Today, multiplayer gaming is easy. You hop onto a game, press 'play online,' and in moments, you’re in an arena playing with people all over the world. Sometimes the game matches players with the same skill level or gamers who live closer to one another for better latency and ping. Some games have options for a competitive gaming mode or something casual. Overall, playing online with other people is a pretty simple process.
That accessibility comes from the pains of the past. Formerly, games might have required a specific IP address for a server, requiring coordination with your friends to join the same server. That address came from somewhere on the internet like a message board.
In comparison to what we have today, it was cumbersome and not exactly user friendly. In the mid-90s an app called GameSpy hit the scene which made browsing for servers and connecting with players a far more intuitive process. It was a game-changer.
What was GameSpy?
GameSpy was a server browser for online games, but it was also much more. It actually started life as QSpy, a service created by Joe "QSpy" Powell, Tim Cook, and Jack "morbid" Matthews. It was an application that allowed users to list and search for Quake servers to join.
Mark Surfas, the founder of then popular PlanetQuake website, licensed QSpy and renamed it QuakeSpy. "id software wasn't very happy about [the name] so we renamed it GameSpy and started adding any game that we could to it," said Surfas of the inception of GameSpy. When the Quake-based game Hexen II arrived the following year, QuakeSpy could also search and list servers for that game as well, so it required a new name: GameSpy3D.
"I had a little consulting company and we were making websites for anyone that would buy them," Surfas explains of his life at the time. "The moment I touched Quake my whole world literally exploded. The recipe of a full 3d game view with fast multiplayer over the internet? BOOM. Multiplayer gaming became my entire life. I just really needed to be a part of what was happening."
Following that, Surfas licensed GameSpy3D to game publishers and created GameSpy Industries, which began an online gaming empire.
"GameSpy did a LOT that you take for granted now," said Surfas. "Server browsing was the beginning. We created a technology division that became the back office for a lot of the game developers and publishers. No one wanted the responsibility for running multiplayer services for a game long term, so we took it on."
There were two sides to GameSpy: the technology side (known as GameSpy Technology) which helped game developers create online modes and connect players to multiplayer servers.
"It's hard to believe but at the time game publishers just thought multiplayer was a headache they didn't really need," Surfas said. "I think we helped a lot by providing tools, services and promotion so it became a little easier for them to spend the money. Of course, game developers deserve all the credit for making the real magic. We were just game fans happy to be involved at all."
Additionally, GameSpy provided gamers with news on the latest in video and PC games through a number of gaming websites (collectively called 'The Planet Network') and GameSpy.com.
"We built a large audience and benched out into hosting mods, which again was an entirely new phenomenon," said Surfas. "You could buy a game and then people made more content for it. Basically you were getting new games for free? Unreal!"
Giving gamers content
When it came to the media side, you might recall several websites with the 'Planet' moniker serving gamers and tech enthusiasts. These included Planet Quake, Planet Half-Life, Planet Unreal, 3DActionPlanet, RPGPlanet, SportPlanet, and StrategyPlanet. You may also remember FilePlanet, a file-sharing destination for getting patches, demos, and mods.
GameSpy.com also became a popular destination to catch the latest reviews and news of what was happening around the gaming industry. Check out any older game on Wikipedia, and you’ll likely spot a GameSpy score in the ‘Reception’ portion of the page.
Bringing gamers together no matter the platform
GameSpy received a few investments and briefly entered the world of online music before returning to its bread and butter, online gaming. GameSpy3D was replaced by GameSpy Arcade, which included features like user profiles, a buddy list, and game lobbies. It could even scan a PC’s hard drive to check for compatible games. Upon launch, over 150 games were supported.
Even console games benefitted from the technology. MotoGP, NASCAR Heat 2002, TimeSplitters, and even Halo on Xbox used GameSpy before Xbox Live to connect gamers.
"When the Xbox shipped it had a network jack on it but there was no way to use it to play games on the internet," said Surfas. "You could hook up two Xboxes on your local network and play games together but that was it. We had this SuperGenius named crt (David Wright) who, in a weekend, created and released an addition to GameSpy Arcade that let you play networked Xbox games over the internet. So we were really the first Xbox Live." Sufas also added that Microsoft wasn't pleased about that.
