When should game servers be retired?

Posted on 20th Sep 2012 at 10:30 by David Hing with 34 comments

David Hing
Modern game production dictates that everything released must have multiplayer functionality, regardless of development budgets and how appropriate a multiplayer feature might be to a particular title. Although this trend is a headache for many a developer, it can also be a heartache for those who end up becoming particularly attached to a game's multiplayer option as sadly, these features have no guaranteed permanence.

The life expectancy of any title's multiplayer presence is hard to pin down. Singling out EA as an example due to its particularly highly publicised server body count. The publisher recently announced that the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 servers will close next month, placing its online life span at just over two years, with the title originally launching in June 2010.

When should game servers be retired? *The lifespan of a game server
Online for just over two years and gone.

EA announced a cull of 11 servers in April which reveals a range of differently aged titles. Although closing down servers for the seven-year old Burnout Revenge on the face of it seems unsurprising, it seems less fair for the barely one-year-old co-op platformer Spare Parts to have its servers swiped from under its feet. However, thinking in terms of fairness is unreasonable when it comes to big business like games and there is no denying which of the two titles mentioned above proved the most popular.

'The decisions to retire older EA games are never easy,' said an EA Sports spokesperson. 'The development teams and operational staff pour their hearts into these games almost as much as the customers playing them and it is hard to see one retired.'

It's hard to criticise a publisher faced with dwindling interest in a title and I doubt anybody ever accuses the developers of not caring. EA's policy does not put a best-before date on a game's existence in the multiplayer space but instead takes the line that when numbers dwindle to 1% of online players across all of the publisher's titles, then it is no longer feasible to pour any more investment into server upkeep.

When should game servers be retired? *The lifespan of a game server
Burnout Revenge survived a more respectable seven years.

'As games get replaced with newer titles, the number of players still enjoying the older games dwindles,' adds the spokesperson. '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.'

This attitude and outlook pushes towards two things. Firstly, it leads to a greater and understandable homogenisation of titles from large publishers chasing and pandering to that 99%, which from a business point of view is difficult to criticise. Secondly, as hinted at by that comment about games being replaced with newer titles, it perpetuates the idea that games are only good-to-play for a limited period after release and feeds into a continued culture of sequels and iterative updates to what is essentially the same game in the case of some sports titles.

This second point is, again, difficult to argue with, as from a business point of view it encourages people to buy into the same sort of content and keeps the business afloat without any major risk. But the background idea of the impermanence of servers has the potential to bite publishers in the backside when they do try and do something new and bold.

News that EA's giant and expensive MMO project, The Old Republic, has seen a disappointing drop off and is soon to transition to a free-to-play model could be partly as a result of a lack of trust from players who may be reluctant to risk their time and money with a publisher that has made no secret of wanting to prioritise newer titles.

Whilst it might be sad for the truly dedicated 1%, the notion of a 2011 edition of a Tiger Woods title's multiplayer servers being shut down is not in isolation a surprise. The franchise is, after all, going to receive annual updates as hinted by the game's name until Tiger Woods does something to really upset the sponsors. But MMOs demand a lot of trust and investment from their player base, especially when coupled with an online subscription. The rather intimidating server body count available on EA's websites might be a list of games that very few people play online any more, but it is still difficult to ignore and has to raise questions in the minds of those thinking of sinking time into its new MMO.

If playing an MMO is somewhat of a risk however, building one appears to be akin to dropping the keys to your Lamborghini on hire from the mob onto number 32 red and hoping for the best. Not only are the development costs normally higher than traditional games, but the development then continues long after the title has released, with both demands for new content and constant maintenance. Actual running costs of MMOs are hard to pin down, but World of Warcraft reportedly cost $200m to maintain in its first four years alone, with that cost mostly absorbed by basic customer service.

The continued development requirement also raises the major issue that all new MMOs will face. When you release an MMO, you are entering the same space as the aforementioned long running World of Warcraft. The danger is to consider this great beast as a nearly decade-old game, but it is more accurately a very new game that was released in 2004 and has been constantly and significantly updated ever since. Unfortunately, the way to succeed as an MMO appears to be to start doing it before anyone else does, which is difficult without the use of a time machine.

When should game servers be retired? *The lifespan of a game server
If you release an MMO, you are going up against a massively and consistently developed dragon.

