Most people couldn’t tell you what these were, yet in my mind they’re one of the most important components in any online multiplayer game. They’re what Halo has always been missing and why you can’t avoid the 13 year old Jew-hating chocolate-milk-needing shut-ins whose incessant chatter mostly populates Xbox Live by going to a mature server with an admin who’d ban such idiots instantly. They help you connect to the type of community (not much of one really, but it depends on the server) or game you want and as such must be both reliable and powerful. One of the major problems is filtering out the clutter. In any popular online game there are anywhere from a couple hundred to a hundred thousand servers (a quick tally of CS 1.6 servers reads 14,615 that I can reach) most of which are empty or filled with bots and some of which are redirect servers whose only purpose is to look full to lure in passersby to the real server (Which usually sucks. What kind of server has to pay for a redirect server to increase traffic?). What we really need is some kind of directory or social network of really good game servers, but thats a whole different matter. Counter-strike has a fairly standard, if a bit old, server browser. I’ve been playing the game for five years and only discovered the bot filter a year ago and that doesn’t actually take the servers off the list (it merely lets you sort by them). Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory has more powerful filters and a wider variety of options, but essentially the form of these things has stayed the same. Present the user with ping, game type, map, and security filters and let them loose. What I want to see is not only more types of game-specific filters: eg Flag status for TF2, timeleft, players sorted by team/class/rank, win/round history, a maturity level, logo perhaps, and quick description, and especially important any server side variables that are important (friendly fire, weapon bans, low gravity, deathmatch/surf/gungame/zombie mod, vehicle types)
Right now using server browsers is like fumbling around in the dark and picking out a meal by touch. Usually you have to try a bunch of crappy places before you find one to your tastes (where people talk on mics/teamplay/actually plant the bomb in my case) with a low enough ping and/or consistent registry. Hell, let people rank servers by quality of service (even though I might not trust the average Live user, with enough feedback some sort of reliable reputation might evolve). While the server browser may not be a priority to the average game developer ( who rarely creates a good online experience anyways), if you want a group of people to continue playing your game supporting social groups through choice and flexibility is key.