[SmartFox Pro] Realtime maze
[ July 29, 2005 ] by Marco Lapi, a.k.a Lapo
Article 6: create a real-time maze game protype for two players, concentrating on handling the basic logic of the game in an extension, and optimizing the amount of data sent between clients and server

The related source file for this article is found in the "Examples/mx2004/pro_realtimeMaze" folder.


In this tutorial we will put into practice what we have learned so far about SmartFoxServer PRO extensions, and we will create a real-time maze game protype for two players. We will concentrate on how to handle the basic logic of the game in our extension, and how to optimize the amount of data sent between clients and server.

Specifically we will take a look at the ability of SmartFoxServer PRO to send very small messages using raw strings, bypassing the XML based protocol that is normally used. This feature is particularly important for all real-time applications where continuous updates are sent to one or more client. By using this technique you will be able to send the minimum amount of informations, achieving better network performance and saving a lot of precious bandwidth.

Also we'll talk about time-based animations on the client side, an important technique for multiplayer games that need precise synchronization.

We are going to implement a simple tile-based game where two players can move around in real-time, and we'll have a look at the techniques that are necessary to achieve the best network performance and synchronization.

The game logic

Before we start with the code analysis it would be a good idea to list the behaviors that our server-side extension will perform:

1) Wait for two players in the room, when both of them are inside, the game will start.
2) Assign each player a starting position on the map, for example the top-left corner for player 1 and the bottom-right corner for player 2.
3) Handle the player movement and send the proper updates so that both clients are always in synch.
4) Handle the user disconnections and stop the game.

Client synchronization

The client is going to play an important role. It will be responsible for one of the most critical aspects of real-time games: synchronization. Keeping the two client sprites synchronized in a LAN wouldn't be very difficult, there's plenty of bandwidth and an almost insignificant lag, so you could just send player updates to each client and perform the animations when the message is received. Unfortunately this approach would not work on a real server connected to the internet. If you're lucky you may get a lag of a few centiseconds which would already affect synchronization, but you may also stop receiving packets for a few seconds and in that case you would be completely out of synch.

Another problem is the rendering speed of each client. Let' suppose that Mark and Paul are playing the same game.
Mark is running an old P2-350Mhz while Paul sits in front of his shiny new Athlon 3.6Ghz. When the game begins and the two players start interacting, lots of updates are sent to both clients. While Paul's machine can handle them flawlessly, Mark's old PC takes more time to render the animations and the messages that arrive during the rendering process are lost. In less than a minute the two clients will be out of synch.

To solve these problems efficiently we will have to change the way animations are perfomed in Flash, using a time-based approach instead of the common frame-based technique. A time based animation always takes the same amount of time to execute on whatever hardware, be it Mark's slow Pentium2 or Paul's shiny new computer. By using the time as a constant in rendering animations we make sure that the rendering time will be the same on all clients.

Also we will keep a queue of server updates in each client so that if a new update is received in the middle of a rendering it won't be lost. This will also help us in determining if the client is getting out of synch: in an ideal scenario each time you look inside the queue you should always find it empty or with one item only. This would mean that as soon as you get a new message you render it on the screen and you go back to the queue to check the next update.
If the next time you check the queue you will find, say 5 items inside, then your client is definately behind the current state of the game and it should quickly make up for it. In this case the best solution is to skip to the second-last update and perform the animation from there to the last one: this way even if the connection is lost for several seconds you will always be able to get back in synch with the game.

NOTE: TCP/IP messages are never lost. The protocol always make sure that all packets are delivered to the client maintaining the order in which they were sent, so even if you stop receiving updates for a few seconds you won't loose any messages. The only event that can break the game is the client disconnection, and in that case the server will handle it and stop the game.

Game setup

Now you can open the source .FLA file and inspect the code under the "chat" label. Most of the code found here is identical to all the previous examples, however when creating a new game room we pass a new parameter containing the name of the extension that we want to load:

function createRoom(name:String, pwd:String, spec:Number)
        var gameRoom:Object		= new Object()
        gameRoom.name 			= name
        gameRoom.password 		= pwd
        gameRoom.maxUsers 		= 2
        gameRoom.maxSpectators 	= spec
        gameRoom.isGame 		= true
        gameRoom.isTemp 		= true
        xt = {}
        xt.name = "maze"
        xt.script = "mazeGame.as"
        gameRoom.extension		= xt

