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The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles


The Problem with Minecraft ‘Servers’ on Consoles

Minecraft, which started from humble indie beginnings as an alpha build in 2009, exploded into a gaming juggernaut by the time its full version was released in 2011. The commercial success of Minecraft not only proved indie titles could become wildly profitable, it also ushered in the concept of players paying for “early access” as a viable funding stream for up-and-coming developers. Originally a PC-only game, Minecraft has now found a home on Xbox 360, PS3, iOS and Android platforms, and is a highly anticipated entry on next-gen consoles as well. While PC is the most popular version presently with 100 million registered users, during a reveal of the Minecraft: Xbox One Edition during last year’s E3, Microsoft flaunted the Xbox 360 version has recorded 1 billion hours played, 130 million worlds created, and more than 6 million Xbox gamers hailing from 66 countries.

Even though Minecraft is now a well established multi-platform game, not all versions are created equal in terms of features. Not surprisingly, PC is the most open version, with full mod support, texture packs, skins and most importantly server hosting. While 4J, the development team behind the console versions of Minecraft have created their own skins and texture packs that console players can download for a price, mod support and servers are not currently available. Even without server support though, many of those 6 million Xbox Minecrafters have tried their hand at hosting worlds from collaborative free builds worlds to role playing worlds on their own Xbox with varying success.

Hosting a server on a console is somewhat of a social experiment of honesty between eight random players. As a server host you set the rules verbally or on a forum post, but you don’t have access to mods or scripts to keep players out of the areas you don’t want them in or from digging through walls to get through the maze you masterfully crafted in your adventure map. If you are able to find a mix of honest people who truly want to build and create amazing things, your job as a console host is harder still as once you turn off your console for the night the server is down and your player base is immediately disengaged. Unless of course you want to leave your console on all the time, which many hosts cannot for various reasons. Further, if you want your server to be about more than just building, you don’t have mods to put basic features on auto-pilot like quests, NPC stores, and player versus player arena battles. On the console you can build some of these features yourself, but it will require your player base to follow the rules you tell them to and exercise a bit of imagination.

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

Despite these limitations, there are no shortage of console servers being advertised on the official Minecraft forums seeking players, even some claiming to be available 24/7. To learn more about the process of building a Minecraft server on a console in the current generation and discuss some of the barriers to success, Adventures in Poor Taste reached out to Kenn Beck, better known as Artistik in the Minecraft and Xbox communities, to get a behind the scenes look on these very issues.

Adventures in Poor Taste: How long have you been playing Minecraft and what platform have you spent most your time on?

Kenn Beck (Artistik): I’ve been playing Minecraft for two years this coming June. I was a tiny bit late to the party in terms of the Xbox launch. I had seen “epic build” videos posted about the PC version, and the game had been on my radar, but I never quite “got it.” My nephew bought it for the Xbox 360 when it came out, I watched him play it, and I thought “Hey, that actually looks like a lot of fun.” I downloaded it for the Xbox a week later, and that is where I spend 99% of my Minecraft time.

AiPT: What drew you to play Minecraft on Xbox 360 over playing on the PC?

Kenn: I have always been a Mac guy, and as Mac games are historically a sparse commodity, I have always relied on my consoles for gaming. Now that Mac games are a bigger thing with the advent of services like Steam, I have dabbled a little bit in PC gaming, but my hands are so used to a console controller that I tend to default back to the console.

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

AiPT: What kind of servers did you help create and run on Xbox 360 and what role did you serve in their development?

Kenn: My first involvement was as a player on the Atlas server. The server was a basic Role-Playing server, but it lacked any real focused narrative; it was more like a job simulator. I suggested to the owner that some simple fetch quests could easily be added, and I volunteered to come up with a bit of a backstory, fleshing out the vague lore that he had established. He dug what I had to offer, and offered me a spot as a moderator. When our server file went corrupt, we decided to start from scratch, and I pitched an entire extended lore, complete with a quest system that I designed from scratch. I spent months building dungeons, planting signs in obscure locations, tracking down mob spawners and encasing them in bedrock so players couldn’t destroy them, and in general trying to merge these events, these instances, into a coherent storyline. The story grew and grew.

It’s like having a gymnasium full of awesome sports equipment, games, puzzles, and other entertainment, but someone has to constantly hold the door open.

Before we could even give it a proper live launch, I had a falling out with the owner over a personal matter. I decided to leave the server, but he closed up shop and left the players out in the cold. The other moderators and I then decided to strike out on our own and start fresh. The result was the Renatus server, which was my pride and joy. Rather than a dictatorship, this one was run a group of five moderators from Atlas, myself included. Rather than Atlas’ single city format, each moderator had their own city, allowing for a greater stylistic freedom and creating some interesting dynamics. My role as storyteller allowed me to craft a huge story and revamp my questing system. At one point we had over 40 quests live and active!

AiPT: An RP server must be difficult when traditional aspects of an RPG have to be created by hand. You can’t exactly place an NPC in a village with an iconic yellow exclamation point over its head to guide players. How did you keep the community engaged, move the story along and reward players for quests and other events?

Kenn: Believe it or not, I almost had a mechanic in place for that yellow exclamation point dynamic! It involved building large floating lava pools above points of interest, spawning in dozens maps, and then storing those maps in the player spawn point before tearing the pools down. The result would have been a map with big red spots on it for new players to visit that would disappear as the player arrived. I tried it out on a test map, worked perfectly. But in general, yes, it was a big challenge. We had pretty good player engagement in our optional quest system, which utilized a separate message board for communications, backstory exposition, and quest details. Players would get the quest assignment from the message board, complete the quest, which would involve a piece of information on a sign at the end of it, and then message me that info to get their reward. Microsoft is apparently refusing to add writable books, so we had to explain every single quest detail that didn’t fit on a sign on the message boards. Definitely a challenge.

