Industry Voices: There is an alternative to shutting down classic online games like Unreal Tournament

by Mathieu Duperre, CEO and founder of Edgegap

At the start of the year Epic Games pulled online services for over 20 of its games, ending an era of shooting holes in your friends across the Unreal Tournament franchise or shredding plastic guitar controllers in Rock Band’s online modes. Epic’s explanation for removing online support for these games is due to these games having ‘out-of-date online services and servers’.

Of course, it’s not unusual for studios and publishers to remove online features from titles once they reach a certain age and their player base drops. Ubisoft decommissioned its online services for a massive library of titles last October, including the unique competitive multiplayer mode from early Assassin’s Creed titles which saw players hunting and killing assigned targets while simultaneously evading pursuers.

Saddened fans from the Assassin’s Creed subreddit arranged ‘Farewell Sessions’ to give the games one last hurrah. One user, Lothronion, said: “I feel as if I lost an old friend. I have not played for two years, had so much to do. But it pains me that I will never be able to play it again! It is one thing knowing it is there, and another it ceasing to exist.”

Games based on other popular IP have been affected, with fans of anime like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto brawling their last online fight in Bandai Namco’s Jump Force when servers shut down last August, just three years after its release. That said, at least fans of those games received plenty of notice so they could sink in some extra hours before the shutdown. Unlike the case of Warhammer 40,000: Regicide, which had its seven-year lifespan suddenly end when it was shut down and delisted from Steam and mobile storefronts last October without warning.

All of these reactions from the gaming community show the amount of love for these old franchises, but we’re yet to see anything surpass the reaction from fans following Microsoft’s announcement to shut down servers for the original Xbox in 2010. A small group of Halo 2 fanatics were so determined to keep the game alive that they played it for weeks on end to delay the shutdown, highlighting the extreme lengths that some players will go through to keep their favourite games online.

So, after pouring hundreds upon thousands of hours into creating these games, why are so many publishers and developers taking their games offline? Especially if there are still audiences for these games out there?

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

In short, it all has to do with the costs of maintaining the server infrastructure and the human resources needed to keep these games online. Older games may only have a small player base, but they still require an infrastructure to run their limited number of game servers. Then the game might also require other game services such as a matchmaker and several hours of attention a week from an engineer to keep things running smoothly and securely.

For an average older game, that means a studio is probably looking at around $20,000 to $100,000 per year to keep a game with a small user base alive, which often isn’t profitable when most players have moved on to newer titles. An alternative would be to move the hosting of these old video games over to an automated infrastructure deployment solution, such as the Edgegap platform, which is ideal for titles with a small player base as they work on demand. That means if there are no players around then no servers will be active, with studios only being charged for what they use.

This allows for much more flexibility than a typical cloud infrastructure, which often relies on a fleet manager with costly unused capacity due to the servers standing waiting for players to connect and start their games.

An automated infrastructure solution can also grow and scale based on the influx of traffic. This is ideal for older games, as many players may return to these in certain situations, such as following a sequel announcement. That’s great news for game studios, as it keeps their new game in the player’s minds and reminds them how much fun they had, which makes them more likely to purchase (or pre-purchase) the next title. While many game studios might be tempted to use a reserved infrastructure with a small footprint to reduce costs, the minute something happens, such as a sequel announcement or even a popular streamer playing an old game out of nostalgia, problems will start brewing. This infrastructure could be crushed by the amount of traffic and leave a lasting negative impression on the affected players.

Further complicating the situation is that many old games require extra pampering, as they were designed in a time when tools for infrastructure automation, such as containerization, didn’t exist. Game studios will need to spend resources upgrading their older games to work with newer technology so deployments can be automated. Once that initial work is complete – and it can be quite fast these days with all the tools now available for developers – it will be possible to remove tasks from the employees required to manage them, so that they can focus on new projects.

That said, older games are also generally more susceptible to security issues, meaning it’s usually easier for players to cheat in them. However, because the user base is typically smaller, they also attract fewer cheaters. The same could be said of DDoS, although this does still happen as demonstrated by Sony’s shutdown of several old LittleBigPlanet games in 2021. Running servers on a highly distributed edge infrastructure makes it much more flexible in terms of mitigating these attacks.

Players may even experience a higher quality of service as edge computing deploys game servers as close to users as possible to reduce latency. The transition is also relatively seamless and can take a few minutes to a couple of hours once the game has a Linux-based server.

One thing to not forget is that some tests need to happen to make sure the experience is similar. For example, some old games can be single-thread, meaning they can only use one CPU on the game server, even if eight cores are available. If they were previously running on a higher clock rate CPU, and you bring them to a lower clock-rate CPU, the experience might be affected.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Some games including Minecraft and Counter-Strike have tried to get around the issue by putting the control into the hands of players by letting them run (and pay) for their own servers, known as ‘community servers’, to lengthen the game’s lifespan. In the case of older games such as Unreal Tournament 2004, community servers can only be created if the server binary is available, which Epic would have to release to allow this to happen.

However, most developers are hesitant to allow this as it takes away their control and involves openly sharing part of their game’s code – enabling players to decompile information, look behind the curtain and possibly increase the likelihood of cheating.

While that might be a solution for some, other game developers are looking at alternative solutions. Edgegap is being approached weekly by an increasing number of AA and AAA studios looking to keep their older games active and avoid the negative publicity that often occurs once the media picks up news of the shutdown. This has us feeling hopeful that the number of older online games shut down will reduce in the future, with beloved titles preserved so gamers can enjoy them for generations to come.

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