Oh, Bugger

Bugs may not be the villain you should fear the most in games development

So, you are set up to win a 3player timed game: You have 13 mins left on your timer, your opponents less than 10. You know which cards to play next and to close the game with your final card combination. You have been struggling to increase your ranking, and this will bring you over the 1700-mark!

  • And you are thrown out of the game by the app.

Desperately, you try to reconnect. Finally, you reboot your PC and get back in. But your timer has decreased to 9 mins, and the AI continued the game while you were gone. Of course, the AI did not know about the dream combo you had in mind. Your next move is to salvage as much as you can by stealing/attacking resources from your opponents. But that is a lot of clicking, and costs you time. Your lead is secured once more …

  • And then the game freezes.

You may have been eagerly monitoring your minutes left in the game, but suddenly this appears:

Some of us are loyal, but for how long

I am referring to the Swedish online game Terraforming Mars developed by Jakob Fryxelius based on his popular board game and run on Asmodee . Its popularity quickly rose, but more ambitious frequent players likely left when the online version turned out to be unreliable.  

Losing trust in a game can happen for many reasons: Data breaches, account takeover, loopholes that allow for cheating, or the game keeps breaking.

Yolu is pretty frustrated and not happy she spent the money on this game, it seems.

But on this Sunday morning, my guess is that the game I just played broke due to performance issues with the stream. Not because we were many playing at the same time – that is one type of performance – but because the app itself is not optimized to counter lagging. It may not be a bug in the game, though, even though many people on the discussion forums complain about this game being exceptionally susceptible to bugs. It may be much simpler than that:

Probably your action and the subsequent reaction on the game server are not synchronised.

Your initial thought is that you have a bad broadband connection. And if you try to google the problem, most helpful results such as this one talk about moving closer to the router, shouting at your family members to stop downloading Netflix, or getting a fixed ethernet cable connection to indulge in your favourite pastime.

But what if the lagging is caused not by your lack of bandwidth but because the game is coded in such a way that it is dependent on caching on your drive?

A hot tip for game developers

The classic response from any IT support representative when you complain that you cannot log into the system is: Try to clear your history/cache. Same here. I rebooted/cleared the cache and reconnected.

But the game platform could solve this by rethinking how the data retrieval is architected. Here is a hot tip for game developers: Read more on caching in Simon Hearne´s magnificent blog post “When Network is Faster than Cache” where he analyses and tests caching versus network data retrieval:

Otherwise, it’s on us players to remember doing this on a regular basis, if the game performance is relying on caching. As loyal players (with a little bit of bug tolerance) all we want is to make sure our victories are counted.

Bugs can be fixed in game updates, but your fundamental game architecture cannot. And as an added benefit: Designing the game to optimise the player experience will reduce churn, unfortunate chatter on gamer forums, and save the games company money on trouble shooting for non-existing bugs.

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