Networking round-up

When it comes to networking middleware, efficient multiplayer is just expected, but community and commerce tools are highly prized, reckons Jon Jordan
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As often happens with a maturing technology, after years of famine trying to sell developers something complex, networking middleware companies are now happily splashing around in plenty – at least those who can offer robust components such as lobby services, community features and data mining.

There's still a place for the smaller outfits who want to drill right down and offer optimised network coding, but the games market has effectively commoditised this – in price terms at least – to around $50,000 per game, so you're unlikely to get very rich or build a large company.

In contrast, Canadian company Quazal seems to be booming, with happy press releases talking of doubling sales and more jam to come. Its trick has been to reinvent itself from one of the many companies offering low level smarts to a professional beast that can fulfil the higher level needs that feed back attractively into publishers' returns on investment spreadsheets.

Of course, GameSpy, as part of the IGN network, remains unsurpassed in this area of joined up business deals, thanks to technologies ranging from the ATLAS data mining tools to the Team community SDK.

Technology: GameSpy Suite
Clients: Crytek, EA, Eidos, Firaxis, Nintendo, Sega, Square Enix, Take Two, Ubisoft
Host platforms: DS, PC (Mac/Linux/Windows), PlayStation 3, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360
Integration with: Unreal Engine 3
Price: Available on request
Contact: +01 415 508 2000

It's already been a busy year for GameSpy, what with providing the networking code for the likes of GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii.

But on top of its backend networking technologies – not to mention community services such as lobbies and its Team SDK – the company is focusing on providing publishers with tools like ATLAS to data mine the huge amounts of info they're now collecting about their online players. Big Brother is watching you play.

RakNet v3.2
Clients: Codemasters, Epic, LucasArts, NetDevil, SOE, Stardock, The Collective
Host platforms: PC (Linux/Windows), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Integration with: FMOD, Reality Engine, Unity3D
Price: Free non-commercial license, or unlimited $50,000

A cross-platform UDP, C++ game networking engine, RakNet is finding increasingly popularity with some of the leading online players including SOE, NetDevil, LucasArts and Codemasters. Its object and memory replication system provides a framework which enables you to synchronise your program state.
There's also a lobby system, with support for friends, rooms, quick match, ranking and email, as well as a no doubt useful autopatching system.

Technology: Net-Z, Rendez-Vous, Spark!
Clients: Capcom, EA, Eidos, Gas Powered Games, Midway, THQ, Ubisoft, Vivendi
Host platforms: PC (Linux/Windows), PlayStation 3, PSP, Xbox 360
Integration with: Unreal Engine 3
Price: Available on request
Contact: +01 514 395 4646

The original indie networking middleware company, Montreal-based Quazal is finally gaining the fruits of years of hard work with its networking code and community services being used in high profile games such as EA and Harmonix's Rock Band.

Indeed, its Rendez-Vous lobby solution and the lobby-in-a-box Spark! product have particularly chimed with publishers' need to get their games online as quickly as possible. It also develops and hosts back-end systems too.

Technology: NetDog v1.5
Clients: Available on request
Host platforms: iPhone, PC (Linux/Mac/Windows), consoles TBA
Integration with: Vision Engine
Price: available on request
Contact: +01 415 341 6796

Designed specifically for handling massively multiple online games, NetDog is an out-of-the-box networking solution. It uses a patent pending network architecture to load balance clients and servers to ensure cost effective operation.

There are four main components: a world builder; networking infrastructure; performance optimisers; and developer tools such as object and event managers, debuggers and system monitoring tools.

Technology: ReplicaNet v6
Clients: DAS, Freeverse, Rocksteady
Host platforms: PC (Linux/Windows)
Integration with: None
Price: From $6,500

Using a distributed object model of computing, ReplicaNet is an object oriented C++ networking library that enables high performance online games, an approach that makes load balancing easier to carry out and typically results in lower bandwidth requirements.

It also contains a scripting language – the Replica Object Language – a simple class definition system to highlight the areas in a class that should be accessed.



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