"Hey, dude," my friend Shawn said. "Wanna be a GM in UO?"
"Does the Pope crap in the woods?" I answered jubilantly.
It was obvious: Our prayers to be hired as Ultima Online (UO) game masters had finally been answered. EA rescinded their 18-and-over rule, as well as set aside their "must be willing to relocate" proviso, when they saw our resumes, which we never actually sent. Yes, it was time to celebrate, to tell the folks I'd landed my dream job, to laugh at my other friends who worked retail. Then the trap door opened.
"Ok, great," he said. "I'm going to send you the files you need to host the shard."
What?! I'd heard of a whispered "GM client," originally leaked by a disgruntled GM at EA to clandestine hacking organizations believed to operate outside the States, but there was no way Shawn, barely a credible script kiddy, could get into one of those circles. What voodoo had good ol' Shawn worked?
Turns out it wasn't any sort of bizarre magic; Shawn just uncovered one of the many reverse engineering projects proliferated on the net. My dreams were crushed; how could my friend do that to me? Dangle my forlorn hopes in front of me, only to reveal we'd be in charge of the damn server? Wait a minute ... we'd be in charge of the damn server! I immediately phoned my cable company to increase my outgoing bandwidth. Sure, we might get sued, but this was a noble mission: We were going to be kings of our domain, benevolently lording over thousands of adoring players. And besides, good luck effecting litigation on two 16-year-old kids hiding within the anonymity of the internet.
This kind of server "emulation" began when id released the source to ipxsetup, which allowed Doom users to connect to one another on a LAN. Suddenly, Doom fans with programming skills could shoot each other from coast to coast. Hosting and lobby services, most notably one called Doomserv, sprouted up and connected people in new ways at no charge to the consumer. Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and tons of the free services collapsed under their own weight. A few of the more popular lobbies are still around, namely Kali, which offers the "fastest and most accurate Internet Game Browser, guaranteed" for a $20 lifetime subscription.
While other communities built the foundation, Ultima Online's server emulator community was definitely one of the more successful ones. The guys who were really into it managed to keep up with EA's patch schedule, and also engineered their own end-user terminals, which allowed aspiring system administrators to alter many of the game's most basic tenants. Want a certain spell to do more damage? Sure. Want to create NPCs to do work for you, and also contribute to your skill gain when you're offline? Go for it - just make sure you have a handle on C-based programming.
Some would-be world designers improved upon original designs, but many more managed to completely, utterly mangle good games. Team Fortress Classic server admins (not quite emulators, but player-run FPS servers are a legitimate cousin) loved to futz with the gravity settings, either causing snipers to float around in the air for minutes on end, or making the heavy weapons specialists squish flat upon jumping off a one-foot stair. You have about a one in 100 chance in finding something that really tickles your fancy, and about one in 1000 chance of finding something with as much polish as the genuine article. The first thing modders learn is how hard making a game really is, and fledgling server admins are likely to just throw up their hands and start looking for other places to play. It's very Darwinian; if your server sucks, no one plays on it.