Compared to multiplayer servers for regular games, which seem to exist in a more binary state of existence, new MMOs appear to go through a more steady lifecycle. Starting with the pre-launch hype speculating on how it will revolutionise the genre with some neat new mechanic, it follows with a launch often peppered with technical issues and punctuated by a failure to deliver on its promises. After this is a period of silence where people tend to forget about the new title until it jumps back into the news with server merges or closures after dwindling player interest. This is now often followed by an announcement of switching to a free-to-play basis if it didn't launch with one in a bid to shake up the game's business model. Sadly, the MMO can sometimes bow out completely once it stops being financially viable, evaporating financial and time-based player investment, which is bound to leave a bitter taste.

Outside of market champion World of Warcraft's 9 million-strong subscriber base, which is incidentally noted as a much reduced figure from its 12 million subscriber heights, MMOs are content with much lower numbers. Even the more successful and long lasting worlds have a shadow of this figure. Iconoclastic space trading MMO Eve Online reports approximately 400,000 subscribers and even the much beloved City Of Heroes only broke 200,000 active monthly users back in its peak in 2005 following the launch of its first expansion.

When should game servers be retired? *The lifespan of a game server
The original superhero MMO only ever had a modest subscriber base, despite being fondly remembered and critically well received.

For all the doom and gloom, high profile MMOs rarely vanish completely and many survive by scaling back their infrastructure. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning proves this scalability when it dropped from 800,000 to 300,000 subscribers in the space of its launch year and responded by cannibalising its servers down to three to survive, avoiding the necessity to switch to a free-to-play model. Some notable titles do however still fail, with Tabula Rasa, remaining a sad memory for many, being as it was released in 2007 and closed in 2009.

Due to the sheer scale of development and the amount that tends to ride on the continuity of an MMO, a dedicated player base can often save it. However, due to the more disposable and short term nature of smaller titles, the same will rarely be true. Once it becomes a numbers game, then a small dedicated player base still can't afford to be too small.

Multiplayer services are expensive to run, even with increasingly sophisticated network infrastructure and technology. Sadly, in the absence of any solid formula for how long they are likely to survive for, at present you just have to hope you're not part of the 1% that really gets hooked on a particular multiplayer experience that the rest of the world is baffled by.

The pattern of server closures and the cycle of failure in larger projects goes some way to reinforce the idea that the games industry is quick, changeable and more than a little fickle at times, but the silver lining to this is of course that there will always be something new and interesting on the horizon, even if that does force us to move on from something we love once in a while.


Discuss in the forums Reply
Phil Rhodes 21st September 2012, 09:10 Quote
I believe there are still Total Annihilation servers out there, fourteen years hence, but of course that relies on the fact that they released the server software.
cjb119 21st September 2012, 09:13 Quote
Fine, but they should release the server code/bins...let others run them.
ya93sin 21st September 2012, 09:21 Quote
Maybe double the time between the release of said game and the next one in the series?
r3loaded 21st September 2012, 09:24 Quote
If they had allowed the community to run their own servers, we wouldn't have this problem. You know, the dedicated server binary that all games came with in the olden days??

Sent from my GT-I9000 using Tapatalk 2
Parge 21st September 2012, 09:33 Quote
Great article David. This is an issue that deserves far more attention than it gets

If they are charging us £10 or whatever, to play online multiplayer in second hand games, I want them to give me £10 back if they turn of the servers of a game I still own.

Seems fair.
bigc90210 21st September 2012, 09:47 Quote
Great article! Interesting read and not something people usually think about when purchasing games. Just goes to show how little respect individually a franchise like PGA Tour get. With them being released year on year, the previous year's one goes "out of date" upon the next annual release. They've (EA) only have themselves to blame for that really, milking franchises like that has its drawbacks for the community too.
Originally Posted by cjb119
Fine, but they should release the server code/bins...let others run them.

This. Half the time (if not more) the community ends up with a better/modded server than the offical ones, so why not eh? Better than sending the game to an immediate grave. Theres proof all over that the community can keep old games alive, so why not let them keep playing the game they love.
Parge 21st September 2012, 10:23 Quote
Originally Posted by cjb119
Fine, but they should release the server code/bins...let others run them.


Because this used to happen there are still active communities playing some amazingly old titles.
Griffter 21st September 2012, 10:53 Quote
until Tiger Woods does something to really upset the sponsors..... hahahahahahahaha
Icy EyeG 21st September 2012, 11:33 Quote
Originally Posted by cjb119
Fine, but they should release the server code/bins...let others run them.

