Game developer attacks system latency to 'save' players

Online gamers and stock traders both rely on a constant stream of small data packets being funneled back and forth to accomplish their respective tasks. The data packets don't care whether they're executing a stock trade or an alien monster, but they do share a common enemy: the dark forces of latency.

In rapid-fire stock trading, a miniscule amount of latency in the transmission of data packets "costs real money," said David Laux, IBM's global executive for games and interactive entertainment. "In a game, the slightest bit of latency may mean the difference between life and death of your character."

You won't get any disagreement on that point from Hilmar Petursson, CEO and former chief technology officer at CCP Games, a Reykjavik, Iceland-based company that runs an IBM BladeCenter cluster system with 420 processor cores to support its popular EVE Online role-playing game.

At heart, a financial services transaction is "a simulation," much like a game is, Petursson said. It's just that the stakes involved are a little different, he added.

Perhaps by the middle of next year, Petursson plans to adopt high-performance computing technologies to further speed the movement of data through his BladeCenter system. CCP now uses TCP/IP over Ethernet as its communication protocol, but the company is considering a switch to the Message Passing Interface, a protocol used in high-performance computing environments to support parallel applications. It also may replace Ethernet with InfiniBand links, although company officials are still testing various approaches.

In a game like EVE Online, latency can result from the Internet connections used by players or computing issues in the servers that power the game. Petursson said he tries to minimize the effects of latency on the outcome of games by designing them around any potential constraints and enabling them to adjust to any issues. "We try to ensure an even-playing field," he said.

The number of processor cores in CCP's BladeCenter cluster is increasing by 10% every three months, according to Petursson. That kind of power boost is being driven by increasing use: on Labor Day, CCP set a new peak record for concurrent users on its system with more than 35,300 worldwide, he said.

Laux said IBM sees a lot of opportunity for sales in meeting the processing demands of online game developers. Indeed, IBM last week touted not only CCP's use of its BladeCenter systems, but also other deployments within the gaming industry. Its customers also include Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment Inc., which is developing a game called Stargate Worlds; Icarus Studios LLC, which is creating one called Fallen Earth; and The Codemasters Software Co., which uses a BladeCenter system to support its RF Online game.

"This is a global focus for us; we're launching game infrastructures around the globe," Laux said.

One characteristic that many gamers may share, in addition to the desire to compete online, is interest in the technology underlying their games.

Case in point: In July, CCP announced that it had upgraded to Stackless Python 2.5, a high-level programming language, and to Microsoft Corp.'s Visual Studio 2005 development tools -- the latter for its internal build system.

"We have a sort of fairly sophisticated user base," said Petursson, who added that EVE Online players, many in their later 20s and up, want to know what's going on in the company's data center. "We have users that are interested in technology advances and the bleeding edge," he said.

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