What kind of socket server protocol is efficient?

When I was writing a simple server for a simple client <> server multiplayer game, I thought of the following text-based protocol using a translation library. Basically, each command had a certain meaning, eg:

1 = character starts turning right
2 = character starts turning left
3 = character stops turning
4 = character starts moving forward
5 = character stops moving
6 = character teleports to x, y

So, the client would simply broadcast the following to inform that the player is now moving forward and turning right:


Or, to teleport to 100x200:


Where # is the parameter delimiter.

The socket connection would be connected to the player identifier, so that no identifier has to be broadcasted with the protocol to know what player the message belongs to.

Of course all data would be validated server side, but that is a different subject.

Now, this seems pretty efficient to me, only 2 bytes to inform the server that I am moving forward and turning right.

However, most "professional" code snippets I saw seemed to be sending objects or xml commands. This seems to require a lot more server resources to me, doesn't it?

Is my unexperienced logic of why my text based protocol would be efficient flawed? Or what is the recommended protocol for real-time action multiplayer games?

I want to setup a protocol that is as efficient as possible, because I do not want to use multiple clusters/servers to cover excessive amounts of bandwidth for my 2D multiplayer game, and to safe synchronization problems and hassle.


However, most "professional" code snippets I saw seemed to be sending objects or xml commands. This seems to require a lot more server resources to me, doesn't it?

Is my unexperienced logic of why my text based protocol would be efficient flawed? Or what is the recommended protocol for real-time action multiplayer games?

Plain text is more expensive to send than a binary format containing the same information. For example, if you only send 1 byte, you can only send 10 different commands, digits 0 to 9. A binary format can send as many different commands as there are different values you can fit into a byte, ie. 256.

As such, although you are thinking of objects as being large, in actual fact they are almost always smaller than the plain text representation of that same object. Often they are as small as is possible without compression (and you can always add compression anyway).

The benefits of a plain text format are that they are easy to debug and understand. Unfortunately you lose those benefits if you put your own encoding in there (eg. reducing commands down to single digits instead of readable names). The downside is that the format is bigger, and that you have to write your own parser. XML formats eliminate the second problem, but they can't compete with a binary format for pure efficiency.

You are probably overthinking this issue at this stage, however. If you're only sending information about events such as the commands you mention above, bandwidth will not be a concern. It's broadcasting information about the game state that can get expensive - but even that can be mitigated by being careful who you send it to, and how frequently. I would recommend working with whatever format is easiest for now, as this will be the least of your problems. Just make sure that your code is always in a state where you can change the message writing and reading routines later if you need.

You need to be aware of the latency involved in sending your data. "Start turning"/"stop turning" will be less effective if the time between the receipt of those packets is different than the time between sending them.

I can't speak for all games, but when I've worked on this sort of code we'd send orientation and position information across the wire. That way the receiver could do smoothing and extrapolation (figure out where the object should be "now" based on data that I have that is already known to be old). Different games will want to send different data, but generally speaking you will need to figure out how to make the receiver's display of the data match the sender's, so you'll need to send data that is resilient in the face of networking problems.

Also, many games use UDP for this sort of data transfer instead of TCP. UDP is unreliable, so you may not get all of your packets. That means that "stop moving now" or "start moving now" may not be received in pairs. When coding on top of UDP then it's even more important to send "this is the state right now" every so often so that clients get ample opportunity to sync up.

The common way is to use a binary format, not text, not xml. So with only one byte you can represent one of 256 different commands.

Also use UDP and not TCP. The game will be a lot more responsive with UDP in case of packet loss. In case of packet loss you can still extrapolate the movements. With each packet send a packet number so that the server knows when the command was sent.

I highly recommend that you download the Quake source code where you can learn more about network programming in modern multiplayer games. It's really easy to read and understand.


I almost forgot.. Google's Protocol Buffers can be of great help when sending complex data structures.

I thought I would give my two cents and provide a practical application to what is being referred to as Binary Serialization. The concept is actually incredibly simple, yet only seems complicated on the outside.

You can actually send XMLs and have a server that processes the data within the XML to different functions within the server itself. You can also just send the server a single number that is stored within the server as a variable. After that, it can process the rest of the data and choose the correct course of actions.

As an example, some rough code:

private const MOVE_RIGHT:int = 0; 
private const MOVE_LEFT:int = 1;
private const MOVE_UP:int = 2;
private const MOVE_DOWN:int = 3;

function processData(e:event.data)
    switch (e)
       case MOVE_RIGHT:
       //move the clients player to the right

       case MOVE_LEFT:
       //move the clients player to the left

       case MOVE_UP:
       //move the clients player to the up

       case MOVE_DOWN:
       //move the clients player to the down


This would be a very simple example, and would need to be modified but as you can see you merely just store the variables encoded with whole numbers that you transmit in strings of numbers. You can parse these and create headers of information to organize them into different sections of data that needs to be transmitted.

Also, it is better to do a UDP setup for games because just missing a packet should NOT halter the gaming experience, but instead should be able to handle it client-side AND server-side.

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