Need for Speed: World was the epitome of a pay-to-win MMO. First released in 2010, its progression beyond the first few levels was gated by a mandatory initial fee before you got to even shadier microtransactions like renting virtually unbeatable, high performance cars. That some players crushed others in races merely because they had bigger wallets inevitably killed World, and EA shut it down after a short five years alongside other mostly forgotten games like Battlefield Heroes and Fifa World.
That should have been the end, but today Need for Speed: World is more popular than ever.
Need for Speed: World lives on thanks to private servers, which initially set out to create an offline version of the MMO but have since evolved into a thriving community home to thousands of players racing online. And in reviving it and tearing down its greedy microtransactions, Need for Speed: World’s fans have finally unearthed its hidden potential.
Until we say so
It’s a sunny afternoon in the virtual city of Palmont when I pull up next to a Lamborghini Estoque and a Toyota Supra. I’m terribly outclassed in my Dodge Challenger RT, but I don’t mind because the higher level players who are about to leave me in their dust earned their rides instead of paying for them. It’s a crucial part of the vision of Soapbox Race World, the fan-made project that slowly brought EA’s ill-fated MMO back to life. It’s an experience invigorated by the intimacy of its community and emphasis on fair racing.
“At first I didn’t believe they revived this game until I played it, then quickly I got addicted again,” a player named Michu tells me over Discord. “It just shows how people like it. Soapbox has [come] a long way through all these years.”
Back in 2010, Need For Speed: World billed itself as an MMO hybrid of Need For Speed: Most Wanted and Need For Speed: Carbon. The idea was that players would roam an open world, challenging each other to races or getting into chases with computer-controlled police cruisers. Like any true Need For Speed, World was all about customizing your car and driving dangerously—only you did so in a big open world filled with strangers.
It was a neat idea, but World was unnecessarily grindy and favored those who bought their way to the top. Rewards from races, like cash or new parts, came frequently, but buying new cars or expanding your garage was exorbitantly expensive. You couldn’t even go past level 10 without buying a starter pack. It’s no surprise that most players got bored and moved on.
Not berkay2578 and Nilzao, though. These two players loved World despite its flaws, and when EA shut down its official servers in 2015, they were instrumental in building a version that could be played offline. Those early efforts were fueled by the motto “there is no real end for NFS:W until we say so.” It became the rallying cry for thousands of players who weren’t ready to say goodbye. Before long, those players filled 452 pages of a forum thread centered on the offline project, and the community spread to both Facebook and a dedicated site.
However, that first version of World was missing the one thing that made it unique: multiplayer. So in March of 2017, berkay2578 and Nilzao announced the Soapbox Race project, an ambitious upgrade to the offline version that would include features so players could run their own private servers. But even with their experience emulating an offline version of the game, getting NFS:W back online wasn’t easy.
“In the middle of 2015, when EA first announced the game was going to be shut down, someone named Nilzao started posting on the forum about how it was possible to get the incoming-outgoing network packets of the game without any sign of encryption,” berkay2578 recalls.
Those packets were how the game server and the player’s client communicated and contained little bits of information like the location of players, what cars they are driving, and other data necessary for multiplayer games. Hundreds of these packets are sent each minute, but each one is mostly meaningless on an individual level. With enough of them cataloged, though, a clever programmer might begin to reverse engineer how a server works without looking at the original source code.
“[Nilzao] only wanted help collecting more of the packets,” berkay2578 says. “But he was also mentioning that with those packets, a private server could be made. I only remember my reaction to it, which was, in short, ‘that’s impossible, you need the server’s source code.'”
But Nilzao was already one step ahead. Though he didn’t have the source code for Need for Speed: World’s servers, he had enough packet data that he could make an approximation of one that allowed offline play. So berkay2578, who was only 17 years old at the time, teamed up with him and started the long forum thread introducing this offline version. Before the official servers shut down for good, Nilzao taught berkay2578 how to obtain these packets with special programs that monitored network traffic between the official NFS:W server and the player’s client, and how to write a simple server in Java. They became partners in an impossible mission to preserve a doomed game.
Improvements came slowly, but as they pored through more packet data, they were able to add new features and improve their offline version of Need for Speed: World. Before long, they could race together, but they were only able to see their own cars. The progress was exciting, though, so both continued investigating the data packets and puzzling out how to emulate the NFS:W server. “Mind you, this is really hard, and I remember days where [Nilzao] fought with his wife because he spent more time on this than his own family,” says berkay2578.
Nilzao’s obsession was taking its toll on his personal life, and few others in the community were willing to help develop Soapbox Race World. After getting the open world partially working, both Nilzao and berkay2578 stopped actively developing the project. Fortunately, a few others stepped in to take over where the original developers left off, including 17-year-old ‘heyitsleo,’ who now maintains the project practically on his own.
