PC gamers have been up in arms as of late over Infinity Ward’s recent announcement which said it will not be supporting dedicated servers in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Shortly thereafter, id Software revealed that they too would not be utilizing dedicated servers in their upcoming shooter, ironically named RAGE. Why are these developers moving away from what has been the standard in PC gaming and will it become a trend? Is PC gaming going the way of console gaming? The answer is a resounding “it depends.”
In a recent chat with the BestBuy.com community, developers at IW fielded questions from concerned fans, but there was something unsettling about the whole exchange – they didn’t really answer the questions. In fact, they just about avoided every question that involved dedicated servers by saying things like “our main focus right now is on making sure the game will work well when it is released” and “IWnet was designed to make the multiplayer experience on PC easier and more balanced.”
“Easier” certainly connotes a more console-like experience, complete with matchmaking, lack of a server list, $60 price tag, and dare I say, add-on content that you have to pay for? PC users feel that Infinity Ward is “dumbing down” the game by taking out some of the core features, such as dedicated servers and the ability to lean (a feature which has been in every PC Call of Duty game) and replacing them with matchmaking and a 9v9 player cap, fair trade, right? Many gamers believe that the developer has turned its back on what were the franchise’s original roots. You forgot? Call of Duty originated as a PC-exclusive title. Actually, the FPS genre itself is deeply rooted in the PC community, which has come to know and love the implementation of dedicated servers.
One downside of not having dedicated servers, and one that many gamers are worried about, is that the possibility of custom mods/maps is essentially gone. One of the reasons Valve’s FPS Half-Life was so successful was because of all the custom mods built around it. Mods extend a game’s life significantly. If it weren’t for custom mods, we wouldn’t have games like Counter-Strike or Day of Defeat, and let us not forget that Call of Duty 4 had tons of mods contributed by the community. Without dedicated servers, this simply isn’t feasible. Gamers have a right to be frustrated because they are getting less for their money.
Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward’s creative strategist and all around cool guy, noted that IWnet, the platform Modern Warfare 2 is based on, is the biggest investment the company has made into the PC version of their games. So why are they making the shift away from dedicated servers to a peer-to-peer approach, especially if it’s such a big investment? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
There are various reasons why they decided to make the switch, the first of which is the aforementioned “ease-of-use” factor. “[Playlists] allow you to play custom games out of the box without the need to install mods, find a modded server with the rules you like, or worry about not being in control of the match,” Bowling says. “[The party system and friends list] makes setting up scrims or games with friends easier and hassle free.”
According to Infinity Ward, IWnet takes all the work of browsing through a server list and finding the best game and does it for you. You specify the gametype and rules you want to play by and it will find a match with the lowest ping based on those requirements, player skill, and location preferences.
The second reason is smoother gameplay. They believe that lag will be minimized by using a peer-to-peer setup, a setup that console gamers will be oh so familiar with when it’s referred to with its more common name: player-hosted servers. What’s concerning about this is that it usually results in a “host with the most” situation, where a player hosting a game has a distinct advantage over the players connected to that game. I’m sure Xbox 360 owners remember the disastrous multiplayer Call of Duty 2 originally had, not to mention it took Infinity Ward about three months to patch the extreme lag issue. Is a peer-to-peer setup really the right way to go? Gordan Van Dyke, associate producer for Battlefield: Bad Company 2 doesn’t think so.
“Since Battlefield 1942 DICE has used dedicated servers for all platforms,” Van Dyke says. “This formula has worked well, and still works well, for us and for the gaming community…dedicated servers [are] the best solution for online PC gaming hands down!”
DICE isn’t the only studio making pokes at Infinity Ward’s decision. Among others, Futuremark Games Studio has made note of the fact that they will utilize dedicated servers in their games.
However, in Infinity Ward’s defense, with the greater availability of broadband, most people these days have faster connections, which allows for smoother p2p games, as opposed to the days of the mighty dial-up.
Of course IW also dropped another bomb on PC gamers when they said online matches would be capped at 18 players when the game’s predecessor went up to 64. That’s a loss of 46 players per server! That’s devastating news to large clans. Call of Duty is not a tactical shooter like Gears of War, which is why the latter gets away with a smaller player count. Yes, I know there’s a pretty big difference between 18 players and 10 players (Gears of War 2’s player cap), but when you look at the difference between the PC versions of Modern Warfare 2 and CoD4, it’s laughable. During the live chat, one disgruntled gamer asked, “Please explain how a 9v9 match is a multiplayer experience? I’d have more fun serving lunch at a local nursing home.” Ouch.
IW claims the maps in CoD4 were not “balanced” for 64 players. Hindsight may be better than foresight, but whatever happened to playtesting? It was always my understanding that playtesting played a vital role in balancing a game, so if the player count wasn’t right for the maps, why did the game ship with a 64-player cap? That being said, Infinity Ward centered around the 9v9 cap when balancing map sizes, perks, classes and challenges, according to the live chat. In reality, the biggest reason is probably because anything over 18 would cause lag issues when running on a p2p network. Isn’t it convenient that they’re telling us all of this a week before the game’s release?
Infinity Ward’s third reason for switching to IWnet is anti-cheat. IWnet uses Valve’s anti-cheat system. “The biggest benefit of using IWnet by far is the fact that you don’t have to worry about joining a server full of aim-bots, wallhacks, or cheaters,” Bowling writes, “Or relying on the server admin of the server to constantly be monitoring, banning, and policing it.” What doesn’t make sense is that Valve’s anti-cheat is available for dedicated servers as well.
The final reason for IWnet is piracy, which truth be told, is a pretty significant problem for game publishers. IWnet will help prevent the game from being illegally obtained.
This brings up a valid question: is console gaming transforming PC gaming in, what many would argue, a negative way? It does seem that PC gaming is losing its relevance as of late. When you take into account the fact that consoles are much more affordable and PC gaming rigs require semi-frequent hardware upgrades in order to keep pace with today’s games, but therein lies the rub. The advancement of new technology and new ideas in the computer gaming industry translates to improvements in console gaming. Console development alienates small developers because it has a significant barrier of entry, whereas the PC platform has virtually no barrier of entry. This indicates that innovation and creativity is stimulated much more in the PC arena while the console market continues to be primarily profit-driven.
Infinity Ward states that the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 will be more user-friendly and easier for more casual gamers to play, but this logic, in its truest sense, is flawed because casual gamers tend to stick with console platforms. The level of complexity in PC gaming suggests that all PC gamers are hardcore gamers because they have to learn to understand their platform in order to enjoy it. This is why there is such a divide between PC and console gaming, and it’s a divide that should not be crossed.
Don’t get me wrong, Modern Warfare 2 is going to be a great game, and I have faith that Infinity Ward knows what’s best for its franchise. I just don’t think a p2p system is the future of PC gaming. There’s a reason why nearly every PC game has adopted the use of dedicated servers.
So, to answer my original question, is PC gaming going the way of console gaming? Once again, the answer is “it depends.” Gaming, as with any other market, is a demand-oriented industry. Gamers get what gamers want, and for Infinity Ward to say they know what gamers want and break tradition is questionable. If it turns out that PC gamers swallow their pride and end up liking the transition IW makes, then yes, PC gaming might be trending in a new direction. Let’s just wait and see.