The MAG Factor • Page 3

The tech challenges behind the first 256-player console action game.

Zipper has also taken care to ensure that MAG games will never feel under-populated - a key concern bearing in mind the vast acreage inherent in each of the game's stages.

"With levels that scale up to one square kilometre we knew that creating templates for each of the gametypes would be the best course for quickly validating gameplay and maximising polish time," says Zipper designer, Ben Jones. "Having confidence in our templates allowed the art team to create wildly different layouts for each environment with a minimal impact on established gameplay. Because we wait to kick off a game until 80 per cent of the desired population is queued and continue to fill in players during pre-battle, less than optimal player-counts should be easy to avoid. But don't worry about waiting too long for a game as we pool all players on our dedicated servers into their respective queues and continually kick off games."

In a sense there's a very real feeling that MAG is taking the multiplayer FPS concept back to grass roots in terms of the core technology. PC titles have long relied on dedicated servers to provide the optimum gameplay conditions for connected clients. Console gaming by and large has followed a different route: peer-to-peer. One player hosts the game, and other games exchange game data directly. Moving back to the traditional set-up is liberating in many ways.

"Having dedicated servers actually provides benefits that extend beyond just managing network bandwidth issues, it resolves some of the more difficult peer-to-peer issues such as host migration," explains Jason Tartaglia. "This is a situation where the client who is primarily responsible for simulating a game suddenly quits or becomes disconnected. By hosting the game on a server, the quality of games is no longer determined by a randomly chosen host in a peer-to-peer solution. Additionally, we are able to provide advanced methods of cheat-prevention by providing validation of player inputs and movement within the game world and by recording entire game sessions for later review and analysis."

Confirming recent reports, Zipper is indeed applying patents to the server technology employed in MAG. What they actually are, and why they are being deployed, remains something of a mystery, but Jason Tartaglia wants to get something straight:

"We see our patent applications as a way to protect our ability to continue to use our own proprietary technology, not as a means of hindering other studios," he says. "Our goal is to ensure that all of the technology that we have developed, particularly in regards to specific methods of handling large volumes of network traffic, is protected for future reuse in all of our projects."

The option remains open for the technical innovations made in MAG to be rolled out elsewhere within Sony too. "The basic server architecture that was created for MAG will be made available to other SCE World Wide Studios teams," confirms Sony's Seth Luisi. "Some components that are specific to the game itself are proprietary."

There is perhaps something of an irony in that a piece of technology so innovative is being debuted in the crowded, ultra-competitive first-person shooter marketplace. Will the game's sheer scale make it stand apart from the pack? And when you're sitting on an advance as significant as this one, why target the FPS genre? "We have a long legacy of creating third-person tactical shooters," explains Zipper designer Ben Jones, "but once the technical hurdle of 256 players was overcome we determined that shifting to the first-person perspective would allow players to fully appreciate the scale of MAG."

"A first-person shooter is certainly one of the most challenging vehicles for a massive multiplayer game - other genres can be a good deal more forgiving in regards to responsiveness and lag," adds Jason Tartaglia. "But since our expertise is in delivering multiplayer titles, it seemed a natural, albeit ambitious, transition into the much larger MMO style FPS. It was essentially our opportunity to leverage the knowledge gained from our previous titles to create a completely new experience for the console FPS player."

There's no doubt that MAG is a significant event, and it is satisfying to see that the full muscle of Sony's massive first-party development studios is being deployed to create the sort of experience we're not likely to experience from projects berthed from a cross-platform environment. It's the focus on this type of endeavour that it is helping to set the PS3 apart from its rivals, while at the same time signposting that PSN will offer up online experiences separate, distinct and wider in scale than what is currently available for Xbox Live users.

It's a bold strategy, but it's going to be reliant on MAG being an excellent game over and above its netcode-centric technical innovations. Obviously, Eurogamer will cover the gameplay angle in depth closer to the game's release, but in the meantime, if you're a PS3 owner and you can wangle a beta code, I highly recommend checking it out.

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