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The ups and downs of doing online multiplayer as an indie

May 12, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

If he had a time machine and could go back to the start of Gun Monkeys development, would be put online multiplayer in the game again?

"Hah, definitely not," he laughs. "It was a great lesson, and the game's done well enough that I'm pleased with it, but I think the stress of running something online is different to the stress of launching something single player. It's like nothing else. There are just so many balls to juggle at the same time, and if it crashes and burns it's instantly more problematic."

And don't expect any more online multiplayer games from Marshall anytime soon. "It's something I'm really interested in, and it was a fun experiment," he notes, "but I don't think the process made me very happy and that's the point."

"I love my job, it's fun. I am exceptionally lucky to be doing this as my job. But making and launching a multiplayer game was arguably the most stressful thing I've done as an indie developer, and I enjoy my job and my life too much to mess around with all that sort of stuff again."

"Making and launching a multiplayer game was arguably the most stressful thing I've done as an indie developer, and I enjoy my job and my life too much to mess around with all that sort of stuff again."

Klei Entertainment has played around with local multiplayer various times before, including with its Shank games, but Don't Starve is the first time that the studio is adding online multiplayer to a single player game. (The studio's first game Sugar Rush was due to be an MMO, but it was eventually cancelled.)

The online co-op is being added to Don't Starve more than a year after the initial release on PC, and for the team, latency and bandwidth have been the number one concern from a technical standpoint.

And echoing Dan Marshall thought's, Don't Starve design Jamie Cheng tells me that, "from a design perspective, having enough players so people can find other players is usually the biggest concern."

"Luckily, Don't Starve has a very large active player base, so at least the second concern is resolved," he adds. And judging from Cheng's experience with Don't Starve it sounds like the team isn't having the most difficult time implementing online play, as he tells me, "We will certainly be making more multiplayer games in the future, as long as it makes sense for the game."

Dutch studio Ronimo Games has had plenty of experience with online multiplayer games, first with 2D strategy game Swords & Soldiers, and most recently with theAwesomenautsseries.

"Online multiplayer is the most complex part of game development there is," says developer Joost van Dongen, bluntly. "Adding online multiplayer roughly doubles the programming time needed to make a game, especially if this is the first time for a developer."

And the complexity of your game is the resounding factor in just how difficult adding online multiplayer to your game is going to be.

"Awesomenauts is much bigger than Swords & Soldiers," he says, "so in Awesomenauts we had serious issues with getting the bandwidth low enough, while this was automatically okay in Swords & Soldiers. We spent a lot of time on bandwidth optimisation."

"Online multiplayer is the most complex part of game development there is."

The preception that most indie devs have about adding online multiplayer to games is usually wrong, he reasons. Most programmers think it's going to be the core issue of gameplay synchronization, when in reality this is just a tiny part of the total amount of work required.

"There is at least as much work in things like matchmaking, handling invites and handling network errors," he explains. "Especially complex and time-consuming is the combination of all of these things: what if the user accepts an invite during the intro cinematic, then accepts another invite during the loading screen towards the game he tried to join, and then gets a network error in the second loading screen towards that other invite he tried to join?"

It's all these strange situations that online multiplayer presents that prove the most time-consuming when implementing online multiplayer in your game.

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Julian Toker
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"It's not about creating a world that is the exact same for every player - it's about creating an experience in which each player believes they're operating in the same world as the other players."

Very clever concept.

Phil Maxey
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Online multiplayer is one of the most difficult things to implement in game development, even in a turn-based strategy game such as I'm developing, the issues mount up if you want the player to be able to see a replay or have an Undo option, but having said all of that when I look back on most of the games I've had most fun with over the years they have been multiplayer games both online and local play.

@clankingdom is going to be online multiplayer only to start with, and my next game after that is also going to be online multiplayer. I think some aspect of playing with or against other people is essential in a game these days.

Sally Monet
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I agree, been working on multiplayer HTML5 game for months, was rather difficult, though I gained knowledge and experience :)

Kiran Nair
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The IGF student showcase 2014 winner, Cyber Heist is a good example of a multi player co-op game executed well.

Martyn Hughes
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Our game, UnitedFootball, is a 4 v 4 online soccer (football) title. And it has been a nightmare... The multiplayer complexities in both the network model, gameplay and even in terms of getting players into games are an order of magnitude more difficult than if we had done a single player game...

Our dev team absolutely hate the fact it is multiplayer due to the above reasons...

Pedro Fonseca
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Nothing exactly new nor defying common knowledge regarding opinions and advices.

