understanding source multiplayer networking

understanding source multiplayer networking

This acticle assumes that you've read, or at least at tried to get through source's multiplayer article. The purpose of this article is to explain the parts that I personally thought were hard to understand, and can be read in tadem with it as an aid.

The first step in understanding source multiplayer networking is to know the parties involved, there are clients which represent people who play the game, and there is a server which they are connected to.

Looking at the client specifically, it has input and output, the input being keypresses, mousepresses and mouse movements. A collection of this data is called a user command.

The output of the client are UDP packets containing user commands that are the input to the server, the server is running a game simulation, and outputs game states back to the client.

Recapping, the client's input are real world input devices, and the output are packets. The server's input is packets and output is also packets.


There are a few main tickrates to be aware of, the are easily remembered just by recalling the main systems in a client server conversation. There is the client's inputs, the sending of packets from client to the server the server's simulation, and the server sending packets back to the client.

With these in mind, we will call the rate at which the client samples inputs as the client sample rate, the rate at which the client sends information to the server will be the client send rate, the server simulation rate and the server send rate.

Note that source has individual server send rates for each connected player which makes sense because depending on your internet quality you might not be able to handle a higher rate or vise versa.

Also there is a pretty big connection between the client sample rate and the client send rate. Let's say your sample rate is 100Hz, and your send rate is 50Hz. When this is the case you're going to miss half of the inputs you're sampling, so you should always make your sample rate the same as your send rate.

Let's say we've corrected our sample rate to be 50Hz to match the send rate of 50Hz, but now the servers simulation rate is at 100Hz, then you're losing out on potential user commands which could be processed but aren't because you're only sending new commands at half the speed of the tick rate of the server.

To remedy the above situation we could first correct our clients send rate to be 100Hz, and then correct the sample rate to 100Hz as well, noting that now the client must do more work sampling and sending data which puts more load on the client.

Finally we have to consider the servers send rate, and still assuming that our simulation rate is 100Hz, then we would also want to make our send rate 100Hz, so not to miss out on any of our simulated world states.

At this point you might be wondering, why not just set all tick rates to be the same so we're guarenteed to not have to lose out on any information at all, the reason is to optimize performance for cpu and networking.

A tick simply denotes one of these processes occuring once. Also since the server and client are not launched at the same time, then the clients tick rates will probably be offset from the servers tick rate, in general we'll assume that there is always some phase shift, so that ticks will not be occuring at the same time.

For the rest of the discussion we'll assume that servers simulation rate is 66.66 HZ, meaning that there is 15ms between two server ticks, the server send rate is the same for everyone and is set at 20 Hz which gives 50ms delta time between any two, the client sample rate is 30Hz giving a delta of 33.33ms, we'll assume that client send rate is the same.


Now that you know about the round trip that happens as you play a game, you'll start to understand how lag can build up: there's the cpu load that's between the client sampling and sending, the travelling of packets from the client to the server the cpu load on the server to perform a simulation, and the sending of packets back to the client.

In most cases the time for computations is much less signficant than the impact of internet lag, so we will focus on this aspect.

This round trip time, the time for you to get the servers responce from one of your user commands to seeing the reflected change in position, or world state (as received from the server) determines how responsive the game feels and how in-control of the game you feel. Players with lower round trip time have an advantage over players that have a higher one.

Issues that arise with ping

To fully understand the implications of ping, we need to go through a series of basic to complex examples, as there are many variables at play.

High Ping

Let's assume that this round trip time was 1 minute. More specifically, the time for a user command to get to the server takes 30 seconds, the time to get back is 30 seconds and the computation time is negligable.

In this case you would try to walk forward by pressing w, and then 1 minute later you would receive your updated position and then actually move. Now lets say you see any enemy at a certain position in the game, so you rotate your mouse so that your crosshair aligns with the enemy (in 0.5 seconds) and click. Now we'll consider 2 different situations, let's say that the enemy saw you at the same time that you saw them, and as they have low health decide they should dodge you.

