How CCP handled the biggest multiplayer battle in gaming history

Preparation and player cooperation keys to managing 4,000 combatants on the field at the same time.

The battle of 6VDT, as it's now known, was a historic moment for video games. Four thousand players, representing two of the biggest power blocs in the popular space MMORPG Eve Online, slugged it out Sunday in a gigantic virtual Cannae that resulted in the destruction of more than 2,500 ships and effectively ended a long and bitter conflict.

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Credit: Reddit user Dr_Sandvich

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Just another day at the office for Iceland-based CCP Games, creators of Eve Online, despite the enormous demands placed upon the company’s infrastructure as a result of the clash.

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Eve, which launched to minimal fanfare in 2003, is known both for its unforgiving difficulty curve and wide range of available gameplay experiences – thanks to an in-game economy driven almost entirely by player activity, everything from industry to finance to exploration to combat is part and parcel of the Eve experience.

Players are even allowed to govern parts of the game world itself – which, unlike most other MMOs, is contained within a single instance, meaning that all players are occupying the same virtual realm – and coalitions of space-holding players like the CFC (Cluster-[rude word] Coalition) and Test Alliance Please Ignore are among the most powerful entities in the game.

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CCP told PC Gamer last month that the hardware for Tranquility, as the central game server is known, includes almost 4,000GB of RAM and 2,574GHz of processing power. Tranquility resides in London.

Even with all that computing muscle, however, the thousands-vs-thousands battles impose a great strain on Tranquility, particularly given that the rest of the game has to continue to work properly. So CCP came up with a three-tiered hardware architecture that allows them to manage load as efficiently as possible, and implemented a “time dilation” system that slows down gameplay to help compensate.

Individual star systems can be moved to more or less powerful hardware, depending on demand, according to CCP software director Erlender Thorsteinsson.

“The hardware hosting solar systems / servicing location nodes is of three different types. The most powerful type is used for Jita [the game’s main commercial hub] and fleet fights, and the second most powerful services for smaller trade hubs like the Amarr Solar System and the rest of the universe,” he told Network World.

Software engineer Brian Bosse said that the top-tier hardware was used for the 6VDT fight, as well as the systems used by each side to stage their massive fleets. He also noted that a key factor in the CCP team’s timely preparations was a manual notification tool that the company asks players to use in advance of a major fleet action.

“We have automated systems in place to service requests that come in from the aforementioned form.  On the day indicated on the requests, it properly reacted to them and put the target system - 6VDT-H and the two staging systems that pilots use to prepare for action on the server that we have in place for heavy load situations,” Bosse said.

Two earlier clashes between the CFC and TEST weren’t flagged to CCP using the notification form, however. While one such battle was fought without any hiccups, another resulted in a server crash that disconnected the combatants and likely spared TEST a serious defeat.

“Sometimes in such situations we’ll move other systems that are on the same server as a large fight away in order to ease things up, but that comes at the cost of disconnecting players that are in those other systems. In the case of Z9PP, human error struck and the fight system itself was moved which was, to put it bluntly, unfortunate,” said Bosse.

“It is fairly likely that Asakai and Z9PP-H were both running on our 3rd tier hardware. Most certainly not on the 1st tier and probably not on the 2nd tier either,” agreed Thorsteinsson.

In the case of 6VDT, however, the company was able to bring its most powerful nodes to bear, and the battle went off more or less without a hitch, though with extensive time dilation in place.

Besides carefully monitoring for anomalous system behavior, Thorsteinsson said, there wasn’t much extra work for the CCP team.

“I spent most of my time on Twitter, and digging through historical population data,” he said.

Disclosure: Staff writer Jon Gold plays Eve Online, though he was not involved with any of the events discussed in this article. Email him at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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