The Internet Sucks: Or, What I Learned Coding X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter

By Peter Lincroft

Editor's note: This paper was originally published in the 1999 Game Developer's Conference proceedings.

When we started the X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter project, our goal was to create the first multi-player space combat simulator to be playable over the Internet. There were several major problems that we had to be overcome to accomplish this goal, not the least of which was the Internet itself. I will review the problems we faced, the approach we took, and the results we achieved. I hope the lessons I learned will prove to be valuable to those who read this paper.

The Problems We Knew About

X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter is the third game in the Star Wars space combat simulator series. The Internet was definitely not one of the things that we were thinking about when we created the engine for the original X-Wing game. This was the first problem we faced. Adding Internet capability to an existing engine is significantly more difficult when the engine was not designed with the Internet in mind.

Our second problem was the complexity of the game design. We had always felt that one of the strongest features of our engine was its ability to simulate fairly complex missions. We were proud to have fairly large numbers of craft in each mission, which had reasonably complex behaviors. Our goal in creating X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter was to create a multi-player game that had this same level of complexity. We wanted to give gamers a multi-player experience that was more complex than "deathmatch." This requirement dramatically increases the amount of data that the players need to have in order to play the game.

X-Wind vs. TIE Fighter box Third on our list of problems was that we would not have a dedicated server available; we would have to use a peer-to-peer network model. The expense of providing servers with sufficient processing power and bandwidth for our expected audience size was considered unreasonably high. And because of the nature of the license we were working with, allowing gamers to set up their own servers was not a viable alternative. A peer-to-peer system avoids the problem, but it poses a significantly more challenging engineering problem, because each player must communicate with several other players, instead of with a single server. Because the Internet does not have a viable multi-casting capability, sending the same message to three destinations requires three times as much bandwidth as sending it to a single destination.

The fourth problem, of course, was the Internet itself. When we started the project we assumed that we would need to handle latency that varied from 200ms to a full second. We also knew that we would be limited to the bandwidth available from a 28K modem. These two constraints were our primary focus when we designed our network model, but they would turn out to be among the easiest problems to solve.

The Approach

Given this set of problems, we designed a network model that we hoped would address all of these issues in a satisfactory way. The first decision we made was the biggest, and would be the source of most of our headaches later on. We decided that we did not want the network model to restrict the complexity of the missions, and we knew that there was no way to compress all of the data relevant to each player into the available bandwidth. We thought of three possible solutions to the problem. The first alternative, and one we knew was being used successfully by other games, was to send only the most "important" data, and allow the rest of the data to be filled in by some form of prediction. The second alternative was to only provide the data necessary to accurately display the world. The third alternative was to send only the actions taken by each player, and simulate the consequences of those actions on each machine.

The first alternative requires the ability to quickly determine which data is "important," and which data is not. In our previous games, players were given a lot of capability to find out what was going on in the game. We even had a real-time map that allowed the player to view all of the craft in the mission simultaneously. In addition, the player could use the "targeting computer" to instantly find out the current status of any craft in the world. If we took the "relevance" approach to the problem, we would have to modify or remove these features.

The second alternative sounded like a good possibility. The typical view from the player cockpit would normally only display a few objects, and if the player could see many objects, the player would be far away and the view would not necessarily need to be completely accurate. The problem was that the player was in open space, flying a very maneuverable craft. They could complete a 360-degree turn very quickly, and in that time they would likely see almost all of the objects in the game. We knew this approach had been successful in games with interior environments, but our game could not use walls to divide the world into manageable chunks. We considered the possibility of introducing a "fog" which would restrict the player’s view to only those objects within a certain distance, but let’s face it - that's just a bad idea.


The third alternative was immediately attractive to us. The bandwidth required to send only the player’s actions would be constant regardless of the complexity of the mission. We had used a similar technique in the past to allow players to make "recordings" of a game that could be played back in a "VCR" room, so we knew the engine was compatible with the concept. We decided to do a quick test of this approach, and we got our first multi-player mission working in a matter of days.