That's the one reason I don't play MMOs. When they start doing it, I'll start playing them. All the MMOs players create communities, populate the forums, develop characters and skills, all that to vanish into thin air when the companies decide to shut everything down. It's disrespectful to all the users that invested time and money on the game, IMO.
Moreover, when I purchase a game, I expect to be able to play it whenever I want, no matter if the game is one year old, or 10.
[PUNK] crompers 21st September 2012, 12:14 Quote
While I understand your sentiment you cant expect a company to keep servers running when its uneconomical to do so, also releasing server code for an MMO is a great idea if you never want anyone to pay for your game ever again (different ball game with FPS ofc).

Personally I would rather a publisher put money into creating new games than keep servers running for games which the vast majority of people stopped playing a long time ago, or in the case of tabula rasa never had many people playing in the first place.
mi1ez 21st September 2012, 13:20 Quote
You know what's required? A distrbuted server system running on gamers' machines. Sure, the system requirements would go up, and there would still need to be some maintenance on the dev side of things, but then the players are the only ones who can truly decide when the servers are switched off and Game Over.

I task someone with creating this sytem.
[PUNK] crompers 21st September 2012, 13:41 Quote
You mean P2P hosting? Welcome to consoleland, enjoy your laggy stay. Or just play MW2.
liratheal 21st September 2012, 14:07 Quote
When they've either been patched to allow P2P for those that want to carry on playing, or patched so the game doesn't need to phone home every eight nanoseconds.

That's when game servers should be retired.
jrr 21st September 2012, 14:45 Quote
When should game servers be retired? When their independent owner operators decide to!
ModSquid 21st September 2012, 14:50 Quote
I absolutely agree with the idea that after ponying up about £40 for a game, which by extension includes the multiplayer functionality, it remains my right to be able to enjoy that functionality whenever I choose in the future.

Things are getting a bit silly when in effect, we're only being allowed to 'rent' the games we pay such high prices for, yet this is not communicated at point of sale.
[PUNK] crompers 21st September 2012, 15:01 Quote
But realistically no company in the world will run a service 10 years after it was released when the user base has dwindled to nearly nothing and they are no longer getting any revenue from the product.

£40 is very little over the course of the timescales we're talking about
schmidtbag 21st September 2012, 15:22 Quote
Originally Posted by Parge
Originally Posted by cjb119
Fine, but they should release the server code/bins...let others run them.


Because this used to happen there are still active communities playing some amazingly old titles.

I also agree with this. I get the impression this problem doesn't apply to PCs as much as consoles, but unless a game only has like 100 players worldwide, how expensive could it be to keep a server for that game running? EA should just invest in 1 hyped up server per continent for all retired games and that ought to be enough, and it shouldn't cost em much.

I feel like some independent company could make a lot of money that hosts servers for retired games that other corporations don't feel like maintaining. They could allow other companies, independent or not, to have their games hosted for $1 per hundred players per month for each platform. This would end up being cheaper for EA, it would open up jobs, and it keeps games running.
Ninja_182 21st September 2012, 16:03 Quote
They can close the servers whenever they like so long as either of the following happens.

- Server code is released as said previously.

-The product is stickered up in stores / advertised as having no multi player anymore and the RRP is cut.
javaman 21st September 2012, 17:24 Quote
TBH there is a certain snobbishness about servers. I would be pissed tho if i bought a game and no longer could play half (or in modern wanks case 99%) of it. Simple solution is to allow local host via a patch or in EA,'s case wise the f up and only release a new game when they update the engine. Next years installment charge a smaller fee for a DLC patch.
The_Beast 21st September 2012, 17:29 Quote
I don't mind when a company like EA holds the right to host servers/make you use a host service. But was does piss me off is when those companies start to drop service, then I think the server files should be released to he public so that we can host our own servers when we want to have "lets play that old ass game for fun/memories" night

Better yet they could just release server files but not update stats if you play on a privately hosted server. (think BF3)
GravitySmacked 21st September 2012, 17:58 Quote
"Modern game production dictates that everything released must have multiplayer functionality" and there lies the problem.

If you're making a single player game for god's sake keep it single player. I HATE all this tacked on MP rubbish..
Anfield 21st September 2012, 21:15 Quote
just allow users ro host their own servers when the official ones shutdown.

p2p multiplayer as suggested by someone should never be used as some isps throw all p2p usave in one hat and call you a filthy pirate complete with throttling and so on.
Harlequin 21st September 2012, 21:28 Quote
Earth and Beyond - EA has no issue with binning an MMO when revenue falls.
Bogomip 22nd September 2012, 00:36 Quote
Make it awesome and moddable and it will survive - warcraft 3 still runs, trackmania nations still runs, and im sure there are many more.

