Multiplayer gaming is everywhere these days. Even before online servers, back to the first dial-up connections on games like Doom and the original Command & Conquer, players have loved pitting their skills against friends and strangers alike. In the infancy of multiplayer gaming, technical issues were almost accepted as the norm. It was just as much of an achievement to simply connect to an opponent as it was to actually defeat them. Things have (thankfully) moved on… for the most part. But titles like For Honor serve as a reminder that stable matchmaking and connections shouldn’t be taken for granted.
While many of today’s modern titles boast an impressive array of online features, modes, and community inspired content, there are some games that still provide consistent let downs when trying to play via the internet. To be fair, not every game needs rock-solid online support. Games in which you can just while away the hours pitting your brain against an AI driven opponent, by definition, have less of a need for a complete and reliable online side to the action. However, in games where the prime challenge is facing off against another human being, the need for a near foolproof system is paramount. It is in those titles, where a bad server can ruin a good game, thus wasting the countless hours of work the developers have put in to creating their masterpiece.
There are a number of ways to host online play, but it mostly boils down to two options. First, developers can use dedicated servers, which is a machine set up solely to host online play, usually from a third party who charges a small fee for the use of their server. Or, to avoid the cost, developers can employ a Peer-to-Peer system. The P2P server system uses one of the players machines as the host for that particular match, and can avoid the danger of servers catastrophically crashing due to high traffic. There is also a third method which employs aspects of both system, but still requires a dedicated server along the line somewhere.
Games where multiplayer is absolutely key to creating a successful title are varied, but generally take the form of the action genre. Be it sports, racing, fighting or shooters, the inclusion of a solid multiplayer option can make or break a title. It could be fair to assume that it is the multiplayer function itself that a majority of players are actually purchasing a game for. On the first Saturday after Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare released, there was over 20,000 players online at peak time on Steam alone. Activision knows that the online side of their biggest selling franchise is what ships the most copies of the game. They employ a hybrid system which includes dedicated servers, thus making server problems with Call of Duty rare. In a similar case, the Battlefield series generally puts dedicated servers to good use as well. There are times when this more reliable system of architecture can be left wanting, especially at high traffic periods, such as when the Battlefield 4 servers were overwhelmed at the game’s launch and led to many disgruntled customers. But on the whole, EA boasts a good reputation for online play.
In the shooter and action genre though, there are failures. Ubisoft has a notoriously bad reputation with its online experience, and this is down to a continued reliance on Peer 2 Peer servers. If the host disconnects, the whole match is aborted. Matchmaking can be painfully slow, and problems of lag persist if just one player holds a bad connection. Problems have plagued their games, such as The Division and Rainbow Six Siege, in the past, and it’s not hard to see players were hoping for something more from the company’s latest offering, For Honor.
The much-hyped and impressive looking hack-and-slash action game released last week across all major platforms, but has seen the same problems from the P2P system Ubisoft insists on. While Ubisoft has included a pretty and absorbing single player campaign in For Honor, the action-based style of game is custom built for the challenge of crossing swords with a human opponent. Sadly, users on Twitter have described the multiplayer functionality as “horrible” and “garbage,” with players complaining since launch that they want a refund on the full-priced title. The complaints seem to have been falling on deaf ears however, with no official statement from Ubisoft over the state of their servers. In the past, when it came to issues on Rainbow Six Siege, their policy was to placate players with free 7 day boosters. This may have been some form of compensation, but as one Reddit user pointed out, “With all the server outages a 7 day booster is currently equivalent to a 24hr booster anyway.”
— William Wilson (@Willy_Mammoth18) February 16, 2017
Social media has been full of anger with Ubisoft over their latest failure to produce a stable online environment. And For Honor runs the risk of being a title that boasts a great concept, superb graphics and enjoyable gameplay, but is ultimately ruined by a narrow-minded view of its appeal. Multiplayer sits as the first option on the game’s home screen and is the main focus of the game. But still the problems persist.
When asked by PCgamesN about their use of Peer 2 Peer servers before For Honor’s release, Ubisoft’s response was, “the way we designed our peer-to-peer online architecture will allow us to provide a smooth and reliable online experience to all players when the game launches.” The developers clearly feared for server overload in the high-traffic period following launch. The closed and open beta’s were not the biggest of successes, as many players voiced concern over the reliability of the matchmaking and playability then. Ubisoft felt they had cracked those problems in time for launch, and had trust in their server design. The initial player experience just hasn’t measured up however, and a bad first impression is sometimes all it can take to turn potential fans away.
So what can developers like Ubisoft do to fix these flaws? It would be easy to suggest moving away from Peer-to-Peer servers in favor of the generally more reliable dedicated server system. This would cause a problem for smaller or indie labels, in terms of the cost of hiring such a service, so for those developers a P2P system does have advantages. Perhaps while in early access development, games producers could look at the performance of both server systems, or even a mix, such as with Call of Duty. Holding more beta testing events would also provide valuable information on server stability and performance. If the game isn’t coming up to scratch for the players, then their feedback needs to be listened to, and not just placated, or plain ignored, as it seems Ubisoft have done with For Honor and previous titles. If multiplayer is the key to making a game a commercial success, then the fundamental issue of whether or not players can actually play the game as intended should be among the developers top priorities.
Designing and developing a successful title takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention a fair bit of money. In the fast-paced and often fickle world of video games consumerism, initial success is never guaranteed. The least a developer can do, if they are creating a game in a genre that demands online play, is to ensure that by the time the game hits shelves, users will not spend more time waiting in a lobby than actually playing the game. If that is the case, then no matter how stunning the artwork, level design, or character animation is, eventually players are just going to go somewhere else.