Hosting the Game

The second major decision we made was to have one player act as the "host" for the game. Our decision to send the player’s input only meant that in a true peer-to-peer system, each player would have to send their messages to every other player. Since there is no broadcast or multicast capability over the Internet, this decision meant that every message would have to be duplicated and sent N-1 times, where N is the number of players in the game. This means that the 28K bandwidth available to the player is really divided by the number of players in the game.

If one player acts as the "host" of the game, we can significantly reduce the burden on the other players, while only slightly increasing the burden on the player that is the host. Each player sends data to the host, who compiles all the data into one large packet, and then sends a copy to each "client." The advantage of this approach is that if the "host" has a faster connection, that person can support a game containing several low-speed players. This did eventually pay off when the game was released, as players with fast connections were able to host eight-player games with the other seven players all playing over modem connections.

The odds of surviving an asteroid field are...

The other major advantage of having one player act as the "host" is that we do not have to worry about synchronizing the data on every player’s machine with every other machine. Instead, we can focus on every player being synchronized with the game data on the "host" machine. We expected that this would make "late join" easier to implement, but unfortunately that feature never made it into the game.

Despite the ease with which we got our test case working, we did not think our job was going to be easy. We knew this approach would have its own problems. The problem we anticipated with the most anxiety was the one we had seen many times before in our "VCR" feature. When playing back a recording of the player’s input, the game would sometimes produce results that were completely different from the original flight. In the past, bugs in the code that were otherwise harmless inevitably caused these "divergence" problems. For example, we might use a local variable as a Boolean flag to decide between two possible actions for a non-player craft. If the variable were accidentally used before being set, the decisions would be random depending on the value of the variable’s location on the stack. This type of bug was usually not noticeable, except when playing back a film. But when playing back a film, the bug could cause a craft to take a different action from the action it had taken when the film was recorded. This difference would quickly "ripple" through the rest of the game world, as craft that were dependent on the actions of that craft made different decisions as well.

If this kind of thing happened during a multi-player game, the players would quickly be experiencing two completely different simulations. We hoped to deal with this "out of sync" problem in two ways. First, we hoped that we would be able to find most of these bugs, and thereby avoid the problem occurring in the first place. Second, we devised a mechanism for detecting when the problem occurred, and "re-syncing" the game by sending the data that had diverged.

The big advantage of this approach was the low bandwidth requirements. We still had to deal with the issue of latency. After some quick tests we realized that even 100ms of latency made our controls unusable. It was incredibly frustrating to try to hit a target when there was a delay between when you pressed the trigger and when your weapons fired. Rather than change the controls and the way the game played to compensate for the problem, we decided to devise a system in which the player would experience nearly zero latency between their actions and the response of their craft. The key to making this work was to use a technique similar to what is sometimes called "dead reckoning".

Our solution was to maintain two simultaneous copies of the game’s data. The first copy of the world was based exclusively on the actual actions taken by each player, and was not updated until that information was available. The second copy always represented the state of the game at the current time, and was the version we would render each frame. This second copy of the game data wasn’t able to account for the actions of the players because the information about those actions was delayed by the latency of the Internet. Instead, this copy of the game data was based on a prediction of what those players’ actions were likely to be. The higher the latency of the connection, the longer the gap of time between the two copies, and the more inaccurate the predicted version became.

Our approach seemed to solve the two Internet problems we had heard the most about: bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth was kept to a bare minimum by only sending data about each player’s actions. Latency would cause some inaccuracy in the world (what we called "warping"), but would not affect the player’s flight controls. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, and thought we must be very clever.

Implementing the Design

Our first step was to implement the network model and test it on our LAN. This process went pretty smoothly. Our first implementation was a simple "synchronous" version, in which all the players would wait until all of the input from a frame was received before processing the simulation. This first pass used very little bandwidth, but would not work at all with significant amounts of latency. It also had the significant drawback that if one player had a slow frame rate, all the other players would be slowed down to match the slowest player’s frame rate. This was why we called it "synchronous": all of the payers were "synchronized" to the slowest frame rate.

