The Unintended Consequences of Dedicated Servers

In the pre-internet days, a game had to be tested over and over for problems before it was manufactured on solid state media.  Sure there were some bugs here and there, but nothing to the extent we've seen since the gaming industry fully embraced the Internet.  

For at least the past 10 years, we've seen a continual downhill slide of the "release it broken, fix it later" mantra as too much money has been injected into gaming.

Yes, we eventually get a fully functional game that works as advertised most of the time, but all too often we must put up with the first month (or months!) playing the broken release quality version.   In the last two years however, with server based gaming gaining more popularity, "release it broken, fix it later" is devolving into "release it broken, make it worse later".


Unwanted Side Effects

Three years ago, I really thought that server based gaming was going to be our salvation.  Peer to peer connectivity issues would be resolved including : lag reduction, manipulating host, lag switching and having an inconsistent online gaming experience.   Also, the delay in getting patches out due to a 30 day certification process on top of development time was a problem unique to the Xbox 360.  At minimum, if there was a major bug in the game, you were looking at a four to eight week wait for a fix.  Dedicated servers for games seemed like the ultimate fix for all of those problems, everyone connects to a server farm, the guy with the slowest internet connection is no longer picked as host and developers would be able to deliver at least some patches on the fly thru their own servers, bypassing the certification process. 

Over the past year though, I feel like dedicated server gaming has produced some unwanted side effects that have made the release version of the game no matter how broken it is, the best version.  Lets look at a few recent examples of the negative impact of dedicated servers.


Gears of War 3: A Never Ending Experiment in Weapon Balancing

For Gears of War 3, the public beta was amazing. The release version of the game was amazing.  Then came the server tweaking of how weapons worked. 

The Gnasher shotgun now shoots like a rifle.  The Hammerburst lost its headshot damage bonus.  The Sawed Off shotgun became useless at more than 1 foot distance and the Retrolancer became overpowered.   Epic started tweaking  the play lists which further divided the community, the more divided the community the worse matchmaking works due to the drop in population.

Then there were the stupid ideas like  'big head' weekend that while funny messed with your aim because your head got in the way.  Let's not forget the availability of the dedicated servers themselves.  At launch they couldn't handle the population, then as DLC was released the have-nots were confined to a single play list and eventually the dedicated servers were only available on weekends.  It got to the point where the gaming experience got inconsistent from one day to the next, a problem dedicated servers were suppose to fix!


Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer: If You're Successful We'll Make it Harder


Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer was another big multiplayer release this year, Bioware's first attempt at multiplayer.   On a weekly basis, Bioware felt it was necessary to tweak with all kinds of different stats in the game.  Enemies were given armor, damage and shielding buffs making them much more difficult to fight, popular guns had their rate of fire, damage and weight adjusted in a negative way.  The unpopular guns received buffs I suppose to try and entice you to use them but they were still for the most part awful and not used for a reason.   The game relied heavily on a money to buy loot system where the loot you received was randomly generated.  The frequency of quality loot drops was also adjusted on the fly by Bioware sometimes for the worse sometimes for the better.   Lastly, as an award for a weekend event, gamers were awarded some random loot chests.  Due to server side issues these awards were delayed going by weeks leaving gamers irritated.


Diablo 3: Post-Launch Insanity


Diablo 3 has been by far the worst offender.  Requiring an internet connection and connect to their server just to play single player is flat out wrong and misguided.  Chinese gold farmers and automated gold farming bots have dramatically changed Diablo 3 for the worst with server side updates.  Due to all the illegal gold flooding into the game, Blizzard just increased gear repairs by 600% to eat into gold farming profits.  However legit gamers have also seen their earnings drop by 2/3rds as well.  It's entirely possible to be faced with all broken gear, a 60,000 gold repair bill and no way to pay for it.  Gold and loot drops from breaking environmental objects have been dramatically reduced making it hard to find gear and make gold to advance your character.  Blizzard has reduced the loot drops from killing bosses while giving some of them buffs to make them harder and gold earnings for completing some quests has been significantly reduced.  If your character had a really good power or you built to take advantage of specific attributes, you most likely saw some significant nerfs.  Almost every Tuesday since launch, Diablo 3 has received some type of update taking the game offline for hours and gamers aren't sure what they're going to get when the do re-gain access to play.


No, We Didn’t Change Anything

ninjaWhat's even worse than the published list of what an update is going to do to our game are the stealth changes.  Those are the ones that the developers do and deny anything's changed but as someone who's put 30,40, 100 hours into the game, you know it's different today than it was yesterday.  The denial is the part that irritates me the most, just admit you changed something, it didn’t' work out, change it back and don't do it again.  They think gamers are ignorant children and won't notice the changes.  It's a fact that the average age of a gamer in the USA is 30 years old.... we notice!


The Never Ending Beta

I think above all else what dedicated servers have done to gaming is what I'll call the "Duke Nuk'em Forever Syndrome".  When you have a bunch of creative people being told to push a product out the door by their publisher, sacrifices are made to meet the deadlines.  The problem is, giving developers servers to tinker with post-game launch creates a sandbox in which they can continually keep changing the game.  The end result is that games can feel like they never come out of Beta, they're never done and we're never playing a finished product.  

I think that if you put down 60 usd on a game and enjoy what you’re playing at launch, you should expect to still enjoy the game 30, 45, 60 days later and it not be altered in some drastic way.  Alterations should be left for DLC, give the gamers an expansion pack or something so they get a say in whether or not those changes are acceptable.   If they're not, they simply won't buy the expansion and can continue to enjoy the game the way it is.   Forcing gameplay changes on us and not giving us a say in whether or not we accept them needs to stop.


Games are Becoming Worse Over Time

I’ve put more than a hundred hours into each of the three games I used as examples in this article, and I did enjoy their launch versions very much.   At some point in their timelines however, one or two server changes became the last straw, and that was it for me and playing that game.  I'm not sure why developers don't get that we, the gamers, don't want constant change in the product.  These three games at some point saw a huge drop in population after a significant change that altered the game.  Looking at Diablo 3's public numbers reported in prime time,  it’s gone from over 100,000 regonal public games to 15-20,000 after a few weeks and now post patch 1.03, less than 2000 people can be found playing regional public games.  External sites that monitor Diablo III’s participation numbers also reflect this steep decline.  To game developers out there, I (we) largely don't want to play a game that's constantly receiving changes that alter the way it plays, at this point I'd gladly go back to "release it broken, fix it later".


About the Author

TANK, aka TANK 2old2play on Live, hails from the west coast, splitting his time between the mountains of Eastern Washington and Northern California. He has been a staple here on 2old2play since July 2005 and over those years has contributed heavily in the forums with 20,000+ posts, maintained a top 10 blog, written for the former 2old2play eMagazine and has contributed news articles for the front page. He is a dedicated Xbox 360 gamer, Achievement Whore and an all around technophile.

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