Server Shutdown Syndrome: How Soon Is Too Soon?
Written Monday, November 07, 2011 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
“This is embarrassing and there's nothing more to be said about it... Fucking pitiful,” J Lo, X360A community member, Friday 4th November, 2011.
This is what we imagine 2K's servers are like...
Last week, 2K Sports announced that NBA 2K11’s servers were to be shut down. The announcement signalled the end of support for the game’s multiplayer, making all the online features unavailable and their associated achievements impossible to attain. The game had been on shelves for just 13 months.
Perhaps understandably, 2K11’s community went nuts. Amongst the most vocal complaints were suggestions that the publisher is forcing people to buy 2K11’s successor, NBA 2K12. Others were disappointed that the popular My Crew feature – not present in 2K12 – was due to become completely unavailable. Yet more were just angry because they could no longer play their favourite game online.
We contacted 2K to outline their commitment to online support, as well as their reasons for pulling the plug on 2K11 so early, but they didn't respond. So the question remains, how long should publishers keep a game’s dedicated servers running for?
Thanks to their roster of annual sports titles, EA also find themselves in the position of regularly shutting down multiplayer servers. While this makes them no more popular than 2K Sports, their approach is at least far more transparent. Speaking last year, the publisher said, “The decisions to retire older EA games are never easy.
“But as games get replaced with newer titles, the number of players still enjoying the older games dwindles below a point – fewer than 1% of all peak online players across all EA titles – where it’s no longer feasible to continue the behind-the-scenes work involved with keeping these games up and running.
“We would rather our hard-working engineering and IT staff focus on keeping a positive experience for the other 99% of customers playing our more popular games.”
Lebron James is devastated by the server news.
2K’s policy, however, is not known. All we do know is that the publisher’s support for their NBA games displays a worrying trend, with server shutdowns coming earlier and earlier. Where 2K11 lasted just 13 months, 2K10 lasted 15 and 2K9 enjoyed 21 months of support. That’s an 8 month drop over the course of three years.
EA Sports, meanwhile, typically extend support for around 2 years. It’s better, but is it good enough? Gamers pay for titles expecting online functionality; it’s built into the price of the product. Should online servers not be available forever?
Well, legally no. Every publisher’s terms and conditions state that they can discontinue server support whenever they see fit, at just 30 days’ notice. Ethically, it’s a different matter. NBA 2K11, as the most recent example, is still available from retailers and still advertises its multiplayer component on the back of the box. If you were to bring NBA 2K11 home only to find that half of it doesn’t work, you’d be justified in feeling cheated.
It’s not all horror stories, of course. Some publishers extend the life of their multiplayer servers for years and years. Microsoft continued to support Halo 2, alongside other Xbox games, for over half a decade. It was finally shut on Feb 5th 2010, 4 years into the life of the original Xbox’s successor and a couple of years into Halo 3’s lifespan. Other positive examples are harder to come by.
Ultimately, it all comes down to money. Servers are a major expense and if a game’s community has moved on to subsequent releases then publishers can save a few quid, and free up bandwidth, by shifting their focus. That’s a major reason why dedicated server support is cancelled. Yet it’s an argument that sounds increasingly hollow, complicated by the existence of online passes.
EA was the first publisher to embrace the online pass model. When they did so, they justified it by pointing to the rapidly increasing cost of online support. “We are looking at five million people a day on the EA Sports servers,” said then EA Sports President Peter Moore last year. “We have come a long way.”
“I look at the investment that we make in bringing digital experiences – building solid infrastructure, making sure servers stay up and offering customer support when needed. It all takes time, money and effort and we are at the cutting edge of that.
“Online Pass is a way for us to frankly bring more digital experiences quicker... [T]here is a cost to serve that we deserve to get paid for.”
Indeed, but despite online passes bringing in a considerable revenue stream focused on online support – money that just didn’t exist a few years ago – dedicated servers are still being shut down. Gamers should expect better treatment.
It should be noted that 2K Sports are one of increasingly few publishers that do not have an online pass system. Indeed, their record in this regard is relatively unique. They have made efforts to include everything needed to enjoy their games on the disk. NBA 2K12 was the first in the long-running series to even offer premium DLC.
Despite this, whether an online pass would have saved 2K11’s servers is beside the point. The fact remains that consumers should be able to buy a game in the knowledge that every aspect of it will be in full working order. If publishers cannot guarantee that dedicated servers will remain online forever, then they should at least indicate just how long they will be available, at the point of sale.
If, before you buy, publishers provided information indicating the earliest date on which the servers could be shut down, then consumers could buy in confidence and publishers could defend their reputations. Until that happens, buying an older multiplayer game will remain a gamble. You’ll never know whether you’re throwing half of your money straight into the bin. It’s a situation that has to change.