By Seow Kai Lun
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Sean Lee is a 'wanted man'. AsiaSoft Online, the official local distributor of one of Singapore's most popular online games Maple Story, is looking to shut down the private servers operated by the teen and about a dozen or so others like him who run illegal versions of the game.
Sean runs it out of his bedroom, where he has an Internet connection that can handle as much traffic as those of many small companies.
Every day, thousands of people flock to his server to battle monsters, upgrade their characters and to interact with one another.
But unlike on the game's official server, they do not have to pay real-world cash for virtual cards that allow them to upgrade their characters with items like new clothes.
AsiaSoft Online is not impressed with this budding online entrepreneur. It plans to crack down on those who operate private servers.
'We are currently working with developers to take action against the service providers of private servers,' said Mr Ng Kok Khwang, marketing director of AsiaSoft Online.
Despite the fact that it is illegal, Sean continues to run his server out of his parents' four-room Housing Board flat because it has spawned a thriving online community.
'If I shut it down, I will be letting them down,' he said.
He owns one of the many home-run private servers - or computer networks - in Singapore, where online games can be played. The dozen or so biggest can host thousands of players.
People like Sean buy bandwith from information technology companies for about $150. This allows them to host games like Maple Story, which has one million registered players in Singapore.
But the private server games come without subscription fees.
Instead of paying for the upgrade cards - which can cost anywhere from $5 to $32 each - players are asked only for donations to keep the servers running.
'Some items in games are rare and impossible to get on the official server,' said 15-year-old Melissa Ong.
'On a private server, I get the chance to obtain it and test it out.'
The games on private servers can also be modified, making them easier and faster to complete. For example, in some pirated versions of Maple Story, killing a snail can give a player 50 experience points - almost 20 times the value in the original game.
'The main game takes too long. This way I get to see more of the game faster,' said Irwin Teo, 17.
Ten out of 20 teens who spoke to The Straits Times said they preferred playing the game on private servers.
Sean started his private server in June after the one he was playing on was shut down when the operators ran out of cash.
He said he does not make money and hosts the game only for his friends. But within three months of starting up, his server had grown to feature as many as 32,000 players.
It is all, of course, illegal. Hosts who reproduce the game are violating copyright laws. Intellectual property lawyer Daniel Lim, from Stamford Law Corporation, said that in addition to lawsuits by the copyright owner, people running private servers can face a fine of up to $20,000 and six months in jail.
Despite knowing this, Sean still plans to continue hosting his private server.
'If I receive a warning letter, then I will shut it down immediately,' he said. That was the same deal he struck with his parents, whom he claims, know what he is up to.
As for the players, not all prefer going private and some have returned to the official server after trying out private ones.
'Playing on a private server defeats the purpose of the game,' said 15-year-old Phyllis Wan, from Pei Hwa Secondary School.
'There is no challenge if everything is easily obtainable.'
Additional reporting by Chong Joe En.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on 30 December 2008.
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