This version was fairly easy to code because we did not implement the "predicted" copy of the world, and we did not even try to address the issue of latency. Also, we used DirectPlay, so we have very little work to do to create a game session and get the players joined into it. We got this version up and running quickly so that our mission designers could begin working on multi-player missions. We actually used the "synchronous" version for quite awhile. It was good enough to test with, so finishing the network code was considered a lower priority than the other issues we needed to address at that stage of development. When we finally came back to the network code we were behind schedule, and that affected some of the decisions we make later in the process. And it meant we were absolutely committed to the complexity of the missions, and the user interface.

Nebulon Hospital ShipOne big benefit of having implemented this first version early was that we were able to develop some pretty effective techniques for finding "out-of-sync" bugs. Thanks to those techniques and the long period of testing, we actually found most of those bugs. We were also able to work on the "re-sync" mechanism, and we found that on the LAN, we could re-sync a game so quickly that you hardly even noticed when an "out-of-sync" bug had occurred.

When we came back to the network code, we knew the first task was to create a second copy of the world that would be based on the first copy. Unfortunately, our game engine was not coded with this concept in mind, and this turned out to be much more difficult that it should have been. However, once we had the code working, we added some artificial latency to our LAN and tested it out. It worked great!

We now had a version of the game that worked great on the LAN. It used very little bandwidth, and it tolerated 500ms of latency so well you hardly even noticed it. Brimming with confidence, we set up a couple of systems to test it over the Internet. And it worked! We wouldn’t realize our mistake until weeks later when we finally did some real testing.

Lessons Learned (The Internet Sucks)

First lesson: If all players dial into the same phone number, you are not testing the Internet. You are testing the modems and the POP server, but you are not testing the Internet. It’s obvious when you think about it. Your packets go over the modem to the POP server, and it sends them right back out to the other player. The packets never get past the POP server.

When we finally tried our game on some real network connections, it would fail within seconds. We were mystified. It worked great on the LAN, even with 500ms of artificial latency. When we ran some diagnostics we discovered that we were seeing some simply unbelievable latencies. 5 and 10 seconds was frequent, and we saw some as long as 50 seconds! Our game would simply fall apart under those conditions.

What was actually happening was that a packet would get lost. The TCP protocol specifies that packets will always be delivered, and furthermore, that they will always be delivered in order. TCP uses a system of acknowledgements to verify that packets are successfully delivered, and will re-send packets if they are lost in transmission. The "in order" specification means that if a packet must be re-sent, the packets that follow it are delayed until the lost packet is received. The problem is that when an Internet connection starts dropping packets, it becomes very likely that the re-sent packet will also get dropped. This means it can take several seconds for a packet to arrive at its destination.

Lesson two: TCP is evil. Don’t use TCP for a game. You would rather spend the rest of your life watching Titanic over and over in a theater full of 13 year old girls. First of all, TCP refuses to deliver any of the other packets in the stream while it waits for the next "in order" packet. This is why we would see latencies in the 5-second range. Second of all, if a packet is having a tough time getting to its destination, TCP will actually stop re-sending it! The theory is that if packets are being dropped that it's due to congestion. Therefore, it is worthless to try re-sending because that will only make the congestion worse. So TCP will actually stop sending packets, and start sending occasional little test packets. When the test packets start to get through reliably, TCP will gradually start sending real packets again. This "slow re-start" algorithm explains why we would see latencies in the 50-second range.

Lesson three: Use UDP. The solution to this evil protocol seems simple at first. Don’t use TCP, use UDP instead. Unlike TCP, UDP is an unreliable protocol. It does nothing to guarantee that a packet is delivered, and it does nothing to guarantee that a packet is delivered in order. In other words, it does nothing. So if you really need a packet to be delivered, you need to handle the re-sending and acknowledgements. There is one other extremely annoying thing about UDP. Modem connections are made using a protocol called PPP. When you end TCP packets over a PPP connection, it does some very clever compression of the Internet header data, reducing it from 22 bytes to 3 bytes (or less). When you send UDP packets over a PPP connection it does not perform this clever compression and sends the entire 22-byte header over the modem. So if you are using UDP, you shouldn’t send small packets.

