In Defense of Dedicated Servers
As a long time PC gamer, one of the first things I look for when selecting a new multiplayer game is whether or not it supports dedicated servers. In recent years, consoles have become the lead development platform for many games, and it’s resulted in fewer and fewer games offering a dedicated server client.
In a recent interview with GamingBolt, id Software’s Tim Willets confirmed that their upcoming title RAGE would continue the trend of not supporting dedicated servers. This is a very bad idea, not only for PC gamers, but for the gaming world as a whole.
If you’re not a PC gamer, you probably don’t know what all the fuss is about. You’re used to playing games like Halo and Call of Duty on servers operated and maintained by the devlopers, or more recently on locally hosted servers that make a player the host. This takes something fundamental away from the gamer: control.
You see, a dedicated server client gives complete control over the server environment to players. Through the simple act of setting up a box to host games, or by renting one, players can host servers for any game they like, provided it supports dedicated servers. In the past, games like Battlefield 1942, Unreal Tournament, and even Left 4 Dead had a majority of their servers hosted by players or groups of players. These servers could run any mod or map they wanted, any game type they wanted, and any configuration of server settings.
With the shift away from dedicated servers, players are ceding control of their online gaming to companies whose main stake in maintaining the servers is maximizing profitability, and who have no incentive to keep those servers running once an accountant has told them that they’re no longer economically viable. Players are forced to play the game types and maps that are made available, with only in-game voting to help decide where they might go next.
Each year, a swath of games have their online servers shut down, or severely curtailed as companies pour resources into the new projects. Without dedicated server support, these games stagnate and die, and they take their communities along with them. Contrast that with a game like Battlefield 1942, which has nearly 300 active servers (according to Gametracker.com). Thanks to the dedicated server client that DICE released with the game, BF1942 has an active community, even though it’s been eight and a half years since it was released.
Granted, the first game in the Battlefield series is a huge title, but every game has a core of players who swear by it. Those players will keep a game alive long after a developer would have moved on to another title, provided that they have the tools to do so. If you need an example of this, take a look at a provider who sells shared hosting, like Branzone. Alongside servers for new titles like Brink and Crysis 2, you’ll see that servers are available for games like Day of Defeat, Battlefield 2, Tribes, and others. Sure, some of those servers are running mods, but everyone who’s playing still owns a copy of the base game.
On the other side of the coin is a developer like TimeGate, who recently released the excellent shooter, Section 8: Prejudice. Rather than eschew dedicated servers, TimeGate has now made them available not only to PC gamers, but to XBox 360 players as well. This marks the first time that dedicated servers have been offered to players on Microsoft’s console, and it’s a huge, empowering step forward for gamers.
Five years from now, you won’t see anyone hosting servers for RAGE, but I’ll bet you you’ll still be able to join a game of Section 8: Prejudice. The players, not any developer, will see to that. It’s a shame that developers like id, that played a big role in the original adoption of dedicated servers, have seen fit to drop support for them just as they’re expanding into the console world. Thankfully, dedicated servers aren’t dead yet, but gamers need to make sure that developers understand the value they represent. Otherwise, we’re all going to be playing the same 3 games each year until someone decides it’s time to throw the switch and shut them off.
That’s a gaming future that I don’t want to imagine.