A casualty in Mod Warfare

If you’ve been online at all or dropped by a LAN café in the last week or two you’ll have probably heard the news that Infinity Ward – the core developer behind the Call of Duty series – is introducing a proprietary matchmaking service for the PC version of Modern Warfare 2, “IWNET”. Players will no longer be given the choice of the server they wish to play on; instead, the service will match players up with one another based on factors such as ideal ping, location and skill levels. Private sessions will still be available, but custom content is out. The controversial decision was revealed during a community webcast over at BASHandSlash.com, and the resulting discussion has since made waves through blogs and Facebook streams across the globe, even bringing down Twitter at one point. The petition for those against the decision is sitting at 162,000 signatures and counting.

There are vocal opinions and valid points to be found on each side of the argument. FourZeroTwo, Creative Strategist at Infinity Ward and direct voice to the community, claims that the change is in the interest of the majority; that PC gaming is naturally shifting towards casual-friendly matchmaking systems and Infinity Ward is adapting. I can’t argue against making any system user-friendly, but I have to question how much difficulty the average PC gamer – an individual who has probably built their own gaming rig from scratch – has navigating through a list of servers. The ideas is that with IWNET, players will be effortlessly matched up with players of similar skill levels, in a manner not-unlike Xbox-Live. There are certainly benefits to streamlining the experience, but must it come at the cost of the inherent flexibility of the PC platform?

Gamers say no to IWNET
PC gamers say "NO" to IWNET

The reaction from the existing Modern Warfare PC community has been understandably bitter. The recent decision taken by Activision to increase the RRP of the game by a  cheeky £10 was not met warmly, but gamers begrudgingly accepted it for the sake of what is expected to be an amazing gaming experience. IWNET seems to be a step too far. With only partial control of private matches, gaming clans both casual and pro may run into ping problems because of the new matchmaking service, with professional gaming clans in particular fond of persistent dedicated servers; some are concerned that the matchmaking service won’t match players as well as human moderators, citing cases where Xbox Live has matched up players in different continents with high pings. The rule play-lists feature of IWNET does seem tailored towards clan matches, but whether it can really substitute a dedicated server remains to be seen.

Modern Warfare 2 is perhaps the most hyped release of the year. But will this decision put a dent in sales?
Modern Warfare 2 is perhaps the most hyped release of the year. But will the removal of dedicated servers and custom content really put a dent in sales of the PC version?

The above points will be debated furiously until the game is released on the 10th of November, but I feel that there are two specific issues FourZeroTwo has neglected to mention regarding IWNET: piracy and downloadable content. Let’s not beat around the bush, here – piracy is a serious concern on the PC in particular, with tech-savvy PC gamers able to play the latest games for free with just a little bit of time and effort. By securing Modern Warfare 2 with a Battle.net-style authentication system, Infinity Ward is guaranteeing that anybody who wants to play the game online with more than a minority of players better have paid for a legal copy.

And with the system closed, these users can expect to continue paying for the game well after release. In an age where paid DLC is the standard on every other major online platform, I doubt it would be entirely unrealistic of me to suggest that Activision would want the same from PC players. After all, they control the online experience. With no free alternatives available from the community, what’s to stop them? FourZeroTwo comments that the removal of custom content is to deter potential hackers from abusing multiplayer, with the VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) system integrated into the game as standard along with IWNET. However, other games have packed in VAC without losing mod support, so I’m not sure this is entirely valid reasoning.

This may look primitive now, but this mod is pushing the limits of an engine from 1997.
It may look primitive now, but Jedi Knight mod Saber Battle X pushed an engine from 1997 to its limits in both graphics and gameplay

This, I feel, is the biggest loss for PC gamers. With FPS controls improving on consoles and the Xbox 360 often acting as a core development platform for new titles, one of the best reasons to seek out the PC version of a game is modified content. Being able to extend the play-time of a favourite game with new maps or introduce a completely new way to play with mods adds an incredible value incentive that can rarely be matched elsewhere.  Not only that, new content development keeps the PC community together and coming back for more long after the core game has worn-out its welcome. Some of my fondest memories of PC gaming come from time spent with mods that pushed the boundaries of their respective development engines, such as Jedi Knight’s Saber Battle X or Half Life’s Sven Co-op. Can the contributions of such talented artists and coders in bringing new life to any game really be overestimated?

The answer, sadly, is that Activision probably already knows the value of the current community. Although accurate sources are hard to obtain, estimations peg the PC version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare as selling only 10-20% of the platform spread for the game. As a controlling party in the development of Modern Warfare 2, Activision will logically want to make as much money as possible out of their PC development time – and if that means locking-down the game to ensure legit play and DLC purchases, so be it. Traditional PC gamers, I fear, have become a casualty of a war that has outgrown them. But I hope I’m wrong.






4 responses to “A casualty in Mod Warfare”

  1. James avatar

    This issue really grabbed grabbed my attention. I’ve never been a PC gamer, but I am about to take delivery of a rig that will be able to cope with the latest wave of titles. I have a friend who is a Diablo II obsessive, and the modding communities that surround games like these, coupled with the opportunities and restrictions of dedicated servers like Battle.net, are kinda fascinating.

    I have no vested interest myself, but I can see the outrage here. Part of the whole PC-gamer thing seems to be the modding and server access; basically, increased user control. I’ve always seen it as an added incentive for enduring the rigmarole of getting the games to run in the first place. Activision have imposed their console MP model on the PC world, and if I was used to dedicated servers, community moderated tournaments and guaranteed lag-free match, I think I would be pissed too. Seems that PC gamers are losing some of the benefits inherent to their chosen platform. I sympathise.

    Great article Scott. 🙂

  2. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    I’ve never been much for PC gaming, preferring the simplier method of placing a disc into the console and picking up the control pad. Having said that, I did find the article informative. I’ve heard bits and pieces about different things, but as I am mostly a single player with my games, I hadn’t really taken much notice.

    I’ve missed out of reading some of the blogs recently, and this one stood out. Impressive writing Scott.

  3. MrCuddleswick avatar

    I very much enjoyed reading this, and I agree that it’s an impressive piece of writing.

    I wonder if this is an indication of a new trend or not. It may be a failure of sorts and so we won’t see other big titles taking the same approach next year.

    Taking cheats out of the equation is almost enough to make up for losing mods in my book.

    You’ve also reminded me of Jedi Knight 2’s brilliant mods.

  4. Scott avatar

    Thank you for the kind comments everyone. 🙂

    It’s a really complicated issue, so I wanted to make sure I represented all sides of the argument fairly. However, at the same time, I strongly feel that this is a big loss for PC gamers and have concerns over the future of custom content on the platform. I felt this needed to be addressed.

    Oh, and a shout-out to team-member Walter, who wanted to write something about this but let me have the topic instead!

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