The Nature of Online Gaming

By Ben Pekarek
Started 2006
Published Jan, 2010


All online games start their life cycle as commercial products, with typically large markets of consumers willing to purchase and participate in the online experience. For many, network connected gaming is sought out with a strong desire, which stems from a common theme: the need for human social interaction. This need is both a catalyst for initial online activity, and also the cause of its eventual demise.

There are many factors that impact the social stability of online games, and by analyzing these we can form a greater understanding of how to compensate for the problem.

One of the key questions we need to address is: At what point does the convenience of online multiplayer gaming start to deteriorate, and how does that effect the network environment?

Trends in Consumer Culture

Video games typically exist as forms of entertainment. As with most entertainment, people gradually lose interest and need something new to capture their attention. They move on. This in and of itself is a prime factor in the downward slope of activity. So what do they move on to?

One obvious example would be new console hardware. As new platforms hit the market, many will sell off their old game console. Thus severing any ties they once had to the system, making it impossible to engage in the online games they once played so regularly. In some instances this can differ to where users simply box up the console and put it in storage. They do not necessarily want to rid themselves of the console entirely, but are driven to set it aside by the allure of something new and fresh.

While competing products can certainly be enticing, procedural sequels cause a much more immediate shift in overall activity. The community becomes segmented, and players from the previous game will begin a swift migration process to a new sequel. Due to the internet, players will often probe various discussion locations online to look for signs of this shift. If other players are moving, they will follow by selling off the old and buying the new. They are like lemmings headed over a cliff.

As more iterative expansions on the original are released, the uniqueness of the first game becomes attenuated. Instead of one game standing on its own, we now have five similar games comprising a franchise of titles. When released over a long period of time, games can have dramatic differences that temper this problem considerably. However, in most cases, these are yearly releases with little variation in between. This can become problematic when trying to forge gaming communities. The existence of 5 such games of similar design would spread player activity too thin, especially for a smaller community. Choosing 1 title to focus on would be needed to avert this, but convincing the community of your logic can sometimes be an uphill battle.

Server Terminations

Players seem to have an unwavering faith in the stability of online game servers. Most would like to assume they are invulnerable, and companies owe it to the consumer to keep them running. The harsh truth is that every network-connected service will eventually be terminated or restructured. This is an inevitable process, and the possible scenarios for this outcome are numerous:

Large companies tend to disable online games in order to force complacent customers to empty their wallets for a new release. Some shutdown online games every 6-12 months, while others have even been known to announce a termination date on the very day of a game's commercial release. Each of these situations are designed to facilitate further product revenue.

In some instances the cost of running an online service becomes prohibitive. Usually it is not the bandwidth that costs the most money, but the customer support and maintenance required for long-term sustainability. Hardware or software failures can prompt a company to forgo maintenance and simply pull the plug. In some cases, numerous years may have passed, to the point where the technical employees who initially setup the servers are no longer with the company. With no expertise on hand to address the problem, companies are unlikely to hire new staff to fix software that no longer generates income.

Companies may also take servers down to re-allocate resources to another game. For instance, Massively Multiplayer Online games often require continual updates to keep the player base interested. They have persistent virtual worlds, and the architects behind these are game developers who constantly add new content. If the game population has dropped below acceptable numbers, a company may shutdown the game to focus resources on a new project.

Restoration & Preservation

There are cases where an experienced programmer will sacrifice his or her personal time to reverse engineer the software necessary to play once terminated games online. These situations are rare, but they do happen. One must understand that it takes a lot of work and technical expertise to restore a game's network functionality. Remember, coders in this situation are working backwards, using logic and guesswork in an attempt to decipher which network handshakes the game is looking for in order to proceed to the next step. Years of research are sometimes needed to accomplish this.

Two of the most widely used network services include Master Lists and Dedicated Servers.

A Master List merely accepts what are known as heartbeats, to provide a real-time list of active servers, where individual users end up handling the bulk of in-game bandwidth by acting as a session host. It serves as a meeting point for players to publicly advertise their hosted games. Practically every online game uses this type of technology. Master Lists can be rather simple in design and thus are often less difficult to reverse engineer.

On the other hand, Dedicated Servers for hosting games are very complex, because you are coding not just a central meeting point, but software that dictates and manages game play itself. Dedicated Server software is designed to function as an "always on" hosted game session. They are frequently run via a dedicated machine, at a data center, with a static IP Address. While most online games do allow for hosting at the client level, some games restrict such capabilities; forcing players to join dedicated servers managed by the company.

Both situations require detailed network packet logs to even begin the reverse engineering process. Without a starting point, programmers are coding blind with little or no direction. So if the network packets were not recorded for a given online game, the chances of server software being re-coded are remote at best.

To complicate things further, games can be dependent upon a vast array of other services such as user login account systems, encrypted authentication, databases, and chat room capabilities that must be developed before even getting to processes that would facilitate game play.

Another method for preserving the online experience is by acquiring software directly from the source. Usually this involves an employee leaking the software to the public, or a permitted release by the developer. These situations are incredibly rare, and usually only occur when a company closes down. In most instances, companies keep this software in storage for a future re-release. If the product has perceived financial value, then they are not going to freely distribute it to mere fans of the game.

