05 June, 2010

Listen Servers Tend To Suck

written by Blain Newport on Friday, 4 June, 2010

Daddy? What's a listen server?

Well, Melanie, a listen server is what we call it when one player is running both the server and the game client on their own computer or console. This is, of course, unfair.

Why?

Because the person serving doesn't have to wait for the server to send information over the internet, so they see what's happening before anyone else. Also, the host's inputs don't have to go over the internet to get to the server, so they can react faster.

As a Quake player once said, "You can always tell who the server is. He's the one running around like Carl Lewis, fragging everybody."

Who's Carl Lewis?

A man who won gold medals in the Olympics for running.

So if you're the server you get gold medals?

Essentially, but it's because you heard the gun a tenth of a second before anyone else and your muscles responded when you told them too, not a tenth of a second later. Many victories in gaming are decided by less than two tenths of a second, so it's an unfair advantage.

But Quake's an old game. Nobody uses listen servers anymore, right?

Unfortunately, no. Since gaming moved to consoles, having dedicated servers isn't really an option anymore. And it's a waste of resources to code dedicated servers just for the PC audience, so listen servers are the norm these days.

That's bad.

It's worse than you think. Since games tend to push hardware to its limits, consoles don't have much power to spare, and network code is often not high priority, the server may have performance issues on top of the latency issues.

Also, if the person hosting has a flaky internet connection or has to go or just turns off their machine because they're losing, it can dump everyone out of the game.

So what do we do?

Live with it. Game companies want to make money, and that means console games with listen servers. Personally, I mostly play co-op, where it doesn't matter so much.

You stink, and your advice isn't helpful.

Meh. If mushy multiplayer is your worst problem, you're doing fine.

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