As the project transitioned from closed to open beta late in 2017, more people jumped on board. But as more people joined, the community also began to fragment into different cliques, usually based on region. Anyone could download the reverse-engineered server software and run their own private servers, so instead of just one server, there were several to choose from all over the world.
While Soapbox Race World is the emulated client and server software, all of these offshoot servers carry their own communities and rules. Some offer slightly faster progression for players, others prioritize free roaming and getting into cop chases, and a couple of them have even added custom cars. Two specific cars, the Dodge Charger SRT 2012 Concept and Porsche 918 RSR Concept, for example, were only in early versions of Need for Speed: World but ended up being removed since both caused the client to crash and EA seemingly couldn’t figure out why. Now they’ve both been restored to the lineup—without crashes.
As the developers and server hosts got more proficient at tinkering with NFS:W’s code, they also were able to figure out how to mod the base game. Now several servers feature custom graphics and textures, entirely new cars, and a custom launcher to make installation easier.
From the current list of five live servers, WorldUnited is the biggest to date, hosting over 35,000 total players. Heyitsleo is one of the key members of the team, working on it when he’s not busy with high school.
When I ask what could possibly compel a teenager to dedicate all his free time to emulating a pay-to-win MMO that barely anyone remembers, he tells me Need for Speed: World was always his favorite game. After finding the original offline version and spending two very frustrating hours getting it to work, he was determined to help make it better and more accessible to average players. “There’s two reasons for which I started and haven’t stopped doing this in all these years: The challenges of figuring out file formats, understanding undocumented network protocols, and building new tools, and the rush you get when you figure out the solution to something,” he says.
Donations are a consistent motivator for him, too. They cover the cost of running the WorldUnited server on a monthly basis. “It’s sort of crazy how so many people are willing to support this thing,” he says. “But that makes it even more worth the time I put into it, since it shows that people actually like it enough to help keep it running.”
Soapbox Race World is an incredible success, but it exists in the legally grey realm of emulation, and EA could decide to pull the plug by issuing a DMCA takedown at any minute. Despite that looming threat, there have been several efforts to communicate with EA by different members of the development team, including a Change.org petition supported by the community.
Members of various private servers tell me that those attempts to reach an agreement never led to any real conversation. There’s still hope, though. In 2015, Daybreak Games recognized the Project 1999 EverQuest private servers as an official fan project, vowing not to take legal action against its community. It’s a gesture that Soapbox Race World’s developers hope EA might one day mirror.
“Profiting from this has never been our goal, and it will never be,” FBI Janitor tells me. He found out about the project back in 2018 and has stuck around ever since, currently helping with moderation in the Discord server and doing graphic design work. “Players [are given the choice to] donate to us, but the money goes to hosting the server. No one is getting paid directly from this. EA hasn’t taken any action and that must mean something.”
When I ask if Soapbox Race World’s increasing popularity might be cause for concern, FBI Janitor says, “Everyone’s thought of that, but I think that if we’re careful enough it might just work out fine.”
From the ashes
(Image credit: NCSoft)
Need for Speed: World is not the first MMO resurrected by persistent and genius players, and it won’t be the last. If you love these kinds of stories, be sure to check out our feature on a mysterious group brought back City of Heroes and kept it a secret for years. Or you can read about the long road to resurrecting Warhammer Online and Phantasy Star Online.
A sentiment echoed by everyone I met, both while playing or hanging out on the Discord server, is that the support from EA could really make a difference. “It’s a real shame. There’s so much cool stuff we could do, and so many things we could fix and future-proof if we had access to the original code,” heyitsleo explains. “My view is that if you—in this case EA—aren’t actively maintaining it, you should at least help others do it. Preservation is important, especially nowadays with all of these online-only games.”
We reached out to EA, but it has not responded to our request for comment.
Soapbox Race World is doing just fine without EA’s help, though. It’s taken five years to build a new community from scratch, but it’s remarkable that now five servers host thousands of players each day. WorldUnited has seen almost 5 million multiplayer matches completed since its launch on January 1st, 2020, which equates to almost 40,000 races per day. The highest concurrent player count happened exactly a month later, hitting the milestone of 653 players online. Not bad for a dead game.
But to the people I’ve spoken with, Need For Speed: World isn’t just about racing cars. It’s about the camaraderie of a community working tirelessly together to make something they can all enjoy. Once or twice a month, different servers host car meetups with specific themes and requirements, just so everyone can ride together and chat.
“Each server has its own charm, and that makes them fun to play any time,” a player named Eslowe tells me. “This might not be like the old Need for Speed: World from EA, but being able to play alongside new racers and knowing the future will even better keeps me hyped for more and more content. I’m [really] happy to see this game alive again.”