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

AiPT: How did you go about updates and development of the game world? Did you have scheduled maintenance days like traditional always online games?

Kenn: Heh, I was the king of maintenance days. As the guy writing the story, I more often than not had the world up in off-line mode, building dungeons, making cosmetic improvements, experimenting with different methods of construction to advance the narrative. It actually got to the point where hosting the server for players to play in on survival was anti-climactic for me, because I wasn’t doing what I had come to love so much. We did try to keep the server up as much as possible, but each of the moderators had different things going on in our personal lives that started to make it a bit of a grind. Updates were always a white-knuckle event for us, because inevitably, the game code would induce biome shifts in the game world with every update. Suddenly, it was raining in the snow biomes, and snowing in areas where there wasn’t meant to be snow. It was a pretty jarring thing to happen when you’re trying to immerse the players in a narrative. We even had to construct a glass ceiling at the build limit over one of our cities that had become a snow zone because most of the buildings utilized stairs as a design element and the patchy snow was quite an eye sore.

AiPT: Despite the inherent challenges with Minecraft servers on consoles, it has grown to such a popularity that the official Minecraft forum site now has a page devoted to Xbox 360 24/7 servers. Two part question for you: Is there such a thing as a quality 24/7 server on console and what kind of manpower would it take to run it?

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

Kenn: It’s possible someone has dedicated the immense time, energy, and resources necessary to get one up and running successfully, but I have yet to find it. Unlike PC servers, there always has to be a host on, so the biggest challenge is finding a dedicated Xbox to keep running 24/7, along with a dedicated Gamertag that can act as host. Then you need a team of moderators to help with the workload, like welcoming new players, policing disputes, monitoring griefing; administrative stuff. At any one time Renatus had five moderators of varying degrees of activeness, and even we felt a little stretched out at times, and we weren’t advertising as 24/7. To have a constant moderator presence, you’d need to figure out how much time each moderator can spend on it and then multiply that until you fill a schedule. Even if each moderator could spend three hours a day, you still need a rotation of eight moderators each day to keep it truly 24/7. And I have yet to meet a moderator who doesn’t also want to play the game, so you have to figure that at any given time, another mod may want to play on the server. With an eight player cap, there’s barely room for enough players to have an impactful session.

AiPT: Are the servers you assisted with still active or what is their current status?

Kenn: Sadly, no. Atlas is dead, the owner took his ball and went home. The community was strong, though, and we wanted to try again, so Renatus, which is Latin for rebirth, was the community that came together to rise from the ashes of Atlas. We built something amazing, but in the end, none of us could dedicate the time and energy to keep it open consistently.

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

AiPT: At what point did you and your team realize shutting down the servers was imminent and how much did the limitations of the console play into the decision?

Don’t invite others to play in your sandbox and then complain when they dig a hole.

Kenn: There was no one moment I can pinpoint. It was a gradual thing, with each moderator deciding they couldn’t commit to hosting on a regular basis. I was the last one to try any kind of consistent schedule, but it’s a grind for one person to shoulder that responsibility. It burned me out a bit. There were a few bursts after that, but they didn’t last long. I think the console played a factor in that the lack of a proper server system, where we could have a server up and running 24/7 hosted by an outside agency, meant that having the server active became a job of sorts, an unpaid obligation that was taking the fun out of a game. It was like “I’d like to play some Call of Duty, but I just got three requests to launch the server, so…”

AiPT: What do you think is the biggest challenge for making a successful server on console?

Kenn: The tiny player capacity. Eight player slots fill up pretty quickly. We had such great ideas about player vs. player competitions and conflicts, but in the end, we could never get enough players on in the same session to have any kind of meaningful interactions. The lack of a dedicated server system, where players could run free without the supervision of a moderator, is a definite obstacle. It’s like having a gymnasium full of awesome sports equipment, games, puzzles, and other entertainment, but someone has to constantly hold the door open. But that wouldn’t even be much of a problem if we could have 16, or 24, or 40 players.

The Problem with Minecraft 'Servers' on Consoles

AiPT: If you could give any advice to a Minecraft player thinking of starting a server on console, what would you tell them?

Kenn: Be flexible. You may have a very specific idea for a theme, but invariably, every player has their own style and ambitions. If you are going to get upset by a player building a cobblestone house in your wooden village, you aren’t looking for a server, you’re looking to build a style map. Which is cool, I am currently working on one of those myself! But don’t invite others to play in your sandbox and then complain when they dig a hole. It helps to assemble a like-minded group of individuals willing to sacrifice their time and some of the fun to share the load. Just remember, even moderators are players too, and they still want to have fun!

AiPT: Mojang and 4J have not confirmed what new features and support will be coming to next-gen Minecraft. What features do you think need to be included in next-gen Minecraft to make the purchase worth it and bridge the gap between console and PC?

Kenn: Realistically, I think raising the player cap is the easiest addition that is a must. Dedicated servers would be the ultimate key to bringing PC-like communities into being, where a world can remain persistent without the constant presence of a moderator, but that’s a quantum leap ahead of anything on the consoles at this time. Personally, my work would have been made much, much easier if Microsoft would just unclench their censorship fists and include writeable books to allow for in game storytelling. Bigger maps will be cool, but they are almost certainly going to expand them in the new consoles. The ability to import structures from other maps… now that would be a game changer. Literally!

Have you tried hosting a Minecraft server on either Xbox 360 or PS3 and had a similar or different experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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