From Lag to Launch - How Beta Saved District 187
If you feel that beta tests have become purely a marketing gimmick or the MMO industry's painful imitation of a free trial period, you're not alone. But you should also know that at least one developer values your testing feedback beyond measure.
Online shooter District 187 features a familiar premise - a desperate fight for control between police and criminals following a global economic collapse - and some not-so-familiar but welcome niceties like full support for the "street fight" territory control system, highly exclusive player rankings, futuristic weapons, and much more. NetMarble assembled a global team of core testers for what the upstart game developer's first global launch, and what they found was literally game-changing - perhaps game saving.
At first, Executive Producer Jon-EnÃ©e Merriex's response sounded pro forma for the inevitable question about beta feedback. "The feedback has been pretty positive. Our beta testers like the gameplay, they like the maps, they like the itemization and what we've done with the weapons and gear."
But then came a surprise.
"The two things they've complained about are lag and content. As far as content goes, we have a lot of content coming, so we're not really worried about that. But the lag issues had us really nervous and were the primary reason behind us pushing back the launch date by a month. It's a critical, critical issue."
The lag issues, Jon explained, resulted from District 187's heavy reliance on the server side of the client-server equation. In a bid to prevent cheating and keep Internet connection requirements as low as possible, the NetMarble development team sought to make the game 's servers bear the brunt of the work. Lag prediction and other server-side voodoo can only do so much without instructions from players, however, and the greater number of weak connections often resulted in the server waiting for client input.
This delay extended to players with fast pings and the result: at best, player-created lag, and at worst, inaccurate but damaging claims of speed hacks (where lack of information can lead to players appearing to teleport across the map) and other exploits.
Counter-intuitively, the problem wasn't exactly necessarily related to geography. "We have two Italian players in our core testing group that have a high ping that essentially matched our ping in Los Angeles. Our match would be going great until someone from the east coast logged in, then suddenly all hell broke loose... What we're seeing is, with how the servers work, if I have a 150 ping and you have a 150 ping, we'll actually have a really good match. If someone walks into that room with 60 ping, it actually ruins the entire game experience."
According to Jon, the solution was much simpler than taking drastic measures like increasingly regionalized servers. "We're pretty proud of the server technology and we didn't want to change it," Jon related. "Instead, our solution was to help players help themselves through better matchmaking." Jon explained that previously, the game checked ping only when the player entered a lobby. The new solution sorts out players by best relative ping at login, matching players with the lobby that makes the most sense for them.
The solution isn't foolproof - creating lag-free global matches between top ranked players and taking into account language differences, for example, are very important considerations for NetMarble as well. Jon is confident that NetMarble's lag-destroying efforts will help grow the playerbase to the point that matchmaking will take into account both technical considerations and human preferences.
With a triple-A MMOFPS title, PlanetSide 2, launching on the same day, NetMarble has an uphill fight ahead. Jon noted that the team's update plans are aggressive - 13 maps live with 2-3 maps added per update, and a wholly new mode unique among online shooters featuring a boss fight in the existing Shantytown game mode. Jon hinted that other new maps might involve co-op play, but such maps won't hit the live server until 2013.
Aside from upcoming content, District 187 is one of the first MMOFPS titles to feature both territory control ("street fight") and aggressive rankings, with the top 5 ranks available to only the top 1,000 players and the top rank available to only the top 2 players. The game launches today, November 20th. Find out more at district187.com.