  1. If the player reacts before you, that is that they send a user command which would move them to a postion where your shot would no longer hit, before you send your user command which makes the crosshair align with them and fire. Then as both those user commands go towards the server, we realize that the enemies dodge will get there first under the assumption that all packets travel at the same rate, and so therefore our shot will not connect.
  2. On the flip side, if our user command gets there before theirs, then our shot will hit and their dodge would have happened after it connected. And recall that we wouldn't even see the result of this until 1 minute later.

This situation is quite synthetic since there's no way two players would actually be playing a "realtime" game that has 1 minute of ping. Although note that there are no "real" issues here, the player who had the faster reaction time still wins.

This situation also assumes two players just suddenly exist and see eachother and then they send their first user command. In reality they would have been moving and sending user commands before this moment.

Good enough ping

Since there' no way to accurately play a game with 1 minute of ping since every user command you sent would be experienced 1 minute after it happened. In order to play in this environment you would have to guess what is going to happen in 30 seconds, and make send user commands now, that reflect that.

Obviously there's no way to play a real time game in the above manner, so let's consider a ping of 1 second. In this situation we can view the game and react to it, and our user commands would only be processed .5 seconds after what we see. The thing is that the game wouldn't "line up" with what buttons you are pressing and so it would feel also disorienting.

Ping which is good enough is a ping amount which makes it so that the time between pressing keys on the keyboard and seeing those reflected changes is short enough so that they "line up" and there doesn't seem to be a disconnect between pressing the buttons and what you see in game.

Then let's consider ping which is good enough, say within the range 20ms to 70ms. Now when we play the game, we can consider the reflected changes as being what we're currently doing at this moment in time.

Two stationary players

The setup for this situation is that there are two blinded players (A and B) both of which can see eachother in their view if they were unblinded, standing on a plane.

Now suddenly both their views are unblinded, player A decides that they will shoot player B, and player B with low health decides to try and dodge. Since player A's crosshair is not on player B, they'll issue a user command which moves the mouse to the correct position and fires the weapon, player B will issue a player command so that anyone aiming at their current position will miss their shot, by strafing out of the way.

Assuming that the travel time from client to server is the same for both players, we can see that whoever simply reacts first in this situation will come out on top. This situation demonstrates the fairness of both having the same internet speeds.

One camper, one mover

The setup for this situation the same as the last except player B is now moving from one side of A's view to the other. This is good for A since they are a camper, and leave their mouse stationary until a player decides accidentally walks into their crosshair at which point they fires his sniper.

Recall that we have 500ms of ping, we will now present two situations.

  1. B can move fast enough so that in 250ms, it's original hitbox position doesn't overlap with it's new hitbox position.
  2. If this is true, then when B's hitbox overlaps with A's crosshair they fire, and then 250ms later the server recognizes this user command, since B is continually holding w (since at least 250ms before the enemy fired, so that they're moving the entire time that A's fire command is travelling across the internet). Since we have the assumption that B is able to move fast enough, so that it's original hitbox no longer overlaps with it's new hitbox, in this case we can see that the shot will not connect.

  3. If B cannot move fast enough, then if player A fires at exact moment they overlap with the crosshair (and the crosshair is a point, infinitely precise), then player A's shot is guarenteed to hit.

The main thing we can learn from this situation is that if we send a packet to the server with an intent based on the game state as we see it then that intent will not propagate as we expected due to the fact that while that packet is travelling to the server, other packets are being processed which make the game state differ more and more from the state it was at when we sent our user command.

lag compensation

One way we can combat this issue is by time travelling, or rather lag compensation. To do this let's consider a single client connected to the server. For this client we can build a rapport of their connection to the server by measuring how long it takes for a packet to reach the server, and if we're unable we can figure out an estimate of it by taking the round trip time, subtracting any computation time and dividing by 2 under the assumption that it takes roughly the same amount of time for a packet to travel to the server as it does to come back.

With this estimate the server can figure out when a given packet was sent by taking the time it was received at and subtracting our estimated travel time.

Note if there is a significant difference between the to and from times we can add logic where the client also sends an expected received time and the server can compare This to an actual received time and correct for this error.

Once we are aware of when the user command was actually issued we can use this information to go back in time on the server, moving each player back to their locations at that time and then check if shots fired actually connect with anyone.

This means that your game should have infrastructure which stores about 1 second of game states on the server with a given time stamp of when it was created. And this will allow us to find the closest state.

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