First, what are game server providers and GSPs, and why do I need one? If, like me, you love playing games with your other online gaming buddies, you generally play together online. You and your team need a playground that will provide the online space for you, too. How and where does all that information get processed? There are two main methods.
The first is peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer is a well-established protocol for information sharing between willing computers. In the case of online computer games, one computer acts as the host (master computer if you like), and all other players’ computers send their information to the master. This gives the player hosting the game a slight advantage in response time or lower ping. Of course, once that player leaves the game, the server no longer exists as it was dependent on his connection; historically, this has been referred to as a ‘listen server.’
Dedicated Servers. Some game companies like Activision and EA provide online “official” or “ranked” dedicated servers with their machines in their own data center, hosting official servers that they control and administer. Console games generally also have their dedicated servers provided by the developers or peer-to-peer solutions in some cases, as with Modern Warfare 2 and 3. However, some servers are provided by individuals who like personal control over setting up their game server. These come in two options. Either the individual has a rented or owned machine and hosts the game server themselves. The second option is to rent a dedicated game server from a large list of GSPs (game server providers) who, for a small monthly charge, can host your server for you 24 hours a day and have web-based graphic user interfaces to start, stop, reinstall, edit configuration files, set up scheduled restarts, install mods and much more. This is the most common choice as it is both cost effective and much easier to get started. Only basic knowledge is needed to host a server this way. That is why the GSP industry has grown to a 5 million dollar-a-year.
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What are online servers?
A server is a machine running in a data center (DC) with a high bandwidth connection to the internet and a redundant power supply to keep things online 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. This allows many players to connect to one place to play together. GSPs host their game servers on machines in a data center.
What is ping?
Ping is just an ICMP command that checks the time it takes for a packet of information to travel from one computer to another and back again. Ping is measured in ms or milliseconds, thousandths of a second. A game server hosted within 300 miles of your physical location should provide you with a good latency to your game server.
Full Dedicated Server
I have heard of dedicated servers. What are these?
You can rent a full dedicated server; this gives you root access to a Windows Server machine via a Remote Desktop Connection. This is for advanced users, as setting up a game server using Steam CD and configuring the firewall can be time-consuming, but this is the only option for large communities and clans. Full control over your game servers and root access to all files, something you will never get with shared game server hosting. It comes with a cost around the $100 per month mark, so get those donations flowing to pay for the hardware.
Renting through a GSP (game server provider) is the most common and the best bang for your buck way to run a game server. You choose a provider from the many 100s out there; choosing which provider to go with can be daunting. Here are the main points to consider.
· Price. Well, the price is king in most cases, and many gamers would have looked for the cheapest company in the top ten of Google and gone with them without even thinking about it. However, choosing the lowest price is a haphazard way to determine any service, whether a plumber, an electrician, or, in this case, a game server. You can choose the cheapest and take a punt, go for the most expensive and hope that translates into quality service, or if you’re like me, go for the middle ground, not too cheap and expensive. I use this practice when choosing everything, from toasters to hotel rooms. But the price isn’t the only factor to consider.
· Reputation. Reputation is powerful in any decision on which service provider to use. There are game server companies that seem to have been around since the dawn of the internet age, and there are new unknown companies that have only formed in the past years. The older companies have seen it all before and may get caught not putting effort into the control panel functionality that modern games and gamers demand. New, vibrant young companies can be enthusiastic and energetic in approaching new game releases and support. Still, they can also make mistakes and lack experience in challenging support matters. The complicated nature of the more recent indie games and Steam early access games make it very difficult to get a smooth-running game server, so I would opt for the middle ground again, a company that’s not too long in the tooth but also old enough to have an experience where it matters.
What else does a GSP offer, then?
There are also some other factors to consider when selecting a GSP:
· Control Panel Interface. This is a Graphic User Interface (GUI) from which you control your game server. Here, you can launch the game, change the rules, add server passwords, add bans, allow, and add administrators and mods. This should be fast and easy to use. The industry standard is TCAdmin 2, but many providers have custom-created control panels to reduce costs, as TCAdmin can be pricey for enterprise companies.
· Support staff experience. The support staff has the expertise to set up the game to make it easier, as many games nowadays have complicated setup procedures. A good GSP will have a configuration editor already configured in the GSP control panel, so you do not need to research all the information to edit the file yourself. The key is the better the staff, the fewer problems will go wrong with your server once you have it.
· Mod installers. Some GSPs have mod installers where you can, in one or two clicks, completely install a mod to a game with all the required files without uploading via FTP. Again, this is a setup your GSP would/should have made themselves.
· 24 Hour support. I play games into the morning, and business hours support is no good to me. I want 24-hour support, and I want someone to get back to me quickly so I can get on with my gaming. I don’t get much free time, and I don’t want it wasted on staring at a broken server, even if I break it myself.
· Instant Setup. Most GSPs should have instant setup; in my experience, this is not instant, the instant start of the design, not quite instant setup; the files need to be downloaded, and some of these new games can be 20GB more.