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So what am I getting Modern Warfare 2 on? I’ll likely get it for my Xbox 360 since that’s where most everyone I know will be. But I could also get it on my PC which is still loaded up with Fallout 3, Crysis, and Red Alert 3. I’ve also still got a ways to go with the Restoration Project patch for Fallout 2.

I cut my gaming teeth on a PC, still have a soft spot for a mouse and keyboard, dove into consoles to discover the Triforce, and followed the games. Watching the FPS explosion on PCs and then the slow decline of the space and flight sim market while consoles continued to gain market share wasn’t easy to players like me still waiting for sequels to games that may never arrive. 

Freespace 2
Well, there’s always the updated graphics patch to replay the game with.

PCs are still big, billions-of-dollar, news, if a little understated out in the retail world. Online, they’ve got even more games to pick from whether they’re browser based, a demo, freeware indie titles, or drawn from an online catalog.

But in reading some of the furor from last week over Infinity Ward’s decision to drop dedicated server support for MW2, you’d think that PC gaming had finally crashed and burned as hard as Atari and ET did. For me, the PC version became a bit less compelling.

I’ve enjoyed my own share of competitive multi from Quake II to Unreal Tournament III alongside a number of fun tweaks such as 64-player madness in Call of Duty 2 (so…many…grenades). Just jumping onto a server to see what creative tricks it may have was as much fun as playing the game itself.

But I’ve also noticed that to many within the console crowd, this can seem like a lot of noise for nothing. Some of the forums ring loud with exasperated cries of “shut up” and “just leave, who cares anyway” whenever PC players voice their ire on losing dedicated servers for MW2. It isn’t long before the insults start flying, jokes are made about someone’s mom, and dogs and cats start living together until a moderator locks the thread.

Since this doesn’t affect the console community as much as it does the PC crowd, it’s easy to see why such complaints are seen as noise, but my PC roots still see plenty of good reasons behind them.

There’s a Homer in my Quake

In the PC space, dedicated servers are everywhere, but why does your friend with the PC look at your Xbox or PS3 with murder in his eyes on the merest mention of MW2?

Dedicated servers, in short, they can allow you as the boss to manage your own gaming environment with more than what the in-game menu offers. They’re often rented and supported by a community of gamers who maintain their own control over the box whose hardware is managed at a data center. It’s almost like renting a room for a party, 24/7, to anyone coming through the door.

As you may have already guessed from my COD experience above, one of the biggest advantages to running a dedicated server is its ability to allow for mods…user made modifications.

These aren’t cheats. Far from it, these often create new games out of existing ones. If you want to play a map as Homer from the Simpsons, anyone else that has the mod will also see you in the game as the spiky haired hero instead of the default model it takes the place of.

A Twist of Trek
Thanks to fans, mods, and a few dedicated servers, PC space sim Freelancer continues to host heavily customized worlds filled with starships modeled from Star Trek to Star Wars years after the demise of the developer, Digital Anvil.

From my Quake III days, thanks to a prolific community of modelers, animators, and texture artists, you could almost play as anyone while sporting rocket launchers and BFGs. Even Baby Bonnie Hood (Bulleta) from Darkstalkers came out to play.

Best of all, every model was free, along with the custom levels, conversions, and whatever else the community put together on their own dime. Most of the work done was either by artists that loved the material (like Darkstalkers) or wanted their name out there as a means of breaking into the industry, especially if the title they were modding for was a huge hit with the potential to create even more exposure for their work. Even today, it’s easy to find “map packs” of user made levels released for download on the ‘net, all for free as long as you have the drive space.

In 2002, Salon’s Wagner James Au wrote on the modding scene as being “the lifeblood of the industry” and in many ways, he was right. Budding designers were sometimes hired in on the strength of the mods that they had come up with, whether it was a new level, texture model, or gaming mode.

The popular PC multiplayer game, Counterstrike, had first started out as a simple mod before becoming a part of Valve and HL2. From id to Epic, designers had seen the community as an important part of their games. Dedicated servers hosting many of these player made mods helped to make that possible.

Since its initial release in ’99 as a mod for the original Half Life, Counterstrike continues to be a popular multiplayer fragfest, now on Steam and powered by Source.

PC Gamer’s Tim Edwards also points out the role that dedicated servers also help to create a strong communities as a result of this independence. Fan sites filled with like-minded gamers would often rally around a server hosted by the group. 

That group would pay for the privilege of hosting these and were often monitored by volunteers sharing their time doing what they loved. It can also be argued that they helped establish an identity for clans, leagues, and other organizations focused on branding themselves and hosting games for players in such a way with a mouse click.

Ars Technica’s Michael Thompson has also covered the case for dedicated servers in MW2, in discussing several more points including the perception of PC players as “whining” about the loss of dedicated servers, something that Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins has noted with his comment on their loss of market relevance to gaming in general which will doubtless not sit well with many.

