04 March 2012

On Classic Games & Multiplayer Servers & Virtualization

Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade recently posted a tidbit along with with their comic talking about how major publishers have been shutting down their multiplayer servers for old games. In it he discusses that the games, though antiquated and not played often, are being shut down but don't (at the surface) appear to require too many resources to run, especially when system specs are compared to today's off-the-shelf offerings. This article came at just the same time that I was trying to set up a virtual machine to host a FPS that I grew up with: Unreal Tournament. Not the new ones, the original. Before (and including) the "Game of the Year Edition."
It seemed to fit: Unreal Tournament, at the time, provided an early Linux version of the game and its server component, and Linux virtual machines require little processing power. With the multitude of virtualization platforms currently available, some of them free, it made perfect sense for me to be able to set one up to play against my younger brother like we had in old times with minimal overhead. And thanks to a host of virtualization features, I could start, stop, move and clone instances of the machine to meet demand efficiently should I want to publish my server to the legions on the Internet.
The article, combined with my own experience setting up virtual machines, made me realize that there were very few reasons why game publishers couldn't just migrate old games to virtual machines and allow the games to survive through time. Granted, there are some very important technical reasons why publishers couldn't move in this direction, but I can't seem to think of a single reason why those technical problems couldn't be overcome with other freely-available software online. For example, many older games used IPX as their networking protocol. This was fine at the time when TCP/IP and the Internet were not widely used, but now is a huge problem as the protocols are completely incompatible with each other. However, there are software packages, like that provided by the Classic Gaming Arena, that allow users to tunnel IPX over TCP/IP, allowing people to continue using older protocols on the Internet, and, by extension, allow them to play their classic games with their friends and other classic multiplayer gaming enthusiasts.
All of this combined has made me consider how difficult it would be to set up a service for classic gamers to have a home where they can continue to play their multiplayer games well after the publishers have shut down official servers. In fact, I've even considered reaching out to the game publishers for a chance to get the server programs themselves for those games that did not provide the server components to consumers to allow them to host their own multiplayer games. I know that there are a lot of legal hurdles that could need to be overcome as well, but I think the idea of continued revenue on continued purchases of older games would be enough of an incentive for publishers - they would have little to lose!

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