The PlayStation 2 versions of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, Risk, and Deer Hunter also used GameSpy tech. Furthermore, GameSpy Technology helped to power many popular online games including Battlefield 1942, Halo, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Unreal Tournament, and Midtown Madness. The app provided server browsing or quick play matchmaking.
Nintendo was also known to use GameSpy servers to power its Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection platform. The Nintendo DS and Wii games relied on this for online play.
GameSpy even powered early crossplay games like 4x4 Evolution, which united gamers on the Dreamcast, PC, and Mac to race off-road vehicles regardless of platform. Considering how rare that is today, it was pretty impressive back then.
"We sold the game interface and ran the servers for services like in-game matchmaking, ladders, chat, anti-piracy, etc. We had Activision, Microsoft, EA, just about everyone as our customers," said Surfas.
The next level
Following the development of GameSpy Arcade and further investments, including one from the Ziff Davis group, the app gained a few important features, like voice-over-IP. Thanks to the purchase of Roger Wilco and rival matchmaking client MPlayer, GameSpy was able to deploy VoIP to gamers and integrate voice-chat features into GameSpy Arcade and the software development kit for game developers.
In 2004, GameSpy Industries merged with IGN, becoming one of the largest online gaming media companies, known as IGN/Gamespy. Later, they removed GameSpy from the name, to be known as IGN Entertainment, but the GameSpy editorial site still operated like before.
Shortly afterward, it seemed like IGN could get more value from selling off and shutting down aspects of GameSpy. In 2012, a developer and publisher of mobile and freemium games called Glu Mobile purchased GameSpy Technology. This purchase separated the tech and media sides of the company for good. Apparently, Glu Mobile raised the prices for developers integrating GameSpy tech and shut down servers for many older online games. This outraged gamers, but Glu Mobile and GameSpy Technology explained that the developers were given notice about these changes, and weren’t paying for the services they rendered, so they had to be cut off.
Later in 2014, Glu Mobile shut down all of the GameSpy servers, leaving many games without online functionality. Some games migrated their services to Steam, while others found other alternatives to keep the online servers active. For example, a mod enabled Halo and Battlefront II players to keep going.
While the GameSpy Technology side was going through speed bumps, the media side was getting shuttered. After IGN was acquired by Ziff Davis, all sites deemed ‘secondary’ to IGN were shut down, including GameSpy. What grew as an innovator in the ‘90s became a media empire in the 2000s, only to fall apart and get sold off in pieces in the 2010s.
While many gamers were upset and pointing blame at developers and GameSpy for abandoning the online communities of many older games, others were finding new solutions to these issues. Some services, including 333networks, offer a master list of available game servers. Nintendo Wii gamers could turn to wiimmfi to continue playing their games online. GameRanger was also seen as carrying the torch from GameSpy.
On the content side, a regular feature on GameSpy.com called the Port Authority reviewed the quality of console to PC ports, as well as the settings available to PC gamers who were feeling left behind by developers focusing on console content. It reminds us of Digital Foundry’s in-depth explanations and comparisons of visual game quality between platforms.
Many gamers may also recall The GameSpy Debriefings, an early podcast that brought editors from GameSpy and IGN together to discuss the latest news and stories in the media world. This later became The Comedy Button, which started in 2011 and still continues today with over 600 episodes.
As one of the pioneers of online gaming, we have a lot to thank GameSpy for. The GameSpy Arcade was a precursor to the hubs, game stores, and platforms we use now. In Steam’s case, many of the features used by GameSpy, like server browsing, buddy lists, VoIP, patch management and even community discussions were all available through GameSpy before it was shut down.
"I have teenage kids now and they don't know how lucky they are," said Surfas. "I mean Twitch? Discord? Are you kidding me? We had static web pages. But it was an exciting time. For a short while you sort of knew a lot of the people who were gamers, which was incredible. You'd see the same people on the servers every night. "
Who knows, without services and applications like GameSpy that pushed for new features and innovations, we may still be manually entering in IP addresses to play games with our friends!