In watching both consoles and PCs compete for my dollars over the last two decades, it’s hard not to deny that consoles’ success have considerably shifted the focus of many developers or their place on the floor of many stores. But as I hinted earlier, looking at the online catalogs provided by sites such as Steam, Direct2Drive, and Good Old Games, you’d think that there wasn’t a problem at all.

And as Bioware’s Ray Muzyka has opined,, he sees that market as being as strong as ever…but tastes are shifting. MMOGs and social gaming have become even bigger news. What is seen on the floor doesn’t tell the whole story, but I’ve at least resigned myself to the fact that I won’t see a sequel to Shogo anytime soon.

Shogo Box Cover
That is what I like! Giant robots hitting each other!

Ease of Use

It’s also hard not to get upset over a longtime PC developer deciding to drop what has always been a traditional piece of the software pie. It would be as if Microsoft and Sony had started charging for firmware updates to their consoles and told their audiences to live with it.

But perhaps the most telling proof in how Activision views its audience may lie in between the lines of Robert Bowling’s (IW’s 402) blog as he discusses the changes that IWNet will bring:

When you want to player a multiplayer game on PC, in the past. You’d have to scroll through a Server Browser which listed every available server which was hosted by individual server admins. Each had their own private rules, mods, or ways of playing the game. Most players would also use the server browser to find just the best quality game (based on PING). With IWNET matchmaking, it takes all that into account for you.

As nice as this sounds, I can’t help but feel as if it were talking about a problem where there really isn’t one to begin with. Then again, I don’t have access to the kind of demographics that they may have based this decision on.
A well, fleshed out browser gave a player plenty of options to sort through. Not only this, but it also extended that freedom of choice to the type of names that you could label your own server as, whether it was “Bubba’s House of Pain” or “Clan XYZ’s Uber Server: Recruiting NOW!”.

Clicking on a column header to list servers based on ping or the number of players available on each one was as easy as a mouse click. Whether you want to play on a crowded server filled with people or with a lot less, the decision was yours. Most well designed server browsers followed similar formats.

Crysis' Browser Screen
This is how the world looks in Crysis’ server browser with all sorts of information at your fingertips. Clicking on a server will even bring up information on what it is running and who is in there. If it looks intimidating, it shouldn’t be. Most of this extra detail is optional stuff, but it’s always nice to have choices.

Now that automated matchmaking seems to be the norm and while it streamlines the process in making it easy for anyone to get into, looking back on the options it used to have, it’s easy to see how upsetting it can also be to PC players now thrown into the same boat in MW2. It’s like Mario Andretti getting into a car and simply telling it to take him where he wants to go on the racetrack.

But it also may reflect an uncomfortable reality regarding how they see today’s changing market as well as the economics. Is it cheaper to develop a two pronged approach or in focusing on one, unified, methodology? Common sense says that the latter is best, but how do devs see it?

Looking at the kind of design decisions made for console titles, it’s hard not to imagine some of those concepts eventually leveraged into the PC space…sometimes with what are considered “consolized” results until creative modders step in to ‘fix’ them.

I play on the PC and on consoles, and one of the reasons why I think I’ll never see another proper Wing Commander, sequel to Freespace 2, another Freelancer, or Wizardry-styled RPG filled with gobs of options is because I’m in the market minority that loves that kind of complexity. I’m the kind of player that remembers keyboard overlays sold for flight simulators because some of the manuals were miniature phonebooks.

Optional Extras

And finally, another reason for why this is especially disappointing is that it was a decision from a developer that had managed to wrest the WW2 crown away from EA through the strength of that same community. Infinity Ward has built up a strong community of fans across both PCs and consoles throughout their history, first as 2015 (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault) and then as the creators of Call of Duty.

I also remember the firestorm that Steam had brought about when it was first revealed. Now it’s almost indispensable especially as a distribution point for games and updates. And HL2 still supports dedicated servers. Could IWNet follow a similar course in some small way? I guess we’ll see.

At the end of Thompson’s piece above, Dave Wilks (the author of the online petition focused on MW2’s dedicated server support) states that they’ll simply find other games to play. That’s probably what a number of players will do at the end. I still hit Crysis up on occasion when I feel the need to share a little nuclear sunshine.

Crysis alien ship
PC players with the horsepower have been enjoying Crysis in all of its glory in the past few years, but it looks like it may finally hit consoles.

So where does that leave PC players like myself in the next few weeks? DICE of Bad Company fame has already said that the sequel will support dedicated servers. Bioshock 2 is still on track for release, Left 4 Dead 2 is coming, and Dragon Age is on its way.

MW2 isn’t the end of the world. To many others, it does seem to mark the end of a cooperative relationship between its fans and at least one developer, but there are many good reasons as to why. It isn’t all noise.