The future of online games (2)

16 January, 2007 (20:08) | Game industry

In yesterdays post I discussed the biggest problem in the online game industry. Today I will discuss a solution that has already been put into practice by two publishers.

Licensing: new developments

EA (Electronic Arts) started in the summer of 2005 with ‘ranking’-software. EA handpicked a few companies to host their special ‘ranked’-servers. These servers run a special non-public software release of the game. This way, EA could ensure a basic level of quality of the gameserver, quality of support and made sure the ranked servers are considered a premium service.
The same goes for the game America’s Army, the special Honor servers are very pricy, but in return the gamer has several ingame improvements like their own soldier to earn new ranks, even while playing on other Honor servers.
This improves the lifespan of a game dramatically. Instead of playing every single round again and again as a separate play, the game becomes a tour of duty where you will be rewarded for your actions in previous games. Every round on every server is tracked by a special masterserver who keeps score for all players. This masterserver also authorizes every single server.

The future will bring a lot more online licensed games like Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. Not only for gameplay improvements, but the license fees are becoming a stable source of income. Thousands of servers online times ten to thirty dollars per game. It’s not big money like the sales of DVD games, but enough to ensure the future of the online game.

The bright side of licensing

Licensing has a few advantages:

  • Enforce a basic level of quality by contract or agreement
  • Possibility to deny a license to illegal ‘companies’ or amateur companies
  • Cut down the player to server ratio to make sure more gamers play on each server
  • Monthly license fee income ensures the future of the game
  • Marketing: official servers sell better
  • Corrupt or hacked servers can easily be shutdown

The downside

Licensing also has downsides. The publisher has control over every single gameserver. This means they can destroy competition in a country by creating a monopoly on the gameserver market. We’ve seen this happen in Germany, the UK and France where EA only gave one gamehoster the right to host Battlefield 2. Prices in these countries were triple the price elsewhere. No wonder most consumers rented their server in other countries. This can be prevented by regulating the pricing in the agreement or by creating an European market, a market comparable in size to the USA, instead of running a different programm for each country in Europe.
The customers in Europe do not care for borders, it’s the internet, it’s borderless. When will the major publishers find out?

Second, licensed gameservers tend to have a higher pricing because next to hardware, software, traffic, datacenter, support and overhead costs, the hoster has to pay the license fee.

Third, when licensing partners are picked, publishers tend to favour the commercially best candidate. This can be prevented by completing a technical background check on the licensing partners. The publisher should have the technical knowledge inhouse (“Linux, what’s that?”).

Doom scenario: Licensing per gamer

PC gaming always has been unique, but this could change pretty quickly. As games become more online based (some games don’t even have a single player mode anymore!) a new licensing scheme could be introduced in the traditional FPS games. Just like Microsoft Live or Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, pc gaming could change into a model where the gamer has to be buy the game (1) and buy an online subscription service (2). In this case the developer or publisher hosts their own gameservers which means less control over the online gameplay for the player. Gamers can’t administrate their servers, can’t create a custom mapcycle and can’t kick/ban vulgar or cheating people.
Also, we will see a lesser quality of service as we’ve seen with Live or WoW where overloaded servers and only a small number of geographically locations is common. If the nearest server location is in a different country, don’t those people have an unfair advantage?
Last but not least, it will be the destruction of the modding community, the scene of fanatic gamers developing new maps and new gameplay modifications.

This doom-scenario is still years away from reality, but this will become practice over time. However, the serverside license enforcement is already becoming much more common these days, which is a good thing.

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Date: August 10, 2007, 4:31 PM

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