Welcome to the catch 22 problem of getting a social service up and running. People will come back if people come back... how to start the cycle to begin with?
Most server farms fill in the maps with bots, without advertising this in the server browser. That's really awful, especially because you tend to have dumb, but accurate enemies. Bots can be remarkably human like (they don't have to chat after all), until they fail utterly (I screamed at my teammates stuck in the spawn room in stage 3 of cp_egypt for half an hour before realizing the obvious truth.) you can usually tell those servers from others because they have 23/24 players online, always, to make the game (and donating) inviting.
So the niche of filling a server with bots is filled, and so are the 24/7 servers niche, the achievements niche and the idle niche. What TF2 needs is more actual TF2 servers.
I have been regularly playing on the servers generously run by the ATF clan. Why?
- An actual map rotation! It's small but varied enough to keep things interesting and changed periodically. It features a mix of stock and custom maps.
- No voting. Clan members have access to some commands to scramble or advance in the rotation and that's it. No map is allowed to be dragged out past its welcome.
- Actual human beings! With as little life as I have! And they're better than me! And they actually play for the map objectives! And they use voice chat!
The server is run in the US, so I have 170 ping. This is quite annoying (using any shotgun or melee weapon is an exercise in frustration) but do I really care? Shit, I'm actually playing the damn game. That's all I care about.
Now. What can you do to make a successful server?
- Bring your server. The server must be well configured so that it can't be hostaged by people mistaking 2fort as an excuse for mindless DM. This is crucial.
- Bring your rules. Be strict about actually playing ghe game: no farming, no idling, no trading, no crafting. That's not your niche. You want to play the damn game.
- Bring your friends. Bring people that share your vision and passion, and with which you have fun playing the damn game with. Enable alltalk for banter if you want to. Give those people access to the server, so that only trusted members can nextmap, callvote or scramble. Optionally, encourage everyone to use voice chat by using voice chat yourself.
That's it. Now you have a decent vanilla server where you're playing the damn game with your friends. Embrace your guests and make them want to come back, not for access to a clan or servers or whatever, but because you're playing the damn game. Then play the damn game.
Congratulations! You'll have built your little loyal happy community on the internet.