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Games Server Fervor Part 1 - What is a Dedicated Server?
Post by Dan @ 04:34pm 28/03/14 | Comments
In this series of articles we'll explore the nuances and merits of the different techniques game developers use to bring us together in their online worlds. First up: what even is a dedicated server?

When a major new videogame is announced, developers usually line up to tell us how deep its narrative is or how many pixels and polygons its trees have, but where online multiplayer is concerned, one of the most important technical aspects -- the game’s server model -- often barely rates a mention, if the details are even known at all.

It’s not uncommon for the community managers and game developers (usually content creators like writers, artists and level designers) speaking to press about a freshly revealed game to be completely unaware of a game’s technical networking plans, to a point where the decision of a server model can seem like an afterthought for most games.

But the way in which a game with online multiplayer facilitates its players -- by connecting to one another -- can have a huge impact on how enjoyable it is and how much longer-term value players get out of it. So let’s explore some of the different elements used in the server models of various games to consider what really are in the player’s best interest.

Dedicated servers” has become almost a buzzword in recent years, bandied about by developers and PR teams as a bullet-point feature for a game, but the term actually encompasses several different server models with a variety of advantages and limitations. A game server is considered dedicated when the processing and tracking of the movements and interactive actions of players in a multiplayer game is performed on computing hardware that is external to, and independent of, the devices the game’s participants are playing on.

The alternatives to dedicated servers are most commonly referred to as listen servers and peer-to-peer. A listen server is when all that data collation and processing that a dedicated server would usually be doing, is instead run in the background on the console or PC of one of the players participating in the game. With a peer-to-peer arrangement, the server-side processing is distributed across or managed by all of the local devices of all players in the game.

Peer-to-peer and listen servers are generally employed as a cost-saving measure, as they use players’ own hardware to process and coordinate the happenings in a multiplayer game, but they are both restricted by the inherent processing and bandwidth limitations of the collective players’ devices and Internet connections, individually. Using a listen server model, the game server computations are competing for processing and memory resources with the actual gameplay running on the host player’s device, which means sacrificing some measure of in-game graphics quality or framerate to accommodate the server process.

The more players in a game, the more CPU and RAM a server process requires, which is why console games that use this model typically restrict player numbers to no more than 16 or so in a single match, often less. More players also means more network bandwidth is needed, so internet connection speed quality is the other big constraint here. When a listen server host player has a poor Internet connection, it’s a laggy experience for everyone else, and even with a good connection, the host will always still have a natural latency advantage over everyone else in the match.

A dedicated server setup avoids these pitfalls, providing a centralised independent location for all players in a match to connect in to, usually located in a bandwidth-rich datacentre with hardware that can be scaled to meet the processing and memory requirements of games making much higher player counts possible, as well as other server-side features like AI and physics calculations.

MMORPGs and any other “massively multiplayer” games of course all use dedicated servers out of necessity; the sheer number of players interacting in the same space and the AI and world events being processed wouldn’t be possible using players as hosts. That most MMOs also maintain persistent online worlds where many choices that players make are saved and stored also means that the game’s developers and publishers that operate and control the hosting of these servers. It’s unheard of for an MMO to have a publicly hostable server, although enterprising hackers have managed to reverse-engineer and emulate servers for a handful of games, the results have all remained as very buggy and incomplete experiences.

Arena action games on the other hand, use a few different approaches. In the golden age of PC LAN gaming, most every first-person shooter with network multiplayer used an open dedicated server model. Conceived and defined by id Software’s Quake series games, in addition to servers hosted online by the developer or publisher themselves, FPS games of this era offered players the choice of running listen servers as they played the game on the same computer, as well as the option of running their own standalone dedicated servers.

Sadly, when online multiplayer arrived on console platforms, the concept of publicly hostable dedicated servers was largely left behind. The walled-up console ecosystems with their stringent software certification processes and secure networking environments made it prohibitively difficult for developers to allow players to run their own dedicated servers.

A publisher having to foot the bill for all the servers themselves is a major ongoing expense -- MMOs in particular require either subscriptions or other sustained monetisation to maintain their server expenses -- so console games naturally gravitated toward the player-hosted listen server model. Then as consoles became the primary development target for multiplatform games, dedicated servers for the PC versions of those games became a question instead of an expectation.

The tide appears to be changing a little now though. As multiplayer games on console platforms pursue richer features, dedicated servers are becoming a necessity. Games like the freshly-launched Blockbuster Titanfall, and the upcoming Evolve have lower players-per-map counts that could have managed okay with listen servers, but the additional CPU required to drive their heavy AI component -- the element that sets them apart from the Halo’s and Call of Duties -- is simply too much to be running on the same console someone is playing on.

So the term dedicated servers has now worked its way into PR vocabulary and the bullet-points used to promote modern videogames, which is by and large a good thing as it indicates a more widely perceived value in the feature. However, as mentioned earlier, not all dedicated servers are equal. There’s some important distinctions between games with servers only operated by the publisher, and those that permit the public to run their own, that perhaps we really should be paying more attention to.

Tune in again for part two, where we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of open versus closed server models and online services in videogames, as they pertain to the player experience and consumer rights.

Latest Comments
Posted 06:16pm 28/3/14
with the intention of considering what is ultimately in the videogame consumer's best interest.
Bull. S***. The only interest they have is "how can we turn off the service in a year and force them onto a new game, thus making us more money". They don't give a toss how good or bad our experience is.
Posted 07:19pm 28/3/14
Bull. S***. The only interest they have is "how can we turn off the service in a year and force them onto a new game, thus making us more money". They don't give a toss how good or bad our experience is.

Yeah +1 this straight up. There is no denying this.
Posted 07:25pm 28/3/14
I know I am enjoying playing on servers that don't lag for once. Multiplayer takes more of my time then single player. Aussies have had a raw deal for years as far as networking goes. Still got along way to go before we have the same experience of more developed countries though.
Posted 12:05am 29/3/14
Errr whoop: I was referrering to the articles exploring what aspects of server tech are in the consumer's best interest. Far from suggesting that goal is shared by games publishers. Reworded it a little if that helps.
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