In fact, companies may not even understand the relevance of preserving such software in the first place. This material can be lost, forgotten about, or thrown in the garbage. When a parent company hires a third party developer, they will often require the removal of all data from version control servers upon project completion. Which means all game code pertaining to online functionality can be eradicated in the process if a backup was not sent to the parent company.

Securing Independent Control

The best you can do to safeguard against a game going offline is to ensure the game you are involved with has one of two different alternate networking options: Direct IP Connection support or LAN (Local Area Network) support.

The Direct IP Connection capabilities often found in older PC games allow you to access either an in-game menu option or the command console to directly connect the game to another persons computer. Any viewable master list interface is bypassed with this option. The player is typically thrust right into an already hosted game. Though in some cases the master list interface is displayed, and a manual option exists to "add" a user's IP address to the list, where it then queries and verifies whether the server is reachable.

LAN support enables one to network with platforms on the same Local Area Network. In most cases, the same Master List environment you would reach online exists here in local form. Instead of taking queries from public computers abroad, it is a simplified system designed to scan for and list hosted servers on a local network.

While initially restricted to local play, this data can be routed online using LAN Tunneling. A method of using interim software as a means of faking each console into thinking they are on the same LAN. All that would be needed is a method to bridge the data from one location to the next. At the most basic level, one can setup a VPN for this. However, on a broader scale where one is playing with many individuals, it is best to develop middleware to handle such a task. This does involve coding new software, but it is far less intimidating than having to reverse engineer a master list or dedicated game server.

User Participation in the Online Experience

The Master List in any given online game tends to become very active during its initial release. However after a few weeks, the player base plateaus, and after a few months, begins a downward spiral toward its eventual bottoming out. The key hurdle, from a user perspective, is how one can sustain the interactive environment in the face of such a barren landscape.

One of the most interesting aspects is how the volume of activity can affect a player's willingness to participate. Many want to reach the master list and see hundreds, if not thousands of human participants. This statistical value alone gives them a sense of feeling "connected". The more players online, the more they feel "good" about interacting with the software. There are a plethora of other psychological analyses one could make about how players interact during actual game play. Though, here I am focusing specifically on factors which influence a player's willingness to continue making a connection to an online service.

In the world of online games there are leaders, and there are participants. Leaders are those who will reach the master list and immediately host a game session for others to join. Leaders belong to a small segment of the population, with "participants" comprising the vast majority. Passive in their interactions, participants often want and frequently require activity to be awaiting them as they reach the Master List. They want it on a silver platter. So much so that the entire concept of hosting a server rarely, if ever, enters their mind.

Imagine a game whose activity cycle has reached its low point. 10 players sign online to play. Except all of these players are participants. They are not leaders. All 10 players reach the master list, see that nobody is online, and then leave, powering down their game consoles. This all happens when at any given point most of them are all viewing the list at the same time. If only 1 person would step forward to host a game session, the remaining 9 would join.

Finally, a seemingly obvious but often ignored factor is whether the game console is still connected at all. When the average person comes home from class, or a job, they will be less willing to participate online if their console setup is in disarray. Ensuring the game console is actively connected to a display, properly configuring the network for both joining and hosting game sessions, as well as keeping track of software and data files, is critical for routine online play.

Perception Shift: Changing how you play

Originally, when a game was at its peak of activity, most encounters were with random anonymous players. The participants at the time really only served to fill in the player capacity and provide smarter opponents than the in-game artificial intelligence would allow. While you were interacting with other human beings, it was done on a rather superficial level. This new situation however forces users to forge much more direct and meaningful relationships with other players. You may discover playing with 4 like minded network gaming enthusiasts can be much more rewarding than playing with 16 anonymous individuals.

To maintain long-term involvement, well after a game has died out in the limelight of mainstream attention, we need to completely change how we approach the gaming experience. All passive participants now need to shift into the role of leaders, by using various forms of Internet communication such as message boards, chat rooms, and voice to help organize online matches.

This becomes complicated when trying to formulate consistency in numbers. Not only do you yourself need to be motivated to become more hands on with organizing game sessions, but you now also have to pass this methodology off to other players.

One of the most difficult situations one will encounter during this process is when every effort to schedule an online game is made and nobody shows up to play. This will happen on many occasions, but if you really want to play a specific game online with others, you have to be persistent. If you coordinate properly, you will eventually find people to play with and it will pay off.

Closing Comments

While the function of online connectivity in games may be comprised of fleeting moments for some, it can hold much greater meaning for others. Not only are games capable of holding artistic and engaging value, but also the people we encounter through such environments and the means with which we interact with them can imprint an indelible impression on us.

Continuing to stay involved with an individual online game is challenging. With the termination of server software, and inevitable erosion of a game's player population, finding ways to preserve and continue the gaming experience is wrought with roadblocks to overcome. Though if approached in a new way, with long-term consistent activity and preservation in mind, it is possible to sustain interest far longer than the mass market model would allow for.

© Ben Pekarek 2010, All Rights Reserved