The news that Modern Warfare 2 will not include code for dedicated multiplayer servers, instead relying on a yet to be revealed, peer-to-peer matchmaking service called IW.net, hasn't gone down well. At the last glance, 90,000 gamers had signed a petition asking for dedicated server support to be reinstated.
Those gamers are right. I've signed the same petition, and I think you should, too. Here's why.
A dedicated server is a PC usually held within a bank of computers belonging to a private company or the game's own publisher. Dedicated server hosts have been part of PC gaming for decades; I think you can attribute some of the rise of multiplayer games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty directly to their work.
1) Dedicated server hosts are judged by their reliability. If a server crashes, or an internet connection goes down, the gamers paying to host the game will complain, and they'll start to move elsewhere. This economic motivation forces server hosts to constantly improve their hardware, their internet connection, and their management tools. Compare that to the peer-to-peer networking that Infinity Ward developers are proposing, where the quality of the game will be entirely dependant on the gamer's own home web connection.
2) Dedicated servers are fair. Want to know why that player always seems to get the drop on you when you're playing Call of Duty on Xbox 360? It might be because he's the host of the game. In combat, data has to be bounced from his console, to yours, and back again, for you to impact on the game. Meanwhile, he doesn't have to wait on the round trip - he can fire as soon as he's ready. Hosts always have an advantage in peer-to-peer networked games.
3) Dedicated servers are adaptable. We don't know the details of what InfinityWard.net will offer, but there's little chance that the tickbox customisation options usually available to players in peer-to-peer matchmaking setups can match the level of control dedicated servers offer. That can include, but not be limited to: competitive players who run their own specific rulesets, to the spectator mode mods, to machinima friendly sets, to the expanded player counts, to the custom maps. That evolution of content is key to extending a PC game's lifespan, and improving that game. Enabling the community to host the mods and maps they choose is a good thing. Entire game development businesses have been built from gamers hosting dedicated servers for popular, low key games. Guys like Splash Damage (Enemy Territory, Brink), Tripwire Interactive (Red Orchestra, Killing Floor) simply wouldn't be around were it not for gamers putting up their own cash to pay for dedicated servers.
4) Dedicated servers create community. Don't think of them as a piece of hardware. Think of them as a place. PC Gamer hosts servers for Team Fortress 2, Killing Floor, and yes, Modern Warfare. We have plenty of regulars who are looking forward to playing Modern Warfare 2 together. If we had dedicated server code, we would definitely host our own place - it's good for our readers, and it's good to create magazine loyalty. Every month, we'll join the servers to play with them. We don't have to swap friends contacts, or pray that our skill levels will broadly match. We just double click the server, and we're playing together. PC Gamer isn't alone - communities worldwide love hosting servers for their members. Peer-to-peer matchmaking stops that happening. Now, that specific group of fans simply can't play together. Even worse, without dedicated servers we can't enforce our 'don't be a dick' policy. We can't ban racist or homophobic players, nor can we appoint our own moderators to look after our community when we're not online.
Modern Warfare 2 launches in twenty days. It would be nice to see Infinity Ward demonstrate what advantages InfinityWard.net can offer as soon as possible.