Death of a Community

October 24, 2009 § 1 Comment

Last weekend Robert Bowling, Creative Strategist for Infinity Ward, casually dropped a large, megaton-sized bombshell on the PC gaming community: Modern Warfare 2 – sequel to 2007’s critically acclaimed, best-selling hit – won’t have dedicated servers or mod support built-in.

Since then, e-petitions have been signed, journalists have tweeted, and other industry figures have weighed in. Public opinion seems to be split into two camps: most are outraged; others are nonplussed. Meanwhile, Bowling has attempted to calm the waves of discontent through a blog post, defending Infinity Ward’s decision and reassuring the PC community that this is, in fact, a step forward.

Tom Bramwell, editor of Eurogamer.net, had this to say in response:

IW man’s blog about why IWNet is a good thing suggests he doesn’t understand why the concept so upset people in the first place.

And this is the point. The heart of the issue doesn’t lie in a list of pros and cons; it lies in a philosophy – a set of principles that have been at the core of the PC gaming experience for as long as it’s been alive.

PC gaming is a fundamentally different beast from that of console gaming; in fact, you could almost say it’s more of a lifestyle choice. It’s not just about being able to play games with a mouse and keyboard. People who play games on the PC don’t just get there by accident; people choose to play games on the PC for a number of reasons that are exclusive to the platform.

They want to be able to mod their games. They want to play at the highest resolutions and at the highest settings. They want to be able to tweak the config.ini file for the absolute perfect balance between performance and graphical awe. They want to be able to have the freedom to play that game in ten years time, without DRM. And, yes, they want their dedicated clan servers, where regulars come together to play, share and frag with the rest of the community.

These are the perks that PC gamers receive for their strivings, through the heartbreak of hardware failures, broken patches, viruses and the perpetual need for better, more powerful upgrades. If you want hassle-free gaming, buy a console, because that’s not what PCs are there for. When you’re a PC gamer, you’re in it for the long haul.

Bowling seems to be under the impression that PC gamers want what console gamers have – that they want a centralised online service; that they want matchmaking. But they don’t. PC gamers, above all else, want choice and flexibility in the way they interact with their games, not what Bowling laughably calls “accessibility”. In some cases, those who’ve migrated from the console arena have come to the PC to precisely avoid those “features” that Bowling lauds as advantageous.

Activision and Infinity Ward are major players in the games industry. Every move they make is observed, dissected, analysed and looked at some more by their competitors. If this decision works out for them then there is a very large, very worrying possibility that dedicated servers and user mods will go the way of the dodo, while multiplayer matching will become the norm du jour. Say “Bye-bye!” to clan servers, server and client-side mods, free maps and the traditional browser; say “Hello!” to paid-for DLC, unpredictable matchmaking, bad pings and poor server reliability.

The PC gaming scene is not what it used to be. Yes, you can point to the flourishing MMO and casual games markets as sectors of growth, but big house names such as Bioware, Epic, Crytek and, now, Infinity Ward have all migrated at least some, if not most, of their development towards consoles. That’s just the way things have been going for a long time.

That’s not to say that PC gamers have nothing to look forward to. The indie development community, for instance, is a source of excitement, for me at least, as a lot of stuff we’re seeing is often way more creative and interesting than what’s currently out on store shelves.

Nevertheless, if Activision/Infinity Ward’s gambit pays off then it’s just going to be another nail in the coffin for the old ways of PC gaming. On the other hand, if Modern Warfare 2 fails to sell according to expectations then they’ll just point and say how the PC is a platform in decline. Either way, to quote a trashy movie tagline, “Whoever wins… We lose.”

(742 words.)

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