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Slowly but surely, the quarter-gobbling arcades of the 1980s are evolving to make multiplayer PC gaming the next wave of "destination" gaming. Multiplayer games--first popularized with the Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) of text-adventure history--have joined the mainstream with iconic, first-person shooter "death matches" such as Doom. Building a multiplayer game system is inexpensive and easy, thanks to a winning combination of affordable networking hardware and the active encouragement of software publishers.
LAN-based game servers are also a popular alternative offering for conventional arcades, and an entire business is springing up around the "PC room" and "LAN arena" concepts. Multiplayer game boxes are also appropriate for hobby/game store environments and other recreation centers. And for an ISP or ASP with spare bandwidth and an urge to diversify, they make an interesting side offering.
In this TechBuilder recipe, I'll show you how to build a multiplayer game server. While this system is inexpensive, it is powerful enough to manage both popular first-person/tactical combat games like Battlefield Vietnam, and leading cooperative and competitive role-playing games such as Neverwinter Nights.
Here's what you'll need to build this system:
- A PC with robust Windows OS: The requirements of a game server are relatively modest. The server does not need the latest and greatest graphics hardware--or any graphics hardware at all! A headless machine makes a perfectly good game server, and that's what we will use in this recipe.
Most game servers are rated to run on any version of Windows, even Windows 98. But for stability purposes, I recommend that you consider Windows 2000 Professional the bare minimum requirement. I used Windows XP Professional. (Linux is also supported by many, but not all, game servers. But I won't cover Linux here.)
My server has 768 MB of RAM. Yours should provide at least 384 MB. More is always better, as it will help protect against performance drops.
How fast a server do you need? That depends on the number of players you expect to support. For my system, I used a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 processor, which is adequate for 32 Battlefield players. Here's a cheat sheet, courtesy of Electronic Arts, to help you determine how much CPU power your system will need:
|Players||CPU Speed Required|
|Up to 8||933 MHz|
|9 to 16||1.6 GHz|
|17 to 32||2.4 GHz|
|More than 32||3.0 GHz|
- High-speed network and bandwidth: In a LAN environment, 100BaseT Ethernet and corresponding switches will be adequate for full-speed game playing. Avoid wireless connectivity, because wireless has a higher latency than wired Ethernet. Latency dictates how fast the server can receive and respond to movements by client gameplayers—the lower the latency, the smoother the gameplay experience.
If your server will to be offered to remote players over the Internet, then a dedicated ADSL line is adequate for as many as eight players. Higher-speed SDSL or cable connections, or fractional T1, will be needed for between nine and 15 players. For 16 to 32 players, T1 speeds are required. And for more than 32 concurrent users, you'll need multiple megabits per second.
- Game server software: We will install two free game servers in this recipe. The dedicated server for Battlefield Vietnam can be downloaded from 3DGamers. And the dedicated server for Neverwinter Nights may be downloaded from BioWare.
- Game client software: Though the servers are free, the game clients are not. A LAN gaming operator will need to acquire one license for each person who will be concurrently playing the game. The game is installed on client's PCs, which are connected to the server via the LAN. Single-unit licenses range between $20 and $40 for these titles.
- Remote access software (optional): If you want to store the server out of sight, you will need to install remote-access software. That way, the game room admin may access the server from any PC on the LAN, including a game client terminal during troubleshooting. I recommend TightVNC. TightVNC is open source and frequently updated, as well as supported on many platforms.
- Multiple hard-drive controllers or striped (level 0) RAID (optional): For performance reasons, I recommend that you run no more than one type of game on a single machine. However, a resource-constrained user, or one who wishes to offer an extra but seldom-played game on the same box, may demand that multiple game servers run on a single machine. If that's the case, then increase the power of the system's CPU and add a second hard drive, either on a different controller or in a RAID Level 0 (striped) array. These hardware upgrades will help to prevent disk contention from slowing the performance of either game.
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