It’s the End of the War as We Know It


I assume you’ve read the news that’s been plastered all over every gaming site for the last couple of weeks: Infinity Ward announced it would not release a dedicated server for Modern Warfare 2. On the heels of that, John Carmack made a similar announcement for Rage.

People who cut their teeth on console multiplayer are having a hard time understanding why the loss of dedicated servers is such a big deal. After all, consoles get along just fine without them, right? Even some PC users are having trouble grasping just what we’re in for, and they wrongly imagine that PC multiplayer is going to start looking like console multiplayer. It isn’t. It can’t.

Here are the problems we’re about to face:

1. Cheaters

The biggest problem is cheaters. On a PC, you can run anything you want. You can reverse-engineer the network protocol, write new software, and run it at will. That just isn’t possible on a normal console. Anyone hosting the game can make any changes they like to the game state, at any time. Infinity Ward has promised to ban cheaters, ignoring the fact that fighting cheaters is much, much harder without trusted dedicated servers. Even games like Team Fortress 2 must be updated regularly to keep the cheaters from ruining things for everyone. If the games were taking place in the anarchic wild where every accusation of cheating comes down to a battle of he-said / she-said, then diligently fighting cheaters becomes an expensive time-sink.

2. Unstable Hosts

PC’s don’t have standardized hardware. On the Xbox, it doesn’t (much) matter who hosts the game because everyone has the same hardware. Ignoring bandwidth problems, anyone can host the game as easily as anyone else. But on the PC, who the host is matters a lot. Computers are not all created equal, and figuring out if the 3Ghz dual core machine with 2Gb of memory running Windows 7 will make a better server than the 2.0Ghz quad core with 4GB of memory running Windows XP is a really tricky question. More to the point, some machines may have fast hardware but be bogged down with horrible, lag-creating software running in the background. The matchmaking service might run a little test to try to figure out which machine is the “fastest,” but this can’t take into account programs that cause periodic performance spikes.

3. End of the Server-Based Community

The end of dedicated servers means the end of the communities they supported. On the PC side, lots of people frequent favorite servers. The servers act as a meeting place and a hangout. They have forums and regulars and moderators. People form friendships and rivalries, clans and communities; none of which is possible in games based on friend lists or random strangers. There is an entire multiplayer culture that is being abandoned here.

4. Lack of Standardized Community Tools

On your Xbox 360, you have built-in friend lists and the like. The PC doesn’t have this. Microsoft is trying to make that happen with Games for Windows Live, which isn’t yet robust enough to really rival its PS3 / Xbox 360 counterparts. Worse, not all games will support GFWL. On the PC, there will likely be several competing and incompatible systems all trying to fill the “gamer community” niche. Steam and GFWL are the two big ones, but there are smaller ones and I’m willing to bet there are more on the way as publishers scramble to build the One Content Delivery & Community System To Rule Them All.

We’re losing the PC style community (which was based around servers) and in return we’re getting a balkanized system of friends lists strewn across different publishers that all have their own little program running in the background.

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5. Games Will Be Smaller

The typical residential connection just doesn’t have the upstream bandwidth to support large player counts. Infinity Ward is saying that the largest possible game will be eighteen players total, which is significantly lower than what dedicated server games can offer. And even that figure is probably an overly optimistic best-case number. I’m guessing the average PC setup isn’t going to be able to gracefully handle games that large.

Some people have said they prefer smaller player counts, which is beside the point. No dedicated servers means an end to the huge player counts of the past. (Which are 24 players on the low end, and go as high as 50-ish.) There has always been the option of a smaller game, and some people do indeed choose a more intimate experience. But now the choice is being taken away and it’s small games for everyone, willing or no.

6. Unfair Advantage

Since one player will also be the host, this means one player will be much, much better off than everyone else. One person will have a zero-ping experience, and everyone else will have a high-ping experience. This leads to a strange perversion: As host, the worse your connection is, the better your experience will be. The more lag in your line, the more everyone else in the game will lag. You will always retain the advantage of the seamless, zero-ping experience, while everyone else stutters around viewing the world as it was a half-second ago.

This actually creates an incentive for people to be bad hosts. And linking back to the problem with cheaters: It’s easy to spoof your system stats to try and convince the matchmaking service that your machine is the “best” host.

7. No More Mods

Did you know that the first game of deathmatch Capture the Flag was a Quake mod? Team Fortress began as a mod, and is now a hit game in and of itself. Same goes for Counter-Strike. Mods have been enriching games for years by giving all of us access to free content cooked up by enthusiasts all over the world. Mods have added to the longevity of games and let people adjust the game to suit individual tastes. They also act as a fertile ground for cultivating new talent. (A lot of the mod developers have been scooped up by the industry over the years; young high school and college kids launched their careers on the strength of their work and passion for the hobby.) All of this was possible because users could alter the behavior of the server.

* * *

A lot of gamers have given the faith-based response: “I’m sure they’ll work out these technical details.” It’s true, there is a solution to all of these problems. It’s called a “dedicated server.” If these companies are unwilling to give us the standard, tried-and-true technology which is readily available, how much less are they going to waste time inventing completely new solutions to these old problems? They’re doing this to save money, remember?

I’m in agreement with the sentiment John Funk expressed earlier this week: I don’t begrudge publishers and developers for trying to make money. If the PC platform is too small to be worth the time it takes to give them dedicated servers, then so be it. (And I doubt dedicated servers will vanish forever. We’ll just have less games that support them.) John Funk encouraged PC gamers to get over their sense of entitlement. I’m encouraging everyone else to stop acting like this is no big deal.

It’s an unmistakably bitter loss for us PC gamers to miss out on multiplayer in big-name titles like Rage and Modern Warfare 2, as well as whatever other games haven’t broken the news to us yet. But the market is a cruel mistress and there’s nothing to be done about it. The massive layoffs at EA this week showed us the painful price to be paid when companies or divisions can’t turn a profit.

What we don’t know is how bad the new system will be in practice. It might just be annoying and feature-poor. Or it might be so overcome with lag, cheaters, and usability issues that the entire online experience will be worthless. The only thing we can do is wait and see.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this website, these three webcomics, and this program. He secretly suspects they’re dropping dedicated server support for reasons other than the ones that have been offered.

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