Infinity Ward’s hotly anticipated sequel Modern Warfare 2 goes on sale today amid some degree of protest from the PC gaming community. In mid-October, Robert Bowling, Infinity Ward’s community manager, revealed that multiplayer in MW2 would be handled by IW.net, Infinity Ward’s own matchmaking service, and not on dedicated servers that would be hosted and managed by players. For Infinity Ward, this gives them greater control over online play and will potentially boost stability. For PC gamers, this move fundamentally restructures online multiplayer. From Owen Good’s report at Kotaku:
Here’s the score: by building up its own matchmaking service riding shotgun with Steam, “you can get in and play with players your same rank,” Bowling said. However, “You’re completely reliant on IWNet and there is no dedicated server or server list. You rely on IW Net for matchmaking and your games, but you still have your private matches.”
The level of control over those matches allows players to set a wide array of parameters and rules for the game. But community features such as clans, and the high level of customization available in hosting a modded game or custom map on one’s own dedicated server, face an uncertain future, if not their end outright.
In short, Infinity Ward has rested control from gamers and struck a blow to user created-content and the modding community. Forum folks seem pretty upset and there has been some talk of boycotting the game, however, that kind of protest in gaming circles usually doesn’t gets to far.
The larger issue, from a game studies perspective, is what this represents for what Henry Jenkins has called “convergence culture.” This is the basic idea that digital media often come in broad ecologies that include custom modifications and re-presentations of the intellectual property by a dedicated fanbase. These ecologies are, thus, woven from a convergence of corporate, media, and user adoptings of the media. User-generated content has a LONG history in gaming in particular. Counter-strike, for example, the game which arguable was the forerunner of something like Modern Warfare 2, originated as a mod of Half-Life. Recently, game developers have sought to harness input from their players; the very successful LittleBigPlanet, for example, was basically a tool-kit for making and sharing level designs.
What this move by Infinity Ward demonstrates, perhaps, is that convergence culture is still meeting with resistance. While I don’t believe Infinity Ward is necessarily trying to protect their IP from modders, there is at least some level of distrust here. What is at stake is control over the play experience and for now, it seems, Infinity Ward believes it should own that.