From Pong to Ping: 20 years online

Welcome to our second part of “From Pong to Ping”. In this series we’re going to look at the evolution of hosted gaming from different angles, through the eyes of a game hoster with twenty years of experience. We aim to provide information and trivia from the past but also speak about the impact that hosted game worlds can have on your success. Since we already gave an overview of what’s to come in the upcoming articles, it’s time to briefly speak about GPORTAL’s history, a couple of milestones and challenges we’ve dealt with. Today we’re feeling confident enough to say that our vision of hosted gaming could become yours as well, so, how did we get there?

Game hosting is still a niche market. Twenty years ago, when a couple of friends decided to improve their online gaming experience and turned their hobby into the company GPORTAL, playing online was the next best thing if you couldn’t attend a LAN party. While these parties were already happening in the late 70s, their sizes exploded dramatically a few years later, around the second millennium. It was the weird paradox that while many people could go online, they simply couldn’t, not with the amount of data, music, videos and of course games they were used to sharing with their friends in a local network.

Multiplayer games like Quake already had a huge following and the amount of online servers was, in comparison to other games of the same era, stunning. However, many of them were scattered and hard to find. Simply opening Google to look for any open server wasn’t a thing yet, so services like Planet Quake arose, better known as Game Spy in later iterations. Aside from showing news and mods, it operated as a central hub to collect every possible Quake server. The next big multiplayer hits were Half Life Deathmatch and – of course – the famous Half Life mod that turned the online world upside down, Counter-Strike.

Not only were these games massively played on LANs, but servers and game hosters seemed to materialize out of thin air. The first game servers used rates very similar to mobile phone contracts, which many actually did until 2011. Customers had to offer personal information like their address if they decided to rent a private server via mail. Imagine the loopholes a gamer had to jump through if all they wanted was to play some private rounds with friends. 

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GPORTAL focused on fps back then and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Counter-Strike was the driving force behind the choice of genre. Online gaming had already been popular but there wasn’t just one big network where one could easily address their target audience. Many games, or rather the players, relied on IRC, short for Internet Relay Chat, to communicate, socialize and of course find a match, a map, a server.

Using IRC for advertising was as close to the target audience as you could get. What made servers interesting back then was, in some way, not that much different to what makes them great today. Playing together is obviously a key factor, as is playing with low latency. Twenty years ago, fastpath was still an important thing to consider for online gamers typically using ADSL.

Never heard of it? Instead of sending data packages in randomized grouping, which is called interleaving, fastpath sends all packages in order. This makes it slightly more prone to data loss but also reduces your ping significantly. If the local network provider didn’t activate fastpath, you were stuck with interleaving for good, leading to increased latency and an overall worse gaming experience. Even then, we tried to come up with a solution that offered a lower ping for everybody, connecting our hardware directly with eyeball-providers. 

Today, GPORTAL has fourteen data centers around the globe to ensure that, wherever you’re hopping into the game, your ping is as low as possible to create the best gaming experience. Furthermore, playing on a server that matches your individual ping with others of the same kind, ensures that a game actually becomes fair, even if you’re not having the best internet connection. This elevates the gaming experience, which in turn greatly improves the feedback for any game published and played online. 

The 2000s brought more successful first person shooters like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike Source, Battlefield and Unreal Tournament onto the gaming community’s hard drives and were quickly added to our roster. These were the kind of games that quickly caught the attention of newly created eSports teams who were already invested in Counter-Strike. The popularity of these games not only led to them being played on LAN-parties all around the world, but steadily increased the demand for game servers. 

While the market for game hosters was never that big, it offered a large amount of smaller companies, often focused on a single game like the immensely popular Minecraft. We at GPORTAL planned to implement more games but were forced to come up with a new panel. A panel is a tool to set up your game, monitor users and ban them if necessary, activate mods or allow for different maps to be played. It is in essence the control center of your server, hence the name “game server control panel”.

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Different games have different needs and our goal was to always create an environment that offers the most flexibility and comfort for both players and developers. This took quite some time, all the while we kept growing in a market that flourished through exclusivity. When Battlefield 3 was released, GPORTAL was one of only 48 official game hosters around the world, due to having a strong track record. Still, our evolution from being a fps-aficionado into a 100 games portfolio hoster needed a lot of effort and resources in terms of development, administration and marketing.

Infrastructure isn’t growing overnight but we steadily worked hard to make it as robust as possible. Finally, our inhouse panel went live in 2015. We made it as flexible, easy to understand and powerful as possible, allowing the activation of mods, maps or any other features on the fly.  While it doesn’t sound that important, you mustn’t neglect the impact a first impression leaves on players, especially casual gamers, who are looking for a server to set up with their friends.

If it takes too long or it’s too difficult to understand, you probably not only lose a customer but eventually a whole new group of players. Maybe they were thinking about buying a copy of that new survival adventure to play with their friends and quickly lost interest after everything came to a halt, right at the beginning. We made sure that this process runs as smoothly as possible because we already had over ten years of experience to pour into our own development.

