GM commands that many private servers use to this day. Building off of Team Python was Khaos, a 3 man team who wrote their server in C#. Khaos managed to add multiple cores to the server. Creating a login core, realmlist and multiple world servers. They also managed to add better movement, creatures, custom items, a world where you went when your character died and further fleshed out the combat system. Khaos was extremely closed off and required an invite from current members to gain access to, eventually, Khaos would be defeated by Blizzard’s legal teams. Following Khaos would be a 2 man team called Vibe, furthering WoW emulation in C++ yet again. Vibe was quite popular at the time, and known for being incredibly stable before it was also brought down by Blizzard. Before the server went down, Team Vibe would hand over their source code to Blizzard as well. WoWdaemon would come towards the end of this era of emulation, led by now legendary emulation dev Codemonkey they too continued to add features, optimize code and add more abilities until they were rounded up by Blizzard’s legal department. For one final emulation hurrah, various members of the different teams came together to once again revive Stormcraft. Progress marched ever on, until Blizzard grew tired of these emulation communities and struck at their heart. Blizzard took down ever emulator they could find, there were tons of smaller ones throughout the internet at the time, and fairly large Russian servers as well, all of which were taken down. Blizzard also managed to take down the hub of all WoW private servers at the time, GotWow? With Blizzard taking down the core of emulators and striking down every server it could find, interest in working on these projects faded.
The Last Hurrah
Following this scouring of the servers, one would remain. WoWemu, the WoWemu team continued to push the game forward all the while frequently being targeted by a group known as Blizzhackers who would routinely hack WoWemu, releasing all of their work publicly. The team of WoWemu got tired of their work being stolen and shut down the project, Blizzhackers would be caught by Blizzard’s legal team and shut down shortly after as well.
These early emulation giants would pave the path for further private servers to follow. Eventually, as we all know, these teams began hosting their servers in places outside of Blizzard’s legal reach and many, MANY more private servers would spring up from the ashes. These once buggy and incomplete servers would slowly, over time, become mirror images of World of Warcraft itself, featuring only minor differences from the game as it was in each specific patch. Today, many would argue due to the popularity of these private servers, we can now play the original world of warcraft in all of its glory with WoW classic. If Skull never got his hands on that alpha client, would we have seen such a prevalence in WoW emulation? Did Blizzard’s frequent, public takeovers of emulators actually grow interest towards private servers? Thanks for reading, let me know what you think!
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