I have to admit, I zipped right past the TechCrunch article with this less-than-gripping title: Y Combinator-Backed Minefold Launches Affordable, On-Demand Platform For Game Hosting. Luckily for me, an indie game developer acquaintance was on the ball and she called our attention to the article, which is about Minefold, a game hosting service which just came out of beta.
Before I talk about how awesome Minefold is, we need some context. There's this wonderful PC game called Minecraft that was all the rage about a year ago and which still has lots and lots of enthusiastic fans. The overwhelming success story behind Minecraft is quite a tale in its own right, but for now what you need to know is that Minecraft is a game about building things while fighting off zombies and other creepy crawlies. You can play Minecraft alone, or you can join a Minecraft server and play with friends. As is so often the case, playing with friends tends to be more fun than playing alone, whether you all work together on one project or whether everyone builds their own structure and then you wander around seeing what other folks have come up with.
The only problem is that Mojang, the developers of Minecraft, don't run any servers. They offer Minecraft server software and expect players to run their own servers. This works but it means someone needs to be the person that deals with administrating the server. If you're lucky you have a friend who is really into that sort of thing. If you're not lucky, you draw straws and whomever loses gets to host the server. If that person gets tired of hosting and shuts down the server, poof goes all your work.
Enter Minefold. Minefold takes all this server admin stuff off your hands and just lets you play the game. It's easy as pie to do. Just sign up for an account (you'll need to give them your Minecraft account name), confirm it via clicking a link in an email they send you, then from the Minefold dashboard click "Create a new world." You'll be asked a few questions about the kind of world you want (you can turn off monsters, tweak difficulty levels, toggle PvP and a few other things). And that's it.
Fire up Minecraft, connect to the server that Minefold tells you to connect to, and you're in your own private Minecraft server. Your friends just need to ask to play and once you give them a thumbs up they can join you.
And if you don't want to create your own world, you can ask to join someone else's. (Don't have any friends who're playing? Use Minefold's explorer to find a world that looks interesting and ask to join.) Or if the idea of a blank slate is a bit daunting, you can clone an existing world and play in a copy of someone else's work.
When you join Minefold you can create 1 world and play for 10 hours a month for free. Anything beyond that costs $3.75 to $5/month, depending on how much time you buy at once. (A full year is $45 and the minimum payment is $15 for 3 months.) Once you pay you can play for an unlimited amount of time in an unlimited number of worlds.
OK, that's enough about the actual game playing. I'll refer you to my buddy Chris Smith for more details on using Minefold. Chris has done some hosting on his own so has more experience than I do.
For now, Minefold is all about Minecraft and only Minecraft, but TechCrunch says the team plans to branch out into other games in the future. I think they're onto something big, particularly in the realm of competitive multiplayer games where low ping times and lag can really impact a match.
Lag isn't a big issue in Minecraft so the guy who is hosting the server doesn't have a relevant advantage over his guests, but that isn't true in competitive multiplayer games. Whoever is hosting the server is going to have a 'home field advantage' in these games. Hosting a match on a third-party server is the only way to have a truly fair fight.
Understand, Minefold isn't the first firm to offer servers dedicated to game hosting (see for example gameservers.com) but as far as I know they're the first to structure things so each player pays his own way. In other words, if I want to set up a Call of Duty 4 server at Gameservers I can, but it'll cost me (for example) $15.95/month for a 16 player server. So I pay Gameservers and I get my buddies all to send me a few bucks to defray the costs. It's a messy system. Using the Minefold model, everyone would pay $5/month to play wherever they want. On my server today, on someone else's server tomorrow and on their own server the day after that.
I like this Minefold model an awful lot and I hope the company does well (and spawns some imitators). And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to jump back into The Realm of Chaos, my Minefold Minecraft server. When I last left my poor dude he'd walled himself into a dark cell to keep the zombies at bay. I have to help him find food and torches before another night falls.
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.