Modern Warfare 2 and the great dedicated server debacle

A little while ago, Infinity Ward and its publisher, Activision Blizzard, announced that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for PC would not have any Dedicated Server support. This made a lot of (PC) people very angry, it made some (non-PC) people confused, and others generally didn’t care because they’re going to buy the Xbox 360 version anyway.


Dedicated What?

Dedicated Servers allow users and groups like SAIX to set up servers for online multiplayer games, like Call of Duty 4, that run on dedicated hardware for better play experience but more importantly, let South Africans play with/against each other locally instead of having to play on international servers, which would cause latency issues. It is thanks to Dedicated Servers that games like Battlefield, Team Fortress 2, Counter Strike and Call of Duty have enjoyed large South African communities.

Infinity Ward says the reason for a lack of Dedicated Servers, is because they want players to play on their new IWNET. To quote the developer, IWNET will provide: “Matchmaking & Smoother Gameplay”, “Playlists and Private Matches” and “Cheat / Hack Free Games”.

So Why Care?

Naturally, the local and international communities aren’t too happy about this at all. Petitions to get Dedicated Servers back, and a lot of arm-waving, screaming of cancelled pre-orders and that. Threats of piracy.

Sure, IWNET sounds wonderful in the “Hi, we’re trying to be like Xbox Live but on PC and without the Xbox or the Live part”. Matchmaking is great, and denying those annoying cheaters/hackers their cheap thrills is also a plus – but the real issue here is that places like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand rely on Dedicated Servers to play the multiplayer with as little lag as possible.

What non-US and non-HighSpeedInternetYay gamers are going to be stuck with now, is being forced to either player matches on an international server if that’s where IWNET thinks you should be, or worse, matchmaking will put you on a server that’s being hosted by a guy with a really crappy PC. There’s also the increased risk of cheap host-kills, because the person hosting the server doesn’t get the same lag as the poor fools who’ve been funnelled on to it via the matchmaking service.

Not everyone thinks this is an issue, of course. To quote Tycho from Penny Arcade:

Everywhere the discussion takes hold, the conversation surrounding Infinity Ward’s decision to forego dedicated servers is an absolute f**kfest. I understand why it would enrage that contingent. It’s an aggressive assertion that the universe is not as they claim.

On Four Zero Two, Robert Bowling’s clearing house for Infinity Ward PR, the thread quickly reached one hundred and nineteen pages. The petition at the core of the conversation, entitled “Dedicated Servers for CoD:MW2,” has (at the time of this writing) reached 143,991 signatures.

To read such lamentations, you’d get the impression that PC gamers still think they are the focus of the industry, when that hasn’t been true for awhile. Indeed, hardcore gamers in general – and the dedicated PC enthusiast, which is a subset – haven’t been the object of their desire for some time. I was under the impression this was well known, but it does require a willingness to perceive factual information, which is not a universal trait among cultists. Maybe if you had just put out, instead of becoming a signatories to a vow of consumer chastity, the old twinkle might return to his eye.

Paying For Maps?

There is another angle to all this, which is mainly that without Dedicated Servers, people won’t be able to play on hosted custom-created content anymore. That means no more user-generated maps, no more user-generated mods. If you want to play on new maps, you’re going to have to buy the new map-packs when they get released. Something to keep in mind, is that Call of Duty 5 made 70 million USD in profit from selling map-packs. There is no doubt that this move is in some part, influenced by the potential profit to be made from locking out any and all user-generated content.

On the NAG Forums, local game-developer Danny Day had this to say on the matter:

Regarding the money question, or “How does IW make money out of not having dedicated servers?”

It’s a simple matter of access control. This is more about removing mod and custom map support than anything else: A dedicated server means you can point it to different files, allowing people to make their own maps and host mods that change the game up. To Activision/IW, that’s money lost. To get the same experience on console, you need to pay for those mods/maps as DLC. The money-grab here isn’t that DLC will be mandatory, just that extra content isn’t freely available anymore because the developers have full control of what’s legal to be played and what isn’t. The mod/map market is open to monetisation this way, when before it was openly hostile to it.

Just look at the comparative difference between TF2 on console and Steam/PC these days, it’s chalk and cheese. Sure, diehard TF2 players would probably pay for update packs because they’re new content. But without dedicated servers and the ability to mod the game, you don’t have the vibrant map-culture and cool stuff like Prop Hunt. Without mod support, you have no meet the Pyro, no Ignus Solus, no Garry’s mod crazyness.

And, from a developer perspective, if you don’t have to expose as much of the game’s functioning to modding hooks via script, it’s a whole lot harder for people to exploit those hooks to cheat. You have to edit exes instead of simply replacing assets/writing new scripts. Sure, that will happen, but it’ll take longer. IW is going to CROW about their “lack of cheating” for the first few months.

I’m just wondering how IW expect to FIND mods and new maps to offer as DLC when they can’t come from the community at all… Those poor devs: They’re going to be working their asses off to nickel and dime players; Won’t that be fun for them?

While all this is going on, Battlefield developer DICE couldn’t resist trying to grab a little street-cred from the spurned PC gamers, by announcing that they totally think PC gamers deserve everything they want, and that DICE will provide where (although they don’t mention Infinity Ward directly, it’s clear they mean IW) didn’t. Finally, if you read but one thing about this today, perhaps you should give this Matrix-parody a peek.

Bottom Line?

Is this a money-grabbing move by Activision Blizzard and Infinity Ward? Very likely, though it’s unlikely this is the sole reason for it. If anything, this seems like a “many birds with one stone” service that would, quite naturally, appeal to a company like Activision Blizzard. They would, after all, like nothing more than to have all their products be a service instead of a physical product. For instance, Activision Blizzard have already said that in the future, they’d prefer it if nobody actually bought any physical discs for games, you simply “signed up” for a service, like say, Guitar Hero, and then you buy more music through the service when you want it. Corporations, after all, want to monetize everything, and if they can get you to pay a monthly fee to access the games you want to play, they’ll gladly do it.

IWNET, as an analogue for a service like Live, is something that may well require a monthly subscription in the future, but not yet. As a service that aims to provide a “better” play experience (as long as you live in a first-world country with high-speed internet), it’s a logical progression for online multiplayer games. Not everyone is going to like it, especially not PC gamers who, generally speaking, prefer to have absolute control over their domain – this includes being able to set up Dedicated Servers tailored to their tastes and needs.

At the end of the day, people are going to vote with their wallets.