Saturday, January 9, 2010

Where were you when the servers went dark?

Earlier this week, Sega pulled the plug on the multiplayer servers for Chromehounds. While it's not a game I played often (personally, I logged maybe a total of 80 hours over the 3+ years I owned the game), and I had a lot of complaints about it, it's still overall a good game, if only for the experience I had playing it with fellow Geezer Gamers, and it will certainly be missed.

Chromehounds had a lot of really bad achievements — from the leaderboard-style ones; to the rare, random event one; to the ones that can only be achieved through impossibly long hours of grinding (even above and beyond what this achievement enthusiast is willing to endure). Of course, a lot of them can be forgiven, since they were created when achievements were still relatively new. The majority of these achievements, however, are now completely unavailable. Because they were dependent on the online war simulation, which was hosted on the dedicated server, there's now no option for getting those achievements.

But no game is all about achievements. Chromehounds was about building and customizing giant military robots, joining with a group of friends, and fighting a group of enemy robots. Our preference was for fighting computer-controlled opponents. Although they were fairly predictable and had accuracy and range beyond realistic, it was better than running into humans who played the game to such an extent that they would build ridiculous Hounds with obnoxious combinations designed to destroy an enemy in a single shot.

Of course, the computer-controlled players were controlled by the central server, as was the state of the war and all its battlefields, so those types of matches are gone forever.

Other server-managed features also went offline, such as squads. Initially, this was just sad from a sentimental view, but we realized that it also put an end to one of the highlights of the game: being able to trade Hound builds and parts with each other. Since you can only trade with people in your squad (and only when both of you were online simultaneously — this was also before sending things via an Xbox Live message was the norm), trading was also gone.

Probably the most irritating thing of all, though, is the non-war-related game modes. There was a group of four of us who were playing on that last, fateful night. When the server was shut down and the computer opponents were no longer available, we found that "Free Play" was still available. Launching a Free Play mission, we were able to play against each other.

This seemed like a good thing at first. It wasn't much, but it meant there was at least some way we could get online and get in Hounds with each other again. But we quickly discovered, as one of our party ended up kicked out to the game's title screen, that there would be no coming back. When you select "Xbox Live" from the game's title screen, the first thing it does is attempt to contact the central server. When it fails to connect to the server, it doesn't let the game proceed into multiplayer mode. Those of us who were already in that mode could stay there, but once we left, there was no coming back, even to play the game types that didn't require the server.

It's not terribly surprising that Sega took the server offline. Chromehounds is over three years old, which is a long time to be playing a videogame these days. But it does show the weakness in having a game rely on a dedicated server; and how when that server goes, so much of the game goes with it.

Sega is hardly the first or the most egregious offender of this, though. Electronic Arts uses dedicated servers for a lot of its games, most notably its sports titles, and they have announced the impending doom for dozens of their games, including relatively new titles like Madden 09. While this seems more conspicuously like a money grab by forcing customers to "upgrade" to the latest version of their titles, it shows how quickly a game can become "worthless" (at least online) when a company decides it's time to let go, if the game is dependent on a dedicated server.

On the other hand, there are games which probably owe their continued existence to the fact that peer-to-peer is more the rule rather than the exception. If Shadowrun relied on a dedicated server, it's not inconceivable to think the game (which only had an online component and had no single-player mode to speak of) would've lasted a year, considering the parent company, FASA, closed up shop very soon after the game's release. Halo Wars may have been in a similar situation, since developer Ensemble actually closed before the game was on store shelves.

Still, there are advantages to having dedicated servers, like deploying server-side updates and better connections (in the cases when certain peers don't have a good data path between them). Developer Valve walks the line best, by offering the option for using a dedicated server or a peer for a server in Left 4 Dead 2. (Left 4 Dead automatically makes the choice.) If the dedicated servers ever go offline (or, as I've already seen, the choice is made for a dedicated server, but the dedicated servers are already overloaded and none are available for a new game), the game is still fully functional in peer-to-peer mode.

I remember Microsoft taking a lot of heat for their lack of dedicated gaming servers (especially on a paid service), but I think these examples show what happens when games' online components are reliant on a company's continuing support. Games that are peer-to-peer (or at least can fall back to that as an option) can always be played online with a willing partner or opponent, regardless or in spite of the lack of company support or existence. It does also factor into my purchasing decisions. I am very leery of buying EA games (or other games that I know use a dedicated server) for online play, knowing how quickly they might yank support.

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