Imagine you joined a club that provided facilities and officials for any team sport you wanted to play with your friends. If you wanted to play baseball, the club had a baseball diamond, complete with professional umpires. If you wanted to play basketball, they gave you a court with professional referees. And everyone always played by the same rules.
One day you go to the club and notice that all the professional umpires and referees are gone. There are still people wearing officials’ uniforms, but you recognize them as players you’ve seen in the club before. Some of them say you can’t play on their field anymore, or that if you want to play on their field you have to play by their rules. On their baseball diamond you get four outs, not three before the sides change. On their basketball court, a basket is worth 10 points, not two. And if you want a normal game with normal rules, you have to spend time looking for someone who was running their field that way.
This is the analogy for what Electronic Arts pulled a little over a week ago (and to a point is still pulling today) when official Battlefield 3 servers run by DICE, the studio that develops the Battlefield franchise, began vanishing from Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 server lists online. Normally, when Battlefield 3 players wanted to get into a game they would select the game mode they wanted and connect to a server automatically. Then Electronic Arts introduced a Custom Servers program that allowed Battlefield 3 console players to rent one of DICE’s servers at a rate of $30 for 30 days. Players who rent a Custom Server can administrate their server however they see fit. If they only want to offer a single game mode, they can. They can also choose not to rotate through all the maps. They can also alter some of the basic rules of the game in ways that official console servers never did.
One of the most popular modes in Battlefield 3 is Conquest Mode. Each team has a set number of tickets, which they lose either by respawning players or if they don’t hold enough control points on the map. The winner is the team who forces their opponents’ ticket count down to zero first. A round of Conquest is played by default at between 200-300 tickets per side, depending on the scenario. It usually takes around 15 minutes to finish one round of Conquest. Now imagine that, with the DICE servers gone, most of the Custom Server owners have chosen to play Conquest mode with a 2000% ticket count in order to make the game last longer. You will see inflated ticket counts like this all the time on player-run servers. What about the player who just wants to play a regular match or two of Conquest and doesn’t have a few hours to put into a game of Battlefield 3?
Server stability – a vital quality in online shooters – isn’t only about the quality of the internet connection, it’s also about the ruleset that’s in place. If a Call of Duty player selects Team Deathmatch mode, he knows how the game is going to work. If a Halo player chooses Headhunter mode, she knows what she has to do to win. There may be tweaks due to patches or additional game modes added over time, but by and large the rulesets are stable. That’s a reasonable expectation for any online multiplayer shooter game. Competition depends on this kind of stability.
Now imagine a Custom Server in a multiplayer shooter whose admins threaten to ban players for using a certain class of weapon. You’ll actually see Battlefield 3 Custom Servers that post notices about kicking anyone who uses a shotgun on a close quarters map. That’s kind of ridiculous. Shotguns are designed for close-quarters fighting! While anyone renting a server has a right to make their own rules, if there are no vanilla servers for players to choose from, then players might either not get to play the game by the default rules and options or may actually be punished for doing so.
When Electronic Arts was asked about the vanishing DICE servers, their reply was that the DICE servers weren’t vanishing but were being rented out by players, because rented servers were so popular on the PC version. Player-administrated servers are pretty common to PC shooters in my experience. I remember playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault online in 2002 and having to sift through server lists and bookmarking the good servers I found for the next time I was in the mood for some multiplayer.
Console gamers are not PC gamers. They are two very different audiences, and when it comes to first-person-shooter culture those differences are especially pronounced. It’s the job of a publisher to respect those differences if they intend to sell on different platforms. Someone unfamiliar with shooter games might not realize why it’s important to respect those differences, but Electronic Arts knows better. Asking console gamers to suck up and deal with the vagaries of PC gaming when they play on consoles specifically to avoid that sort of thing is extremely disrespectful of those console consumers.
Apparently enough console Battlefield 3 players agreed because on Tuesday, May 15,th it was reported that EA was bringing DICE servers back online – but that didn’t solve the problem. The way you identify an official DICE server is by the label -[DICE]- at the beginning of the server name, followed by a five- or six-digit code. You can search for that label manually, which ought to bring you right to a list of DICE servers only. But players with rented servers can label their servers with the label -[DICE]- and a code of numbers as well. When I searched for Xbox 360 Battlefield 3 servers with -[DICE]- in the title, a bunch of the results were servers that were owned not by DICE but were owned by a player. That means I still had to search for a server running the default settings.
The solution is for EA to allow Battlefield 3 players to exclude player-run servers when they jump into a match. Doing that might decrease the traffic to player-run servers, however, and if no one is playing on a rented server the person paying to rent it probably won’t continue to do so, which is probably why EA hasn’t put the ability to exclude player servers in place. And when a publisher’s nickel-and-diming affects the basic ability to play a game the way it is meant to be played, that’s when we have to put our feet down, loudly and immediately .
Making sure multiplayer shooter fans have easy access to vanilla servers with stable rules is part of the cost of doing business. That’s part of what the customer is paying for. It’s intrinsically no different than a publisher’s responsibility to make sure people still have a place to play the game even if they choose not to pay $15 for the newest map pack or expansion. There’s nothing wrong with offering player-run servers as a supplement to vanilla servers, but forcing console shooter fans to play only on player-run servers, or making it unnecessarily difficult to avoid doing so in order for EA to make a little extra money on their rent-a-server program is unacceptable.