Blizzard's Classic Team dropped a bombshell on Thursday with their latest patch announcement. Although it does not contain any balance change, it is about to drastically change the way we use our favorite game, whether we are a melee or a custom game player.
In short, it means that hostbots are likely to disappear in the near future. What does this mean for our communities?
I may not be able to give you a detailed history class about hostbots. Fans in the comment section will no doubt provide some. The legend says that Mr Trevor Hogan ported Ghost to Ghost++ and that it was later developed by Varlock to create the first hostbot. He also created GProxy++, this little program that made you able to rejoin games after disconnecting.
Varlock was then superseded by uakf.b who went on to found Clan ENT and Lunaghost, a company that used to offer WC3 hosting services, as well as statistics webhosting until 2016.
Basically when the game first came out, in order to play a solo against a friend or during a clan war, you had to find an individual located halfway between the two of you, to provide the fairest conditions possible for both.
It was not all bad, make no mistake, at least it allowed for Chinese players to compete during Zotac Cups from 2008 to 2010. Games were being hosted on Garena and not b.net, but the same principle applied.
The downside of this structure was that you needed to rely on a few well located and well equipped individuals to host for all those tournaments. They also had to stay ingame for the full duration of the match to prevent the game from disconnecting.
Hostbots solved this issue and were progressively improved, not only to grant better ping conditions, but also to automatically track results and rank players with an elo system for all kind of custom maps such as Tower Defenses, Defense of the Ancients (heard about it?), Heroes Arenas, Castle Defense etc... They protected players from disconnects as well.
The biggest provider of such hostbot services is still ENT Gaming with about 11,000 members in their discord channel. Another famous hostbot provider is, or was, OHS. You must have seen either one of those tags [OHS] or [ENT] more than once in your custom games listing.
Rightfully so, Pete Stillwell (Senior Producer at Blizzard) pointed out how crucial the community and the hostbots had been in maintaining Warcraft III afloat in his announcement.
Let's go through the patch notes to better understand its implications.
This is where hostbots are disappearing. With the new system, you upload the map you want to play on the cloud from the custom games tab. You do not become the physical host of that game, battle.net is hosting the game on its server for you, quite like Netease is doing for those familiar with the Chinese platform.
Now a custom game hosted on Northrend is automatically visible on all four battle.net servers without the need of a hostbot. Would that be a prerequisite to a merged battle.net realm?
- Dude can you create?
- Nope, my port 6112 is closed...
Remember those conversations? Port forwarding was such a mess whether you wanted to create a game or invite a friend for an Arranged Team. This problem should be gone with the next patch.
This should encrypt your login, securing your battle.net access. It should also help neutralizing third party tools, another protection against hackers. We really hated the time they were roaming freely, just a few months ago. I'm sure there is more to it than I know as of yet.
-> Those are the four major directions chosen by Blizzard in its complete overhaul of the hosting system. Let's not forget that the Pandaren Brewmaster will no longer have an Italian breath of fire. Now, how may it impact the way we play Warcraft III under its multiple forms?
Those changes were rumored ever since Blizzard started working on Starcraft 1. The game is now on battle.net 2.0 along newer titles such a Starcraft 2, Overwatch, World of Warcraft or Hearthstone. It is only logical to realize that Warcraft 3 will end there as well some day. This would probably be a positive step for the game, a way to attract new players.
The voiced concerns in that area would be that the host locations chosen by Blizzard would be less numerous or of a lesser quality to provide fair playing conditions during tournaments.
As the network of bots set into place most notably by Niels makes it possible to have an even ping for any matchup between players from Europe, Korea, USA, or South-America, it is unclear if Blizzard will be able to give us the same conditions without the current hostbot system, right when the new patch will hit the servers.
Yours truly was the first to autohost melee games back in 2012, creating the playFFA ladder with the support of uafk.b at Lunaghost. The twinkling player base splitting among several servers lead to the slow decay of one official FFA ladder.
Long story short : we linked all servers, but also improved the gameplay adding 6 to 8 players games, as well as Random heroes games.
If FFA and 4v4 go back to being split between four realms, they will suffer from the same (in)activity issues we had back in 2012. The way to go would be to put those game modes "crossrealm" as it is planned for the custom games.
This is one field where we would let the bot system gladly go. FFA and 4v4 bots were a fix that battle.net wasn't capable of at the time: connected servers, moderated games, a working online player stats page, and being able to play with your friends (due to arranged teams not working). The official matchmaking was plagued with leavers, hackers, and griefers for so long people were kind of accustomed to it.
Will Blizzard moderate those games themselves after patching (team killers in 4v4, early leavers, rude behaviors...)?
Hostbots have been able to link official and private servers alike for more than a decade. As not every player was able or willing to pay for two cd keys, they went to play on Rubattle.net, Eurobattle.net, Gameranger (...). Custom games were not directly impacted by the recent patches until now (apart from a few bugs), and players from these servers are mostly focused on CG anyway.
With the official servers being cut from the private ones, the interest of playing on these private servers will decrease for cg as well as for melee games, since none of those severs were able to upgrade to the newest patches to my knowledge.
On this topic, I would understand Blizzard's position better if Warcraft III became free to play. Starcraft II is eight years younger than Warcraft and is free to play since 2017. Let's not ask for $20 to every player joining back the herd on battle.net, shall we?
