We know that GameServers.com has exclusive rights to host servers for the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops, and last week Kotaku AU exclusively reported that GameServers' Australian operation would be handled by Internode. We talked with GameServers and local server admins to find out what the deal really means for Black Ops in Australia.
It's not the first time a developer has kept their server files from the public by only authorising trusted server providers - but it is the first time only one provider has been authorised. There are no guarantees on the prices of GameServers' middle-man monopoly, but more concerning for us is how they could handle global demand on one of the biggest launches of this year.
"Prior to forming our partnership with Internode and games.on.net, we did have plans to expand our locations beyond Sydney," says Anthony Quon, Head Admin at GameServers. "However, given Internode's huge network presence in the region and with games.on.net's dedication to the gamers of Australia, forming this relationship was much more in line with our goals for Black Ops."
GameServers has been setting up new locations, with France and Spain recently announced. But a global launch needs more than partially global server coverage, or some areas might experience unwanted traffic from regions less fortunate.
"We are taking all requests very seriously for expansion," says Quon. "However, there are a great number of variables that come into play when expanding into new regions and every region is very different in how they approach gaming. If there are local ISPs in Southeast Asia that have a focus on gaming and Black Ops for the region, I would be more than happy to brainstorm potential ideas."
There's still plenty of time before Black Ops launches, but without a specific southeast Asian solution our Australian servers could be targeted as their de facto home, causing some local slowdown in the process.
Locally, the games.on.net effect has been instant. A yellow ping to GameServers' only Sydney data centre has been replaced by a green one to both Sydney and Adelaide.
Matthew Lyons, a Head Admin over at Internode, shed some light on how the deal will work:
"We have exclusive hosting rights, not renting rights. We'll basically be setting up hardware for GameServers, who will then add in their software. We'll be able to rent our own servers for free, as part of the deal, but other providers or individuals will go through GameServers if they want their own server, and that will then be on our infrastructure."
Starting off, Black Ops servers will be hosted in Sydney and Adelaide, though if the demand is there, Internode has space for additional servers in Sydney and Brisbane. So is it fair to say your current experience with Internode servers is what you can expect in Black Ops?
"Different games calculate ping times differently," says Lyons. "But the Black Ops engine will calculate it similarly to Modern Warfare, so your ping should be around the same as what you get to Internode servers in that game."
Some would call the "trusted server provider" trend a troubling one, but even they'd have to agree it's not nearly as troubling as Modern Warfare 2's matchmaking system, especially for us.
Tweets from Treyarch developers "PCDev", in response to a PC enquiry, have suggested it's possible for the host server to be on LAN.
Yet technically, we don't see how this is possible. Neither does Matthew Lyons:
"All servers need to be approved by GameServers, so I can't imagine how that'd work, unless they're lugging hardware out to a LAN."
And the chances of that happening down under? Not likely.
With no LAN play, Black Ops will lack competitive credibility. And instead of admins having access to server files, they'll use Treyarch's control panel, capable of changing minor settings like perks, amount of players, etc.
FPS communities are built around servers, sites and forums, and the less control an admin has over a server, the harder it is to shape a unique community.
Jeremy "Asterix" Klaosen is a co-founder of CyberGamer, now Australia's biggest competitive gaming website, with strong roots in the Call of Duty series. Their automated ladders make it possible for clans to challenge each other and play a match without micromanagement from the site's volunteer admins. With the limited control panel that will come with a GameServers server, will such a system be possible?
"Yep, that should be fine actually. All we really need for that is a server, and I don't mind buying servers from Internode, they're pretty good," says Asterix. "The bigger concern is the game's modability.
"Call of Duty games don't have by default good design for competitive play, so they'll need to be modded. Stuff like grenade launchers and certain perks aren't good for competitive games, so you'll need the ability to tweak. Usually you can't disable much without a mod."
While mods are what's needed to save competitive play, Treyarch have no qualms about taking ideas from mods to bolster their public game modes, as evidenced by the inclusion of GunGame. So is Asterix confident they'll give back and allow a competitive mod?
"I've basically just learned to wait and see. You never know with these guys.
"If they get it right, the community is split across four games at the moment so there could be a big uptake of Black Ops."
It's also hard to see, financially, why two effective middle-men are necessary between Treyarch and the Australian public. But as the industry continues to find a business model that supports core competitive gaming, could Activision have found the answer in making extra money from server providers, rather than customers?
"I assume Gameservers are paying Activision for the monopoly on the servers." says Asterix. "Maybe partly they want to limit dodgy servers, or they think this'll be easier for them to release a server patch. But that's not a big problem, really."
The line from Treyarch thus far has been that a trusted server provider will cut down on cheating. But that's a job VAC does well enough. Other, more understandable benefits of such a deal would be cutting down on PC piracy, additional revenues from server providers, and maintaining control over the game experience.
Still, barring a torrent of interest from Southeast Asia, and as long as you don't plan to LAN, it looks like we Aussies will enjoy good, low latency Black Ops public play, and competitive ladders won't be effected. It could be better - but as we've seen with Infinity Ward, it could be a lot worse.