Of course, our network system absolutely requires that every packet be delivered. If TCP actually worked, this would not be a problem. But TCP is hopelessly broken, so we had to write our own protocol to handle acknowledgements and re-sends. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that right away, and it took us awhile to get there.

Our first step was to switch from TCP to UDP. This was as simple as passing a flag to DirectPlay. Of course, now the game would fail miserably as soon as the first packet was dropped. So, we implemented a simple re-sending mechanism to handle the dropped packets. This seemed to work a little better, but occasionally things would go horribly wrong exactly as they had before. Our first guess was that DirectPlay was actually ignoring the flag and using TCP anyway. But our diagnostics quickly showed us that the problem was even more evil than Microsoft: it was the Internet.

Lesson four: UDP is better than TCP, but it still sucks. We expected packets to be dropped occasionally, but the Internet is much worse than that. It turned out that on some connections, about every fifth packet we sent would just disappear into the Ethernet. When they say UDP is unreliable, they aren’t kidding! Our simple re-sending mechanism just didn’t perform well enough under these conditions. It was quite common for a re-sent packet to be dropped, and we saw several cases where the original packet and 4 or 5 re-sends of that packet would all be dropped. We were re-sending so many packets, we were starting to exceed the bandwidth of the modem, and then the latency would start to climb, and all hell would break loose.

Our solution was simple and surprisingly effective. Every packet would send copy of the last packet. This way if a packet were dropped, a copy of it would arrive with the next packet, and we could continue on our merry way. This would require nearly twice as much bandwidth, but fortunately our system required so little bandwidth that this was acceptable. This would only fail if two consecutive packets were dropped, and this seemed unlikely. If it did happen, then we would fall back on the re-sending code.

This seemed to work pretty well! We finally had the game working on the Internet! Sure the Internet had turned out to be far worse than we had thought, but we could deal with it.

Lesson five: Whenever you think the Internet can’t get any worse, it gets worse. More extensive testing showed that we still had some serious problems. Apparently we had some kind of bug in our re-sending code, because it seemed that occasionally players would just lose their connection and nothing would get through. After spending endless hours trying to find the bug in our code, we finally realized that our code was fine, it was the Internet that was broken!

It turns out that sometimes the Internet gets so bad, that practically no packets get through at all! We documented periods of 10 and even 20 seconds during which only 3 or 4 packets would be delivered. No wonder TCP decides to just give up! How can you possibly play a game under conditions like that? We had a major problem on our hands. This "lost connection" phenomenon was something we just weren’t prepared to deal with.

Fortunately, this condition is usually pretty short, on the order of a few seconds. We managed to get our code to handle that by just tweaking the re-sending code. The player who is suffering this condition will frequently have their game stopped while we wait for the connection to clear, but once the condition passes, they can resume playing.

Unfortunately, this "lost connection" condition can last pretty long, and when that happens, we just can’t handle it, and we end up having to disconnect that player from the game. This isn’t really a solution, but at least it meant one bad connection wouldn’t ruin everyone’s game.

One of the last refinements we made to the game to deal with the Internet involved dealing with the inaccuracy of the predicted world. Since latencies could be very long, we need a way to deal with the inaccuracy of the predicted world.

Our first clue that we had to address this issue was the result of implementing what we thought would be an improvement. We realized that if any one player had trouble getting their data to the host computer, then every player would suffer because the host would not send out the compiled data packets until it had received data from every player. We decided that if a player failed to get their data to the host within a reasonable amount of time, then we would simply drop that data and send out the compiled packet without it.

If you follow through the consequences of that action you will realize that it creates a very evil situation. Players normally predict the position of their own craft with perfect accuracy. After all, they know exactly what they have done, so they know exactly where they should be. But if the host drops their input from the "official" version of the world which is the basis of their predicted version of the world, then they will actually have to change their own position if they are going to stay in sync with the other players. The visual result of changing the local player’s position is that the position of everything in the world, including the star-field, will change position.