ENTGaming (ENT) and OHSystems (OHS) reacted strongly to the announcement.
OHS Manager Grief-Code decided to simply shut down his hosting platform yesterday with some harsh words for Blizzard, mostly complaining about the lack of informations given about their plans.
Hey community, friends and followers,
OHSystem.net has come to an end and will be shut down today. We will no longer host any games nor score or track any stats.
The final reason was the announcement of the Patch 1.30.2 which bring up breaking changes to the working way of hosting bots, but this is not the only reason.
I am working on hosting bots and this community since over 7 years, it had its up and downs at several times, but was never too stressfull for me. Since the developing of the Blizzard team, which is mostly negative for custom games, I was facing constant more and more issues. It got a lot more stressfull, the community was decreasing further and further and there was no longer the motivation I had initial. Why should I develope anything which is only for a handfull of people in the end? That does not justify the time, money and effort i put into the whole developing & hosting.
Another huge decision factor was the fact that the Blizzard team is not trustworthy. We had several issues and talked with them, they always claimed to support hosting bots and do not want to break it, but they just did. Replacing it with their own implementation. It is their full right to handle stuff like that and decide it in that way. But they could have informed the community about it. The sudden release notes are a pain.
I am not looking into supporting or investing time into a game where the developers are not trustworthy.
All that points combined made me closing the platform(...) - Grief-Code
ENTGaming felt no different about the news as their manager Hazardous announced a 48h hosting strike, encouraging other community representatives to shut down their own bots for the week end. The move was followed by others (MyMGN, MakeMeHost,... ).
Hello @everyone , we would like to inform you that the every one of our bots will be shut down in 1 hour. This is done simultaneously with other WCIII communities to demonstrate to blizzard that Warcraft 3 has become one with hosting bots and that it cannot survive without it. Patch 1.30.2, as it stands, precludes the possibility of hosting games through the services of our bots. We are taking this exceptional step because Blizzard has repeatedly damaged our game and our playerbase in the previous months and years. They cannot implement basic rollback systems and so whenever a patch that either breaks the bots or the maps themselves, it can take weeks to be fixed. This time, they plan on implementing a patch that they know will kill our bots. This simply is not sustainable anymore, as you may understand and this is our way to let them know about it. This shutdown will last for the upcoming 48 hours. We will be directing you to the appropriate forums and petition(s) in the upcoming hours in order for you guys to voice your opinions on the issue. Thank you, Staff Department - Hazardous
A petition was even started on change.org to keep the hostbot system up and running. It shows how sensitive the subject is.
Nobody is denying the authority that Blizzard has over his property. Miscommunication with the communities they were in contact with is what really is sparking off this crisis. All those changes were suddenly announced without clearly disclosing the plans on how to safeguard those thriving communities. Will the competitive aspect of custom games be kept?
One can understand the dissapointment of their managers that sometimes spent seven years to a decade providing a playable environment for their player bases, creating new tools such as gproxy that were shared among all communities, that took the time to review games, update maps, ban hackers (...) and which suddenly learned that it had to stop, with no real clue on what the future would hold for their respective games.
This announcement especially came out after the previous two patches broke many of the custom hosted maps, giving their developers a lot of working hours to go around those issues. Perhaps, they were already on edge, hence the strike.
The overall concern of the CG community is best expressed by Nobelissimos on the battle.net forum. Just follow the link.
Five minutes after the bots were shut down, the played games count dropped by 50% on battle.net servers. This was no surprise as it is estimated that the CG community is about ten times larger than the melee one. On Saturday morning, there were less players on battle.net than on a weekday morning. The number of games dropped as well (this number takes custom games and melee games both into account).
The drastic effects of the strikes on battle.net
If the strike was "successful" in that regard did it achieve any goals of bringing Blizzard closer to the bots managers and to consider keeping the current system in the future? Or did it have the opposite effect, showing that those managers were a dangerous corporation that could take Warcraft 3 players hostages? Make your own opinion.
Do not get me wrong, there are indeed downsides on the way things work at the moment. Nobody likes the overflowing list of custom games you get when you join battle.net. Most of the lobbies are empty and the games appearing up front are not the most populated one, but those that are refreshed the most by their host providers. This is called the "zero uptime trick", all autohosted bots hacked the game creation time to appear like the game was just created.
Some bot providers are even spamming four to five game names that point to the exact same lobby.
There is a competition to appear in the front list that should be handled by Blizzard in my point of view, just to insure the quality and the safety of the proposed games.
These practices have to be regulated. It now looks like a jungle honestly, not up to the current standards of quality. It does require a drastic improvement.
Let's not forget that a few years ago, a group of hackers was trying to collect ips of players by any means possible. Having a rogue hostbot hosting fake games was just one of them.
Renting your own private hosting bot to host "inhouse" games comes at a cost as well.
Overall, let's hope that things cool down after two heated days in the world of WC3. I am confident Blizzard will hear out all those concerns and provide each and everyone with solutions and answers. Blizzard Classic Department said they were discussing all of them. Let's just give them some time.
Reminder : this is quite a technical subject I tried to cover it to the best of my knowledge, seeking guidance from relevant authorities on the matter.