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Stargate Worlds Exclusive Technical Interview

Updated Wed, Dec 16, 2009 by Cody Bye

Questions by Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor
Answers by Demetrius Comes, Technology Director, Stargate Worlds

Massively multiplayer online games are massive projects that take an immense amount of manpower to develop. Huge teams of programmers and engineers are brought in to help create a world that is cohesive and technologically stable, yet fans of the title often don’t hear anything about the technical aspects of their game of choice. Always dedicated to the thoughts and minds of their readers, the Ten Ton Hammer staff took a moment to chat with Stargate World’s Technology Director, Demetrius Comes. If you want to learn something about the tech side of MMOGs, this is the interview to read!


The lighting and visual effects have really been improved in this second round Castle screenshot.

Ten Ton Hammer: While we’ve heard a lot about the design fundamentals of the game and some of the art decisions, the gaming public doesn’t really know much about the technical side of the Stargate Worlds development. What sort of third party engines are you using to create and/or run Stargate Worlds?

Demetrius Comes: We choose Epic's Unreal 3 engine for the client, Big World technologies for the server, and rolled our own glue to get the two engines to play nicely together. Purchasing these two engines will allow us to ship a AAA MMORPG in roughly three years. In my opinion a relatively short development cycle for an MMO of this scale.
 
That's not to say we aren't without our engineering challenges, neither engine is exactly what we need (they never are) but what an incredible head start they gave us. Internally we have spent a good deal of resources developing an extremely powerful content creation tool, we call “SpecSuite.” This tool is used to create spawns, enter the data for our event driven AI, create items, mobs, loot tables etc. Every minute we save a designer while they create content is another minute that they have to iterate content, and in my experience if you give talented creative people powerful tools and time to iterate you'll have a winner.

If you take a look at the screenshots we’ve got here, you can see how this added time for iteration is paying off. This is the second round of Castle screenshots and you can see a real difference in the quality of the lighting and visual effects.

Ten Ton Hammer: How are you handling the distribution of player populations? If you’re having multiple servers, how many players do you anticipate will be on each server?

Demetrius: We will be using a shard (server) model. On logging into the service players will be given an indication of the activity level of each shard. As for the number of players we anticipate on each shard, heh, well that's what beta / simultaneous user testing is for, to give us those answers. From an engineering standpoint we'll be shooting for as high as we can. It’s always nice to keep the capital expenditures to a minimum, but that will be balanced by game play population needs, as well as engineering dollars spent vs. hardware dollars spent.

Ten Ton Hammer: What do you anticipate will be the minimum and recommended computer specifications for Stargate Worlds? Will gamers need to upgrade their computers to run this game?

Demetrius: Unreal has proven to be a surprisingly scalable engine, so we expect most gamers will already have a rig able to run Stargate Worlds. Our art department is aware that the game has to run on a variety of machines, so they are working under the premise of “make it look great on a base model and mind-blowing on a high-end dedicated gaming box.”

That’s a long way of saying that the final specs aren’t set yet, but obviously we want a lot of people to play and enjoy Stargate Worlds, so we’re not focusing on high-end rigs only.

The tech staff continues to focus a good deal of resources on blending the Big World and Unreal 3 engines.

Ten Ton Hammer: How difficult has it been to technically support some of the more impressive effects used in the Stargate television show? Is it hard to make an event horizon look like an event horizon? What about the large explosions? What about those super huge buildings?

Demetrius: The combination of an incredibly talented art staff, the Unreal 3 tool set, and Unreal 3 render make the engineering problems normally associated with these types of graphically intense scenes basically non-existent. This allows my engineering staff to focus on enhancements, lowering system specs, and morphing this traditional FPS engine into an MMORPG engine.

Ten Ton Hammer: What sort of technique are you using to help decrease any sort of lag that might be experienced due to the fast paced combat that will be part of the game? Are there any tricks that help you do this?

Demetrius: We have and will continue to spend a good deal of focused resources on our marriage between Big World and Epic's Unreal 3 engines. This focused effort is used to ensure we cut out all the fat from the communications layer. As for tricks, the Internet is going to lag but you can still minimize the effect on your game by balancing client prediction systems, with the genre's need to be server authoritative. It's all a balancing act of allowing the client to react smoothly to the player but still insure everything they are doing is legal, balance that with today’s standard approaches to latency offsetting, etc and you can have a fast-paced MMO that doesn't feel laggy.

Ten Ton Hammer: From a technical standpoint, what were some of the biggest hurdles you needed to jump over in order to make Stargate Worlds? What were your biggest successes?

Demetrius: To be honest I'm not sure if we've encountered the biggest hurdles yet but so far I'd have to say it’s a toss up between our recent core technology migrations and getting Big World's server engine and Epic Unreal 3 to play nice.
 
Recently we moved from using a MySql database to an Oracle database, moved from a single threaded server model to a multi-threaded server model, and moved our cover system calculations from python to C++. Any one of these changes is scary on its own, yet we attacked all three at the same time, completed them in record time, and have moved past them. I can't say enough awesome things about this engineering staff. These are not easy problems to solve let alone doing them while game systems, and content are being built and moving the game to a playable state.

As for getting our two engines (Unreal and Big World) to play nicely, that complexity is because we have two different engines, both products have powerful methodologies, but they are two different methodologies. Architecting and implementing that translation layer has been critical for us, and I'm happy to say it's working very well.

Ten Ton Hammer: Technical issues are some of the most problematic but least discussed portion of the development of any MMOG. If there was one technical point that you’d like to make to fans of the upcoming game and MMOGs in general, what would it be?

Demetrius: Making an MMORPG is tough; you need A LOT of coffee, even more late night snacks ... BTW snack donations accepted. No seriously, I guess I would simply ask the readers to consider all the things that have to work correctly for the simplest in-game action to work, and then consider how many different people needed to pool their talents to get it to work. Take “/dance” - there was an engineer that needed to write the code that interprets what /dance means, then create a message on the client destined for the server to inform the server that you wish to dance, that message needs to be encrypted and sent, the server needs to decrypt the message, process the message, let everyone in your area of interest know that you want to dance. Each client receiving the message that you want to dance needs to load the animations, sounds and particle effects then play them.

The SGW crew hopes to be able to run the game on a wide range of computer hardware.

There had to be an artist that created the 3D Mesh for all the clothes, armor, and weapons that you are wearing, another artist had to create the texture(s) for each mesh. An animator had to rig the Meshes, create the animation sequence, and finally the programmers have to load the sequence, do all the complex math correctly and quickly simply so your character can do the Macarena.

Just imagine what goes into a Mission, or PVP, or spectator-friendly mini-games.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Ten Ton Hammer readers and Stargate Worlds fans?

Demetrius: The breadth, scale, and fresh approach of Stargate Worlds is something I believe both long-time MMO and first-time MMO players will truly enjoy. From our fast-paced combat system, to mini-games, to our visually-rich worlds, the IP and everything in between, I believe it has something for everyone. We welcome everyone with questions to visit our community site at www.StargateWorlds.com and join our forums. The initial pool that we will choose beta testers from is our forum members, so if you want to get in on the ground floor, now is the right time to sign up.


As a gamer, do you want to see more technically oriented interviews? What did you think of Demetrius’ answers? Let us know on the forums!

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