[In this Intel-sponsored feature, part of the Visual Computing section, the technical experts behind Mythic and EA's Warhammer Online discuss the mechanics of keeping the MMO running across multiple servers and data centers.]
Late at night in unattended server rooms around the world, noiseless except for the soft whir of cooling fans, the peculiar entities that inhabit Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR) are in ceaseless motion. Guided by artificial intelligence, these computer-generated beings continue to roam across the elaborately detailed landscapes and through underground passageways, even at times when few players are active in the game.
Battles erupt when characters randomly encounter each other. Footprints are etched into damp grass, branches snapped, rocks dislodged from walls, and the landscape is altered in innumerable ways-all as a part of the never-ending background activity.
Persistence is a key element of the imaginative Warhammer Online world. Its creators at Mythic Entertainment see that persistence as a differentiator amidst a slate of competitors in the increasingly popular genre of MMORPG(massively multiplayer online role-playing games).
The Warhammer Online universe is populated by an extensive selection of characters, each belonging to an individual class that occupies a unique role in the game (such as Engineer or Shaman). Competition can take the form of Player vs. Player (PvP) or Player vs. Environment (PvE) activities.
Support for public quests is a new addition to this venerable game's legacy, which dates back decades to the Games Workshop classic Warhammer fantasy game series created over 25 years ago. Free to engage in impromptu Warhammer Online public quests, players gain influence based on their degree of participation. Some of the most spirited play takes place in Realm vs. Realm competition, where organized teams of characters carry out quests as a group against opponents.
Gamers choose from a broad range of alter egos, selecting 3D bodies to inhabit while traveling across the WAR territories. To get started, each new player selects a server in a particular region of the world. Servers exist in five regions: North America, Oceania, Europe, Russia, and (as of May 28, 2009) Taiwan.
The creatures, daemons, humanoids, and monsters likely to be encountered during a WAR quest are extensive and varied-not unlike the range of beings introduced in any good science fiction or fantasy tale.
The Undead stalk the landscape, with bone giants, living armor, and the winged nightmares among their numbers. Monsters such as the flayerkin, dragon ogre, and troll make life difficult for players. Humanoids fit into distinct categories, including beastmen, dwarves, elves, greenskins, humans, ogres, and skaven. Many of these WAR world inhabitants are animated by artificial intelligence and the underlying game logic. Others represent the avatars of players engaged in the competition.
Role-playing adventure games on the computer started out as text-based interactions, such as Zork, a popular game from Infocom in the early 1980s. Now, the scope, intricacy, and immersion is akin to being embedded within an ever-changing motion picture, following a storyline that is shaped by thousands of other participants, requiring massive processing power to control and coordinate astronomical numbers of interactions.
In a recent interview with Online Technical Director Andrew Mann at Mythic Entertainment and Chief Technical Officer Matt Shaw, we talked about the challenge of coordinating hundreds of servers spread across the world, the importance of normalizing the hardware platform on a common set of specifications, and the power and performance demands of processing millions of events across a 45-square mile world populated with millions of objects and thousands of players.