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Demigod: The Saga Continues

As Jim alluded to in the comments thread for our Demigod discussion last week, one of the many interesting issues around writing for the web instead of for print is that a verdict passed on a game doesn’t have to stay static in the event that game’s problems improve/worsen. Demigod’s a fine example – if one of us had written it up on compressed tree-matter and shoved a number at the end, that number would reflect its enormous netcode screw-ups, and would sit as a faintly damning judgement upon it for all time (of course, damnable parasite-site Metacritic means that problem still exists for a lot of web stuff too).

While releasing a game that was problem-riddled in the first place is scarcely something that should be condoned, as GPG and Stardock (I’m becoming increasingly confused as to who’s really in charge of DG now) have been frantically racing to patch the thing up over the last week, such a judgement would already have been innacurate. Especially as it appears – oh dear – piracy may have significantly exacerbated DG’s multiplayer problems….

According to one of Stardock’s ongoing status reports about Demigod, “The system works pretty well if you have a few thousand people online at once. The system works…less well if there are tens of thousands of people online at once. And if there are over 100,000 people, well, you get horrific results such as the game being incredibly unresponsive due to simple web service calls that were considered pretty benign during the beta that suddenly start to bring down firewalls and such due to the sheer massive number of calls that are being made. Sadly, most of the ~120,000 connections are not customers but via warez. About 18,000 are legitimate.”

A result, it seems of Gamestop breaking Demigod’s street date early, and the DRM-free game rapidly showing up on slew of Torrent sites. Do bear in mind that copies without a valid serial number can’t actually play online, but that doesn’t stop them trying, attempting to download patches or the game polling them. And that’s key – every copy of Demigod, legit or otherwise, phones home – apparently as an update check. If that check wasn’t in there, apparently, the servers wouldn’t have been struggling so. So while the amount of pirated copies is causing the multiplayer problems, those problems mightn’t exist if Stardock/GPG hadn’t put that check in. That is, of course, presuming you take Stardock at their word as to why Demigod’s multiplayer was so torturous at release.

In a follow-up status report, we got more details:

The issue boiled down to us having put together a multiplayer infrastructure that was designed to handle around 50,000 or so connected users. If the game took off, we would simply add more servers as the load increased.

But what happened was that we ended up with 140,000 connected users, of which about 12% were actually legitimate customers. Now, the roughly 120,000 users that weren’t running legitimate copies of the game weren’t online playing multiplayer or anything. The issue with those users was as benign as a handful of HTTP calls that did things like check for updates and general server keep alive. Pretty trivial on its own until you have 120,000 of them. Then you have what amounts to a DDOS attack on yourself.

So the day 2 update we released basically made sure legitimate customers were no longer being affected by those users. As a side note, no we can’t just eliminate the infrastructure being used up by warez users because they’re running the unprotected retail version and we can’t make a distinction between retail and pirated since there’s no copy protection. It’s not a huge deal in the long run (except to our metacritic score), it was just an unexpected challenge that made day 1 a very bad multiplayer experience.

Another interesting element in the web vs print argy-bargy is that we now get this kind of transparency from developers/publishers – immediate word on exactly what’s happening with a troubled game, which can appease fans. Of course, the relies on the publisher/developer being prepared to be open and honest, rather than the cold, closed ranks and dismissive attitudes towards fans some outfits demonstrate.

Anyway, there’s King Fact – around 12% of Demigod’s first-week players were legitimate. As always, that doesn’t mean the other 88% are lost customers, but it’s forever startling to see these kind of numbers. More important, really, is the experience the genuine customers are having – have the couple of patches since launch fixed the multiplayer problems? What say you, faithful types? After a couple of days on the road I’ve not been able to stick my head in just yet, but hopefully it means Jim’s forthcoming full Wot I Think is finally all engines go…

While clearly piracy is the flashpoint to end all flashpoints on this site, do be grown-ups and human beings as you debate this in comments.

Oh, and if you want the more personal touch, here’s Stardock’s Brad Wardell recording a video diary for IGN wherein he looks into and explains the launch problems:

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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