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Asynchronous Games in Firebase; pt I

Since the social web started to expand, asynchronous multiplayer games seems to really have taken off. So my immediate question is obviously, can I do that on Firebase? And the short answer is: of course. For the long answer, please read on.

Let’s recap first. In a traditional synchronous game you play against other people in real-time, everyone you play against will have to be online at the same time. But given the nature of our everyday Internet use, a different pattern has emerged: in asynchronous games not all players have to be online at the same time. For example, turn-based games can easily be made asynchronous, you play your turn and then sometime in the future you opponents will have been online and performed their moves. As such, a classic game such as chess in play-be-email mode is a prime example of an asynchronous game. But you’re not limited to turn-based games, you can define the order to act on time or any metric you’d like, the only mandatory feature is that all players do not have to be online at the same time.

Firebase is fundamentally a synchronous multiplayer server. The technical difficulties Firebase set out to solve are all issues arising from the kind of distributed computing you get when a couple of thousand players have to interact in real-time. So normally you’d build an asynchronous game on a traditional web platform, as the demand on timely updates just got a lot less urgent standard web techniques can be easily applied. But having said that, is there anything you’d gain by using Firebase?

I believe there is: A synchronous option. Easy to overlook, this is actually a big one. If you build your asynchronous game on Firebase from the start, you have an immediate option of including synchronous play. Or better yet, the difference between synchronous and asynchronous could be a simple configuration issue. And by the way, who says it’s either or? Why not both?

Let me explain the above in an example: At the moment I’m hacking on a Kalaha game for Facebook on my past-time. And obviously it’ll be asynchronous, players will take their turn while logged in, and the game mechanics will inform you of your move via the Facebook streams. But if two players are online at the same time and want to play against each other, why shouldn’t they? And would quick matches be fun, say max 5 seconds per move? And how about tournaments?

Here’s some other, perhaps minor, points to consider:

  • Duplex communication: implicit in the entire discussion is that Firebase can push events both ways from and to clients and server. In HTTP you’re forced to use Comet patterns, whereas Firebase uses a persistent connection and any actions are delivered to the clients immediately.
  • Latency: Just because you’re building an asynchronous game doesn’t automatically mean latency is not important. If your game is based on actions against a common notion of time, you might be interested in latency anyway. Firebase has an very low latency compared to most application/web servers.
  • Bandwidth: If it turns out you have a hugely successful game, and a large portion of the traffic is made up of game data (as opposed to actual web pages or other contextual data) you’ll be happy just to avoid the HTTP headers and the overhead they automatically bring to the table. Firebase uses TCP only at the moment, thus dramatically reducing the bandwidth requirements.

There are other less apparent options as well, but lets be honest, anything but a huge advantage would probably be negated by the additional platform with the integration and administration it’d mean. That is to say, if you can built it using standard web tools only, why add another platform with which to communicate, integrate and administrate?

So that’s my declaration: Using Firebase gives you the entire range from highly synchronous to entirely asynchronous on one platform! Next post I’ll sketch a proposal on how to actually do it as well. Stay tuned!

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