Still, very interesting and somewhat reassuring to read it coming from people with way more experience than me, if not for any other reason, just to give me some peace of mind that I'm not being an old geezer telling them kids to stop playing online and all sit on my couch for some local co-op like in the old days.

Daniel Cook
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One thing is often missed about online multiplayer is that it is as much a design challenge as it is a technical challenge. Screw up a few logistical key concepts and if your concurrency isn't high enough, no one gets to play. Matches that require a fixed number of player and synced start times are deadly. You don't design a game and make it online multiplayer. You design an online multiplayer game.

(An older essay on the topic:

Local multiplayer is a tricky fallback. It has been around for ages and has some well known drawbacks.

1) It tends to be played by a handful of people that are able to get together regularly in the same physical space. Kids, college students, roommates. Almost all other groups are rarely in situations that allow for couch play. Developers are prone to testing bias here, because they are one of the few groups that plays games together locally. :-) "Hey, we are having fun! So will everyone else." Nope...because they aren't like you.

2) It isn't actually played that often. Most couch games have play patterns similar to board games. They come out on rare gatherings and gather dust otherwise.

3) Since both retention and engagement are low (for 99% of the audience), it is always a premium product. You need to get money up front for a game that the buyers will almost never play. This limits DLC and IAP if this was a consideration.

4) Because the value proposition isn't that great for most players, you end up making a single player game anyway in order to sell it. So scope increases as do costs. Historically, local multiplayer only games don't sell well (10-20X difference) You may not be in it for the money, but a consideration.

All the best,

Brandon Wu
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Couldn't agree more! For us, the design challenge resulted in even more technical challenges!

We wanted to avoid having to have everyone start at the same time for a match so that more people can get into a match quicker, and ended up with a RTS-style match with an authoritative FPS-style setup - matchmaking, server instance headaches... Three networking platform changes and now on the fourth iteration, I can't wait for the day we ship *something*! ;-)

(link to game:

Iain Howe
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Yup. This post is a great self-check and a reminder to craft solutions for your target market - not for yourself. Since most studios have a/multiple couches in front of console setups, we tend to assume that everyone does.

Curtiss Murphy
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I struggled with multiplayer networking for years, until I eventually compiled my lessons into a chapter in Game Engine Gems 2, "Believable Dead Reckoning for Networked Games" (PM me with your email for a PDF copy).

I loved this article! This quote sums it up: "Online multiplayer is the most complex part of game development there is," says developer Joost van Dongen, bluntly. "Adding online multiplayer roughly doubles the programming time needed to make a game, especially if this is the first time for a developer."

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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no pm mechanisms seem to be available, :) can u please send one copy to ashcan [dot] saeedi [dot] 1989 [at] gmail [dot] com (trying to avoid spammers and scrapers :) )

Many thanks

Kevin Fishburne
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My two cents on how I got online multiplayer working in my game:

1) The only player input sent to the server is raw gamepad data or a text string for chatting.
2) The client and server have an incoming transaction queue, outgoing transaction queue and outgoing transaction queue history for resending transactions not acknowledged in time.
3) The server updates different types of world data at different rates so that more important things like player transaction handling take precedence.
4) I use custom UDP transaction/packet handling to enforce transaction ordering and preventing double-execution of inappropriately resent transactions.
5) The server processes all clients each "frame" and concatenates like transactions so they may be sent to a player as a single transaction, reducing overhead when many players are in the same area.
6) Clients receive new data only when it has changed and never at a rate higher than 10 FPS.
7) Clients have "current" and "target" positions/orientations/etc. The current position is what's being rendered and the target position is their true position as sent by the server. The current position is interpolated toward the target position each client render frame. This creates the appearance of inertia and masks latency.

The main things not yet implement that I'll need to watch for are clients sending bad data (too much or too little) that could crash the server and clients flooding the server with a transaction (DoS attack).

Implementing this was my first real experience with network programming, and while I can say it was damned difficult, it wasn't the most difficult thing I'd ever experienced. So if you're going to do it, before you write a line of code, plan it out in detail. You'll save a few burst blood vessels and it will hopefully do what you need it to without being easily exploitable.

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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We've been working on a online only tank game like the old games (alikes of battle city) , playing it around the office has been so fun and David Aldidge's talk was so helpful as others said. I've worked both on multiplayer tech and games and I agree that it's hard. Some problems of it can become easier like the problem of testing and finding bugs but some are essential and will never be easy unless we can move data with speeds faster than light speed which will not be surely tomorrow :)