Now that the room is properly created and the extension is loaded we can move to the "game" label:

import it.gotoandplay.smartfoxserver.*

_global.gameStarted = false   // global flag for tracking the game status

var extensionName:String = "maze"   // Name of the extension that we'll call
var win:MovieClip   // A movieclip used for dialogue windows
var myOpponent:User   // My opponent user object
var player1Id:Number   // Id of player 1
var player1Name:String   // Name of player 1
var player2Name:String   // Name of player 2
var player2Id:Number   // Id of player 2

var tileSize:Number = 21
var playerSpeed:Number = 100   // Expressed in milliseconds
var obstacles:String = "X"   // String containing all the letters used
                             // as obstacles in the map. X represents a wall

gamePaused("")   // pause the game

// Game Board
gameBoard = []
gameBoard[1] = "X..X...X...X...X...X.X.X"
gameBoard[2] = "X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X..X"
gameBoard[3] = "X.X....................X"
gameBoard[5] = "X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.XX"
gameBoard[6] = "X......................X"
gameBoard[8] = "X.X....................X"
gameBoard[9] = "X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X.X..X"
gameBoard[10] = "X..X...X...X...X...X.X.X"

var map = []

// Draw the map on screen

// Draw the map on screen
function drawBoard()
        var tile
        var mc
        var lvl = 0
        // Cycle through each line
        for (var i:Number = 0; i < gameBoard.length; i++)
                // Cycle through each chracter
                for (var j:Number = 0; j < gameBoard[i].length; j++)
                        var c = gameBoard[i].charAt(j)
                        if (c == "X")
                        	tile = "tile_wall"
                        	tile = "tile_floor"
                        // Attach the tile
                        mc = boardMC.attachMovie(tile, "t_" + j + "_" + i, lvl++)
                        mc._x = tileSize * j
                        mc._y = tileSize * i
                        // Setup a bi-dimensional array to keep a copy of the game map
                        if (map[i] == undefined)
                        	map[i] = []
                        map[i][j] = c

In the first lines we setup the variables needed for the game, the player IDs, player names, the size of the tiles, etc.
Also we define the simple game map using an array of strings where each index represents a map row. The "X" character is used for walls and the "." is used for walkable tiles.
The drawBoard() method is used to draw the game map on stage: it basically cycles through all the rows in the map and for each row a loop is started to check all characters in the string. The tiles are attached dynamically using the "tile_wall" and "tile_floor" movieclips that you can find in the library.
Also a bi-dimensional array called map[] is populated with the elements of the map: we will use it later to validate the player movements.

Once the game board is drawn on screen, the gamePaused() method is called and a dialog box will appear waiting for the other player. From this moment the game will wait for events coming from our server extension.

The server side

Essentially the extension will be able to send three different events:

start   The game is starting.
stop   The game should stop, because one of the players left.
mv   The opponent made a move.

Now we can have a look at the server code:

var numPlayers			// count the number of players currently inside
var users = []			// an array of users
var gameStarted			// boolean, true if the game has started
var currentRoomId		// the Id of the room where the extension is running
var p1id			// userId of player1
var p2id			// userId of player2

function init()
        numPlayers = 0
        gameStarted = false

function destroy()
        // Nothing special to do here

We keep a variable called numPlayers to keep track of the number of players currently in the room and a list of players called userList. Each time a new player enters we'll receive and internal event (userJoin) that is handled in the handleInternalEvent() function.

function handleInternalEvent(evt)
        evtName = evt.name
        // Handle a user joining the room
        if (evtName == "userJoin")
                // get the id of the current room
                if (currentRoomId == undefined)
                	currentRoomId = evt["room"].getId()
                // Get the user object
                u = evt["user"]
                // add this user to our list of local users in this game room
                // We use the userId number as the key
                users[u.getUserId()] = u
                // Increase the number of players
                if (u.getPlayerIndex() == 1)
                	p1id = u.getUserId()
                	p2id = u.getUserId()
                // If we have two players and the game was not started yet
                // it's time to start it now!
                if(numPlayers == 2 && !gameStarted)
        // Handle a user leaving the room or a user disconnection
        else if (evtName == "userExit" || evtName == "userLost")
                // get the user id
                var uId = evt["userId"]
				var u = users[uId]
                // Let's remove the player from the list
                delete users[uId]
                gameStarted = false
                if(numPlayers > 0)
                        var res = {}
                        res._cmd = "stop"
                        res.n = u.getName()
                        _server.sendResponse(res, currentRoomId, null, users)

As you can see in the code we add the new player to the userList array, using its userId as the key. It's always a good idea to keep track of users using their numerical ID as this number is unique. In the next line the numPlayers variable is incremented.
The next thing to do is keeping track of each player's playerId. If you remember from the past tutorials, the playerId number is automagically assigned by the server to each user in a game room. For example in a game room for 6 players each client is assigned his playerId (from 1 to 6) automatically.

Finally, if there are two players in the room the "start" event can be sent to both clients, calling the gameStart() function.

When a user leaves the room or gets disconnected, the event is handled by removing the player from the list and decreasing the numPlayer variable. Also a "stop" event is broadcasted to the clients so that the game is paused.

(continues on page 2)

Name: Marco Lapi, a.k.a Lapo
Location: Fossano, Italy
Age: 34
Flash experience: started out with Flash 4 back in 1999
Job: web designer/developer
Website: http://www.gotoandplay.it/
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