OPINION: Business killed the video game star

We all know the business of gaming can kill the industry. It happened in the 80’s and it could happen again, but is it also killing community? I’ve been in the games industry for the last 15 years, either running game servers at a local LAN, running a games network for a major Australian ISP, and more recently a news website and TV show. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years particularly when it comes to gaming communities.

Let’s start at the beginning. The community of gaming really started back in the 80’s with arcades. Really the only way you could play a variety of games back then was to go to your local arcade, and of course this became a meeting place. In the 90’s however, this communal gaming started to move into houses.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert was a favourite at LAN parties

Command & Conquer: Red Alert was a favourite at LAN parties

We saw the start of first serial cable gaming then on to co-ax networks. This is where there home LAN’s began. This was the first time you could take you PC to a friend’s home and play against 2 or more of your friends. And for me this is where the community of gaming really started. We would all put our PC’s in the back of our cars, 14″ CRT’s were really heavy back then, drive to a friend’s place plug in and lose the rest of the night in games, beer, and pizza.

During that time we shared new games, mods and tweaks with each other, showed off the latest hardware we had, and sulked when we lost a round of Command & Conquer: Red Alert (and removed the terminator from the end of the co-ax to wreck everyone else’s game).

Of course technology got better, and with the introduction of ethernet and TCP/IP, these small home networks turned into massive LANs. I was on the committee of one of Australia’s biggest LAN groups, Valhalla. Every month we got more than 500 people in a room to play games, share files and just be happy little geeks. The biggest one we did had 750 people at one time. This to me was the glory days of community gaming. But it wasn’t just these get-togethers that made the communities back then so strong – it was also the game makers.

It was almost a badge of honour for game developers to have someone take their game and turn it into something completely different. Favourite targets? The Warcraft, Half-Life, Quake and Unreal series. These four titles shaped a generation of gaming, and although the games were revolutionary on their own, it was what the communities did to them that put them in gaming infamy.

Undoubtedly, the game that defines “community” in gaming would have to be Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike wasn’t made by a studio, it was made by a couple of guys (Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess “Cliffe” Cliffe) who decided to play with the Half-Life engine back in 1999. What started as a bit of fun lead to one of the most popular games ever. The global Counter-Strike community was huge, and back in the day caused many Internet slowdowns when a patch was released. (This of course led to Valve looking at a better way to manage software updates, which in turn resulted in Steam.)

But it wasn’t just Counter-Strike. games like Team Fortress, Dota, Star Wars: Galactic Warfare and DayZ all came from these communities. These communities made publishers a huge amount of money, and this is something that has all-but been forgotten today. In the day of a new game out every year, there is no room to release the required tools for these mod makers to create. This obviously has a negative impact on communities, and it has shifted much of this creativity onto the easier to develop for mobile market, leaving a gap in new Ideas on consoles and PC.

As the years went by, I started to see changes. Firstly it isn’t all the business-side of gaming that hurt these communities. LANs started dying because of faster, more reliable internet: Why go to a LAN when you could sit at home and play with your friends? Of course faster internet isn’t solely responsible, and in fact I have to take some blame here.

I helped kill the Australian LAN scene.

Of course it wasn’t only me, but I contributed. I started running what was/is one of Australia’s most popular games networks. We put up servers for games that people used to go to LANs to play. With the addition of faster broadband, you could almost get the same gaming experience online as you could at a LAN, so why go out? Communities moved away from meeting up in person and towards online forums, and numbers at LAN’s went down almost as quickly as speeds and download allowances went up. While LANs had 500 people if you were lucky, you could play online on a games network at any time with 3000 or more. But gaming is and was a business.

[img_big]center,5,2010-06-01/0000000135.jpg,Counter-Strike started life as a mod for Half-Life[/img_big]

Let’s face it: If it’s an ISP supplying servers, or a game rental service, there is an agenda. ISP’s want to promote a service, whether it’s free traffic, low pings, or just making sure the name is splattered all over the internet. A game rental service, on the other hand, is more transparent about its need to make money. This is where things fall apart. This is business, not gaming, and if your customers aren’t happy then your business has an issue.

A story for you: Back in the day (it might still be there) there was a Half-Life Dedicated Server mail list. This list had people on it who ran most of the bigger game server networks around the world. It was a place we could go to talk about upcoming patches, beta patches, issues, and we were also notified when a patch was going to be released. It was a immensely useful resource. Well, it was, until Game Service Providers (GSP’s) came along. The list quickly went from a useful resource to a bitch session about the fact the latest patch used 10% more CPU so a GSP couldn’t run as many servers on one box and it was costing them money. These complaints would fill up the mail lists, until anything useful on it went away.

This was a start to a triggered shift in the way that games, and game servers were dealt with. Game publishers are there to make money. We all know that. So what happens when third parties (like GSPs) are making money off of your game? The publishers decide they want a cut, too – and that is what some of them asked for. Suddenly, game server code is only being given out to the GSPs who have signed a financial (or otherwise) agreement. Suddenly, Joe and his clan JoeClan who wants to run a private server can no longer do it unless Joe gives money to a GSP. This really has had negative effects on Clans, particularly in places where these GSPs don’t operate. Clans are communities, but they are also bound to each other by a game or a small set of games. Without easy access to these, the community struggles.

Of course there are some good things that are happening, too. Firstly, World of Warcraft. This has been one of the exceptions to the dying community rule. WoW brought millions of people who didn’t call themself “gamers” into the mix, with Blizzcon, guilds and all things associated with them, it has had a massive impact.

There have also been recent pricing changes that allow people to develop on the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) and the CryEngine for free – this is hopefully where that mod community will go.

Once a mod, now standalone, DayZ bucks the trend of recent years

And now for a climactic ending: Communities require stability to thrive, however with the yearly game cycle that has been happening of late, it’s been sorely lacking. Every time a new game comes out from a franchise, you split that community up. Game servers are now being run almost exclusively by publishers who want people to move onto the new games ASAP for financial reasons. Because they’re now the ones paying for the servers, it is in the publishers’ best interests to turn them off again as soon as they can get away with it, even when that means turning a game into a doorstop. Normal gamers can’t develop mods for it because they can’t run servers for them. You can’t run them at LANs, and once the official servers are off you can’t play them at all.

Communities and mod makers have played a massive part in gaming history, without them we wouldn’t have some of the greatest games of all time. These groups are the crisper that all fresh ideas come from, they are the brain trust that creates an entire new genre of game, and they are the group of people that make being a gamer such a fantastic thing.

Yes, gaming has become big business, but if we don’t encourage the gamer sitting at home thinking how great it would be if we could just make this little change to a game, how will we ever get our next Counter-Strike or Dota?

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