Mesh Networking, not Graphics, Will Define This Generation of Games

Destiny Frontier

We’ve embarked upon another decade of console gaming, what some think will be the last great hurrah of the traditional game console as we know it. And here we are, a modest bump in performance, the exact same input paradigm we’ve had for the last 16 years and a church of game design and storytelling that is looking stagnant and decrepit. With all the banter about polygon count, compute units and native 1080p rendering, there is a far more exciting and entirely different realm about gaming that even the glorious PC gaming ecosystem has only scratched the surface of: an entire experience designed around seamless and persistent multiplayer.

In a recent interview with Game Informer, Bungie technical director Chris Butcher details the multiplayer component of their next game, Destiny:

We took this mesh-based networking that we’ve been developing for years and years with Halo and adapted that networking to work in a seamless interconnected world full of other players and AIs. So when you’re playing a destination you’re moving from area to area and every one of those areas has got this mesh networking with a group of players that are in it at this one time. And then it has its own servers for that particular area so you’re continuously moving around between these groups of both consoles and also dedicated servers that are hosting it.

That’s the thing that I’m really excited that we’ve been able to do because I think it’s been really hard for us. And I don’t really think anybody else is going to be able to pull it off in the timeframe we’re talking about on consoles.

In order to understand just how ambitious the aforementioned technology is, one must understand the current state of affairs with the technology of online gaming.

Traditional multiplayer consists, at best, of a few user facing options and modules that a player must select and define before heading into a dedicated multiplayer mode. Currently, all games that ship with a multiplayer component have said component as a separate entity from the single player component. Some go as far as to ship the multiplayer component of a game on its own disc, or in the case of PC gaming, as a standalone executable file. Games that are multiplayer only, such as a Massively Multiplayer Online game like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars still rely on a sophisticated server browser that connects a handful of players to a dedicated server running an “instance” of the game’s world: a copy of the game world running on the dedicated server. Meanwhile, other players in another part of the world are running another instance of the game on another dedicated server. Events occurring simultaneously in both instances are confined to that instance only, and the results of those events are only visible to the global community after the game server completes the instance and uploads the results to a central server.

In other words, in a traditional MMO or shooter, a game instance “begins” and has a few “rounds” which consist of battles, gaining experience or loot and then the servers tally up these instances afterwards to create a global database of events in the game world.

Game consoles usually take a different approach with a system called matchmaking. In a “match-made” game, a player is presented with the same options for online play as the player in the dedicated server example above, but instead of selecting a server, the game simply finds nearby players who are willing to play using the same settings and selects a geographically central player’s game console with a  good internet connection to act as the host for the match. The benefit of this system is the relatively low cost involved and inherent simplicity; a single player game console acts as the dedicated server of a few players during the “instance” of play at hand. Once the round ends, the matchmaking system starts over, finding new players who would like to play together.

Both systems have their benefits. For those who’ve grown up with these systems, they’ve become second nature to them. Selecting the fastest dedicated server on the PC is an expected feature to have in a game, not a hindrance. Matchmaking on a console game has become ubiquitous ever since Halo 2 some 10 years ago.

Alas, both systems also have their drawbacks. When this generation of hardware and games starts hitting its stride, it will become evident that the legacy way to network players will need to evolve. The traditional dedicated server browser is an unnecessary relic from some of the hallmark PC games almost two decades ago. Although finding a fast dedicated server with a custom set of rules is certainly nice for some, I think for many it is simply a hindrance to getting into a game and playing. Match-made games on consoles give an unfair advantage to the host of the game, whose actions don’t have to be sent across the country to other players, allowing the host gamer to react more quickly and register damage before other players can react.

Certain games should learn your style, learn the ways you like to play and automatically select matches that are challenging and entertaining for you, all without any player-facing interface. For these games, it only adds to the seamlessness of the experience and never detracts from it. The server browser interface should be a tertiary feature that more experienced gamers can turn on, but it should no longer be the modus operandi.

It is in relation to these two styles of online play that Destiny’s mesh networking makes the most sense, although it may not make complete sense for all types of games.

On the surface, Mesh networking seems to differ very little from the matchmaking system on consoles today, and indeed, as players roam about the world of Destiny, they are connecting to other players as some players act as a host in some non-critical situations. However, dedicated servers placed in mission critical situations throughout the game world ensure a fair fight in a raid or public event. The beauty of this system is the seamlessness of it all, players move in and out of dedicated servers and match-made states without ever knowing it. Players come into and out of view seemingly at will and it all seems as if the world is indeed populated by millions of players at once. The ultimate goal of creating a seemingly living world is complete. At no time can a player to look behind the networking curtains to reveal themselves playing in instance 211 hosted by Joe Console in Seattle or embarking on raid 6502 hosted by a server in Chicago while the exact same raid is being hosted by another server in Sydney.

There is no more dedicated menu for matchmaking or a server browser because there is no need to have a separate game mode for multiplayer, let a lone a separate disc in some cases. The “offline” single player mode is actually the multiplayer, and the “multiplayer” mode is indestinguishable from single player. There is simply one mode: connected.

And indeed, the industry is responding to this type of seamless networking. Bungie’s game may be the first to use it, but other games have the potential to adopt a similar style of seamlessness. Ubisoft’s The Division looks to benefit tremendously from this exact system, though details have yet to be revealed.

Every generation, plenty of ink is spilled on the technical prowess of a new generation of consoles with little talk or discussion about the potential of different and unique connected play. In this regard, Bungie’s ambitions are even higher than they were when they popularized the modern matchmaking system with Halo 2. If they’re successful, this generation is going to get a whole new category of games.