Of course these arent constantly updated and so, like the article suggests are more likely to last longer, but the point stands- make a good game, get good longevity.
mclean007 22nd September 2012, 09:01 Quote
The franchise is, after all, going to receive annual updates as hinted by the game's name until Tiger Woods does something to really upset the sponsors again.
Fixed that for you :D

I accept that when a game becomes obsolete to the point it is no longer economical for the dev to keep servers running, they need to take the business decision to pull the plug, but agree with other commenters that they really should release the server code to the community so enthusiasts can take up hosting duties. Of course they then lose the ability to control the quality of the MP experience, since they can no longer choose the hardware or connection used by servers, but they could implement minimum specs with a line quality test in the server code to try to block it from being run on servers with unacceptable latency issues etc.

Anyway, I think people would accept the risk of a lower quality MP experience if it was a choice between that and no MP experience at all after the game falls below a 1% share.
LedHed 23rd September 2012, 03:29 Quote
Please Google: Motor City Online

It deserves at least a paragraph in this article in response to how EA treats their game servers, even pay to play like MCO.
mystvearn 23rd September 2012, 18:34 Quote
I don't trust EA and it servers. Kill off server multiplayer, make another 2012, 2013, 2014... game so people will have to keep buying the latest game in order to play multiplayer.
LedHed 23rd September 2012, 18:56 Quote
That is if you are lucky enough for EA to release the game you want on your platform, mine being PC.... Madden.... PC Players are still waiting (since 2007) and I really thought the release of Origin would give them a good reason to give us Madden back.
jrs77 25th September 2012, 15:09 Quote
I don't usually play games other then MMOs. The last games I played that wasn't a MMO was GT5 and Borderlands 1 and now I've bought Borderlands 2 aswell.
For those nonMMO-titles I play, I don't need any servers really, as I only play the singleplayer-mode of them. It's something to do in the winterdays, when my MMO-buddies aren't around to play a MMO.

It's a tricky one with gameservers. Most usually they're kept alive aslong as they're profitable and for MMOs with monthly subscriptions that's way easier to achieve over long periods of time. If you only rely on box-sales tho, there'll be a break-even point and after that the studios are actually loosing money, if they keep the servers running.

Some two years of guaranteed server-uptime starting with release would be pretty much acceptable for nonMMOs, as this would match the two year warranty given for products in the EU.
ooey 25th September 2012, 21:56 Quote
As long as there is still a sizable chunk of people playing then they should have an obligation to keep the servers running. Plenty come back to MW2 for their 'fix' and that's a good number of years after it was released (even though MW3 etc. are newer MW" feels better). I wonder if that's why they dont show the number of people playing online on the game selection board anymore??
manowarrior 27th September 2012, 19:13 Quote
The answer is never.

If it is too costly to host servers the code should be released to the community. Many people still play CS now and I'll still be playing in 50 years when I'm an old man, Valve set the gold standard which every other company should aspire to.

We paid for these games so surely should be able to play until death.
jrs77 28th September 2012, 02:35 Quote
Originally Posted by manowarrior
The answer is never.

If it is too costly to host servers the code should be released to the community. Many people still play CS now and I'll still be playing in 50 years when I'm an old man, Valve set the gold standard which every other company should aspire to.

We paid for these games so surely should be able to play until death.

The better solution would be to have microtransactions to keep the servers running forever. If you want to play online: Insert Coin.

These costs could be ridiculously low like $1 or 2 per month and it would actually offer more then running a server yourself, which would cost you way more.
AmEv 28th September 2012, 02:53 Quote
I know there's still a Tiberian Sun server (although I think it's a fan-based server).
Jacob-86 2nd October 2012, 22:25 Quote
Originally Posted by ya93sin
Maybe double the time between the release of said game and the next one in the series?

I agree with this. It seems that publishers like EA are shooting themselves in the foot by releasing new versions of games every year. It is not certain that each new iteration of a game will be better than the last, so why not add a year between games? Then they can keep server numbers high because game users don't have a new version to upgrade to for another calendar year. Personally, I prefer great single player games that take the time to focus on story instead of a MP element, so I've never really gotten caught up in online servers being shut down.
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