The logistics of running and maintaining servers for online games is something the vast majority of gamers never think about, probably for the same reason you never wonder about the intricacies of the postal service or holiday insurance: it’s boring, and not your problem.
However, game servers do become your problem when they’re switched off. Fancy a quick online game of FIFA 09, or got that itch that only a multiplayer bout on Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 will scratch? Almost certainly not, granted, but it’s not just outdated iterations of formulaic sports games whose servers are lost to the ravages of time.
Last month, servers of Demon’s Souls – the landmark action RPG which many cite as spawning a whole new genre of games – had its servers shut down. Demon’s Souls had some truly innovative multiplayer elements: though a single player game, you would sporadically encounter the ghostly after-images of other players who had died, serving as a warning that danger lay ahead. It was a great system that integrated multiplayer without detracting from the game’s signature sense of loneliness and dread.
If iconic games from less than a decade ago are undergoing server shutdown, what will things be like 10 or 20 years from now?
If I want to go back and play (literal) game-changers like like Super Mario Bros and GoldenEye I can just fire up an emulator and enjoy them in all their glory. But when I inevitably attempt to force my interests on my future children and show them similarly groundbreaking titles from my era like Call of Duty 4 and Halo, I simply won’t be able to. The multiplayer element is what made both games so great, and it’s doubtful that servers will still be up and running to show it.
The unfortunate upbringing of my future kids aside, server shutdowns are already proving an issue for publishers and consumers alike. It may not surprise you to learn that of all companies, it seems to be EA who have caused the most friction.
Whilst some gamers would be happy to see the end of servers for EA’s latest debacle, Battlefront II, the speed with which their sports titles are stripped of their online capabilities is a frequent source of dissent. In 2013, a man called Justin Basset filed a lawsuit against the industry giant for shutting down servers for their games before he had received enough enjoyment from them.
“Had plaintiff known at the time that he would not be able to play the products online for a certain amount of time”, the court heard, “he would not have purchased the products or paid the price he paid for the products.”
Indeed, EA seem to waste little time in shutting down servers to save money and resources; FIFA 14, one of the highest rated games in the series, has already had its servers closed down, and Crysis 2, despite achieving both critical and commercial success, only lasted three years before having its servers shut down for PC.
To be clear: I’m not saying that servers should remain running indefinitely. I don’t expect in fifty years time I’m entitled to switch on an antique Xbox 360 in my care home so my geriatric buddies and I can enjoy a spot of 2012’s Grand Slam Tennis on immaculately-maintained servers.
However, issues of finite server support for video games are worth taking note of, especially as more big companies are setting their sights on lucrative ‘games as a service’ models with always-online titles like Destiny and the upcoming Anthem.
Perhaps it’s time for a legal minimum server-lifespan to be declared on game boxes, or some kind of assurance for consumers that the gameplay experience they pay for can’t simply be revoked in a couple years to save money for the next big release.
Without any such guarantee and with servers being closed left, right, and centre, gamers may find themselves wondering: am I really buying this game, or am I just renting server time?