I love competitive multiplayer games. I’ve yet to put my finger on exactly what it is but there’s just something unexplainably awesome about going head to head with other human opponents around the globe while enjoying my biggest hobby. Maybe it’s the competitive nature I have, or maybe I just like to gauge my skills against other players but for me, multiplayer gaming is an experience like no other.
Like most gamers, I play to have a good time but my enjoyment in multiplayer primarily relies upon the success that I have while playing. When it just doesn’t feel like it’s going right, it can be a very frustrating experience. I tell you this so you’ll hopefully understand where I’m coming from when I confess to breaking multiple controllers over the past decade. Why would I do that? Because sometimes, multiplayer games just aren’t fair.
When I say unfair, I don’t mean that someone is using a weapon that is too powerful or that some aspect of the game is being abused. Granted, that stuff happens but I mean the game is quite literally, unfair. Anyone who has played a Call of Duty game online (specifically Black Ops) probably knows what I’m talking about. Let me walk you through a scenario that I see happen all too often.
I’m hauling ass around a corner with my favorite firearm in hand. Low and behold, an enemy appears in front of me. I aim down the sites of my gun and reign down hell fire on him. I see the barrel of my gun pointing straight at his chest. I fire off a solid 5-6 rounds, yet the hit detector doesn’t go off a single time. In the time it takes to do this, he realizes I’m there, turns and pounces on me without so much as a scratch on his camouflaged face. Controller-breaking rage, initiated.
This doesn’t happen all the time and sometimes I’m even the recipient of kills that I know I shouldn’t have been able to collect, but it still pisses me off to no end. For most players, I think the most frustrating part about that kind of scenario is not understanding why that occasionally happens. Last week, a video hit the web that inspired this piece. A YouTube user by the name of ‘WhaleMasher’ posted a video online in an attempt to explain what lag really is and how if affects your ability to play against other users.
This kind of lag is more prevalent in games that use a ‘peer to peer’ connection (or P2P). P2P means that an individual person that is participating in the game is hosting the match, rather than a server. When an individual is hosting a game, the information packet of you firing a bullet has to travel all the way to his network and back. Granted, with internet speeds being what they are these days, this may only take a quarter of a second (or less) but when playing on a live battlefield, that quarter of a second is the definitive difference between life and death.
The game used for this demonstration is the multiplayer juggernaut, Call of Duty: Black Ops, which uses a P2P connection. Essentially, the video walks you through a handful of kills from the perspective of both the host of the game, and another player that’s not hosting. You can clearly see that what’s happening on both screens is different. Traditionally, the person that is hosting sees everything just a bit before everyone else does, meaning that this person will likely have an unfair advantage over any player that they come across.
Treyarch has taken steps to try and ensure that this kind of lag is compensated on both ends in an attempt to make things as equal as possible but as we saw from the video, that doesn’t always happen just the way it should.
This leads us to the next step in this discussion; server-based games. In my highly uneducated opinion, server based games are the way to go for competitive multiplayer. They’re designed to be even and provide the most consistent experience possible. Sure, your connection still has to communicate back and forth with another network but in theory, everyone has a similar distance to travel which should make for a level playing field.
But that’s just the beginning of the benefits that servers provide. In most cases, a server based game is easier to balance because the developers have complete control over the servers that are hosting the games. Not to mention that servers can handle huge amounts of players, where as the max for a good P2P connection usually caps at around 16-18.
Also, if one player is lagging on a P2P connection, it has the chance to affect everyone in the room. When you’re playing on a server, it will likely only affect the one player, and maybe anyone else that he happens to stumble across. Another benefit of servers is that you don’t have to deal with the inconvenient hurdle that is ‘host migration’. If a player should happen to quit mid-game while playing on a server, it doesn’t really affect anyone else, other than the fact that there’s now a hole that needs to be filled with a new player.
Granted, I’ve never seen a comparison like this for a game that uses dedicated servers but based on my personal experiences, I don’t run across nearly as many kills that seem quite so fishy. The two games I’ve played the most that don’t rely on P2P are Killzone 2 and MAG. I can honestly say that if you combine my time with both of those titles, the number of matches I’ve seen lag in can be counted on one hand.
So why don’t we see more server based games? My guess is mostly because of cost and maintenance. I assume it’s a fairly pricey ordeal to get everything up and running and the amount of time spent tending to the servers after a game launches has to be substantial. I honestly don’t know enough about what it takes to get multiplayer set up on servers to go on any further but if it were easier and/or cheaper than using P2P, why wouldn’t every developer be doing it?
In the end, this discussion leaves me with one glaring question. Would I ever pick a multiplayer game that’s hosted by a physical server over one that uses a P2P connection? After seeing this example, I have to say yes. What about you?