This effect, dubbed "star-field warping," is extremely disconcerting, and makes the game practically unplayable. We eventually compromised by only dropping a player’s data if it was extremely late, which made this event fairly rare. However, in hindsight it might have been better to use the same solution we eventually implemented for the other players.

This instantaneous jump in position, or "warp", will always occur for the other players, since their position is always incorrectly predicted. If latency is fairly low (less than 200ms) this jumping is not very noticeable, but as latency increases the inaccuracy of the predicted world increases, and this "warping" effect becomes more noticeable.

To address this problem we implemented a "smoothing" effect. The smoothing algorithm keeps track of our last prediction of each player’s position. It then takes the current prediction and moves it closer to the last prediction. This effectively smoothes out the motion of the other player’s craft, and it looks much better, even though it is probably less accurate.

Conclusions Drawn

The conclusion is obvious: the Internet sucks. We were pretty disappointed in how our game performed over bad Internet connections. But looking back on it now, I believe we did as good a job as anyone else, given the style of game we were building, and the constraints we were forced to deal with.

The lack of a dedicated server turned out to be a huge problem. In cases where the "lost connection" phenomenon lasted more than a few seconds, it was clearly easier to send the entire state of the world than it was to re-send all the packets that had been lost. This was not practical, however, because the computer that would have to do that would be one of the players', and could not spare the bandwidth. A dedicated serer could have addressed this problem, and doing so would have been equivalent to allowing a player to "join" a game that was already in progress. "Late join" was a feature we really wanted to have in the game, but we felt it just wasn’t practical without a dedicated server.

I can't think of anything clever

A dedicated server would also have made it easier to support more simultaneous players. The latency would be cut nearly in half, because messages would not have to go through modems before being re-sent to the other players, as they do with the "host" player. In addition, a dedicated server would make it significantly easier for a player to evaluate the quality of their connection to the game, since they would only have to worry about their connection to the server. With a player acting as a host, the other players must be concerned with the quality of the host’s connection to the Internet, as well as their connection.

One of the biggest problems we faced with our network model was the requirement that packets be processed in order. Out-of-order packets could be used to improve the predicted copy of the world, but in XVT they are not. Even if they were there would still be a significant performance problem. The problem is that when the in-order packet finally does arrive, we must process it, and all the out-of-order packets that have come since. This can be time-consuming because the simulation must be run on each packet.

Both of these problems would have been much easier to address if we had started from scratch. But because we were modifying an existing engine we were limited by its capabilities. If the engine had been able to simulate large time steps more efficiently, that would have helped a great deal. We were effectively required to use a fixed time step, and this made simulating a long time step very inefficient. In addition, if the engine had been able to use out-of-order data to improve the predictions, then the long lag for a re-sent packet would have been much less noticeable.

One of the advantages of our approach to the problem is that it is pretty much completely independent of the game’s content. The packets we send only contain data about the player’s input device, and this technique could work virtually unchanged for almost any kind of real-time game. The really nice thing about this aspect of the model is that we did not have to worry about changing the content of the game, requiring us to change the network code. The fact that no game-specific data is included in the packets also makes it much more difficult for players to cheat by using "bots". In order to give an advantage, a "bot" would have to be able to create a stream of input data that is more effective than a human player and I think this would be extremely difficult.

Currently, Peter Lincroft is President and Lead Programmer at Ansible Software. He graduated with honors from the University of California in computer science. His first title was Pipe Dream, which he programmed single-handedly in just seven weeks. He went on to program his first 3D graphics engine for Lawrence Holland on the Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe project. Peter continued to work with Lawrence, helping to create the game software development company that would eventually become Totally Games, Inc. Peter was the lead technical programmer for Totally Games until April of 1998, when he left to form his own company, Ansible Software, Inc. His list of published titles includes Pipe Dream, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, X-Wing: Star Wars Space Combat Simulator, X-Wing CD, TIE Fighter, TIE Fighter CD, and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. These titles have sold over 3 million copies, and won numerous "game of the year" awards. TIE Fighter CD was recently named the "best game ever" by PC Gamer magazine.

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