This marks one of the major key takeaways from the past 20 years. It is not groundbreaking and doesn’t come as a surprise but self-made is more than often, maybe always, better than buying in your equipment. It takes longer because everything has to be planned, developed or set up on your own and it costs more. Breaking even might take many years and, if not planned carefully, forces your hosting company – or any company at this point –  to take risks. In the end, however, you’ve grown in the process, became master of your own technical empire.

Ruling it feels natural because now you are in charge of everything, not dependent on third-party software or support that can’t be reached at night. One example would be our inhouse ddos-protection Bulwark which paradoxically benefitted from our past experiences with ddos-attacks on our game servers. Whenever Battlefield got attacked, it was not uncommon for 10k and more players to drop out of a match. Imagine the impact this would have on your game today.

Many people will of course blame the hoster but a vast majority of them go into forums, on Reddit, Steam and Twitter to directly attack the developers. Bulwark wasn’t the only solution. We’re doing our own routing, which offers many benefits, not only the ability to shift traffic in case of an emergency. We’re also in touch with many eyeball providers in countries around the world to ensure that our routing is direct and to the point.

All of this is only possible because we put up our own data centers and equipment at major locations across the globe. Going for quality makes for satisfied customers in the long run, that is just a simple fact. To double down on this, we implemented a support system with tickets and a hotline to quickly provide answers and possible solutions. Oftentimes an aggravated player only needs an explanation rather than an instant solution for a problem, to refrain from online bashing. 

With all the investments into a stable and strong infrastructure, customer satisfaction and removal of technical debt, there were still ways to decrease costs without giving up our quality. In fact, quite the contrary. We looked into possible ways to decrease our total cost of ownership. One simple solution was to run as many instances as possible on our servers but this would have negatively impacted the performance of our games.

However, Intel and Dell developed multi-core as well as single-core processors that would not only fit our needs but actually increase overall performance. A technical, detailed description can be found in this article on our website. Now we were able to operate at lower costs and increased efficiency at the same time, much to the delight of gamers and developers alike. 

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One big milestone and proof that GPORTAL is able to provide help even in time-critical situations was our official partnership with Funcom and Conan Exiles in 2017. The game launched to great success, in fact, better than the developers had anticipated. GPORTAL wasn’t the official partner at the start but was asked to jump in when the server capacity was cut from 70 to 40 all the while the game had 40.000 simultaneous players at peak times.

Conan Exiles lost players in massive numbers and clearly needed a reliable server hoster to stop gamers from pouring out of this soon-to-become mortal wound, leaving the game as an empty husk. It did work out, Conan Exiles is still one of our most played games and even Funcom’s CEO said in an interview that GPORTAL clearly was part of this success story. This just comes to tell that even if your online game looks perfect, uses interesting game mechanics or a unique storyline, everything comes crashing down as soon as you’re not running on reliable, high quality infrastructure.

One recent major success for GPORTAL was the release of V Rising, one of the most played online games in 2022, which peaked with 150.000 simultaneous players in the first weeks after release. We hosted 37.000 private servers at the same time to compensate for this massive player rush. Not only are we an official partner of Stunlock Studios, the developers behind V Rising, but also provided support in their Discord channel and were involved at very early stages of their multiplayer journey. V Rising is the perfect example of what happens when an already great game is put into the hands of the players and becomes elevated to even greater heights!

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None of this would have happened without the option of private servers and we made sure that it ran flawlessly from the start. Again, we made clear that our track record isn’t only for show but we also created proof that, whenever you think about creating a game with multiplayer, tailoring it from the start for the perfect online experience is a recipe for success. A reliable partner, a solid and fast infrastructure and support are the values that a game server hoster has to offer to work as a power up for the game in focus.

In the last 2,5 years, GPortal has been an official hoster for every game that either offered private or dedicated server hosting and we had no issues or difficulties with nearly 70 hosted releases in the past six years. The investments mentioned earlier, putting time, effort and money into your infrastructure, tech, administration and support ensure that your high quality product won’t be dead on arrival. 

With everything that changed in the last twenty years, it is nice to know that LAN parties are still a thing. The online world clearly took over with all the advantages that an interconnected planet full of players has to offer, but even then it’s surprising to see that the actual world record for the biggest LAN was set in 2020. That one saw nearly 23.000 different faces and took place in Sweden, so calling LANs not attractive anymore doesn’t do them justice.

Historically speaking, many of the most successful games from the early times of server hosting, the ones that were also very sought after on LAN parties, had something in common. They were either moddable like Quake, which resulted in the very successful Team Fortress, or modded games like the already bestselling Half Life that was turned into Counter-Strike. Not only are these games part of our own story but also just the start of a thriving modding scene. Modders took their creativity and came up with brand new ideas, keeping games alive that would otherwise be considered outdated.

It makes only sense that the next part of our series focuses on the history of mods and the games they affected, created and, in many cases, even outlived. Stay with us for useful information about everything from the early 80s over Castle Wolfenstein to Counter-Strike, and why these games were responsible for a massively increased demand for servers in general and accelerated the growth of server infrastructure around the globe. 

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