Problems with P2P

This is part 6 in my article series about how I created "Pizza Peers". If you haven't read the previous articles, be sure to do so now! Here's the link: How I Created "Pizza Peers"

So, let's talk about our current setup:

  • The game is started on a single computer. This computer is the host and also the boss about any game logic.

  • Phones can connect to this computer and directly send input.

As I created "Pizza Peers", the big problem with this setup gradually came to light: the game is basically played on X screens simultaneously.

If you have 4 players, there are 5 screens that need to be updated (players + computer host). Most importantly, they need to stay in sync.

Let's say you are standing at a table to drop an ingredient (for your pizza). Another player comes in and swiftly drops his own backpack on the table, just before you pressed your button.

What happens now? Is your input ignored? Are both your inputs valid? Do I need to update your screen every time something changes at the table, and how do I do that?

And what if one of the players disconnects? A few articles ago, I mentioned the importance of keeping the player list intact, because we use it to convert the peer to the corresponding player.

Let's see how I tackled these problems. I don't know if it's the best way, but it's a way.

Syncing players

Synchronizing players and keeping an online multiplayer game "fair" is one of the hardest things to do. I've tried it several times and still fail to grasp some of the concepts.

(For example, a large part of it has to do with the server being ahead of all the players and being able to go backward/forward in time to evaluate the game state for a given player at a given timestamp. Yeah, try to code that.)

Fortunately, we do not need this. Because there is a single screen on which the game is played and hosted, we do not need to update the whole game on multiple screens.

All we need to do, is update the interface on each smartphone to match the current game state.

Because updates are (as good as) instant, we don't need to be careful about this either.

In the final game, I simply do the following:

  • Player A stands at a table and changes something.

  • Now the game checks if any other players are at the same table.

  • If so, it sends out a message to all of them with the new composition of the table.

I've had several games where two or three players were using the same table, and it never led to issues.

Of course, you do need to be very diligent with error checking within the game. Before any transaction, check if players are allowed to do this transaction. Don't blindly assume that input is correct by any means.

For example, whenever someone tries to update a table, I always check the following things first:

  • Is this player valid?

  • Is this player actually at this specific table?

  • Is the ingredient he wants to add a valid ingredient? (Not all numbers correspond to a valid pizza.)

  • Is he allowed to do this (given the current ingredients on the table)?

  • (And sometimes even more)

So far, this has never errored or caused glitches. Whenever somebody changes a table, everyone connected to it is instantly updated on the new game state.

The same principle applies to all other things.

A good alternative would be to change your game's design. Simply do not allow more than one player to use something. Limitations like that often lead to cleaner, less error-prone, more elegant games designs.

Another alternative is a sort of "voting" system. If the game is uncertain about the reality or current state of things, it simply polls all players. The value that occurs most often is deemed the right one. (Really, in such a tiny local multiplayer game this doesn't matter. Might even add to the fun.)

Smartphone weirdness

A huge drawback with creating a browser game, is that all browsers have their own ideas about how things should work.

I've created many games that worked flawlessly on my device or browser, but completely broke down elsewhere. Sometimes, the fix was simple (add a vendor prefix to the CSS or look up when a certain JavaScript feature was introduced).

But sometimes I found out the hard way that I had to redo all my code, because a browser simply didn't have a feature or implemented it in the complete opposite way.

Things to keep in mind are:

  • Vendor prefixes in CSS

  • JavaScript versions and supported functionality.

  • Supported file types (e.g. for audio)

  • Different screen sizes: usually best to use "overflow:hidden" (never allow scrolling on the interface) and minimize the use of dynamic elements that might mess with your size (such as images, videos, blocks that appear/disappear, ...)

  • Apple is annoying. They only update Safari when they release a new version/new product, and they are often late to the party on all features.

  • Try to include every single property in your CSS. Why? Because each browser and device has a different default look for buttons, input, links, etc. You want the game and interface to look consistent.

  • If you work with touch events, make sure to prevent propagation, otherwise the same event gets fired twice on most systems. Also make sure you manually check all your values, because I've found error logging to be quite useless when working with event listeners.

Disconnecting & Crashes

When a peer falls away, the whole connection immediately breaks down. This is a side-effect of direct communication: there's no server in between to mitigate this or solve the problem.

If the computer host falls away, the game is simply terminated and you need to restart. There's no proper way to save the game state and restore it, unless we want to copy the whole game state to all smartphones at all times.

If a player falls away, however, we can fall back to the idea of "the host is the boss". Whenever anything goes wrong, I simply pause the game and show an error message with possible causes and solutions.

Most importantly: I set a flag on the computer so it knows people will try to reconnect.

When you connect to the game, and the game is in "reconnect" mode, it just searches through the players until it finds the one with a matching username. It swaps the old peer for the new one (which you used to connect the second time) and tada: you've regained control of your old player sprite!

I've found this to be the most elegant and quick way to solve the issue of disconnecting and crashing.

There are still some problems, though, that I must solve at this time:

  • If a smartphone goes into standby, the connection is also lost. In between games, people usually go for a snack or a drink, and by the time they get back they are all disconnected.

  • The first player to connect becomes the VIP. This means that they get the button to "start the game!" or "play again!" If they disconnect ... well, then I need some way to transfer that VIP to someone else.

  • What if a player simply wants to leave instead of reconnect?

It's my experience that gracefully dealing with disconnects and crashes is a never-ending story, that's why I write this bit even though not all problems are resolved. They will never all be resolved :p


Hopefully you now have an idea of the pros and cons of this system, and how to make it all work smoothly.

You also know how to setup the connections, the game, how to send and receive data, and how to properly act on that data.

I could leave you here and you could create your own peer-to-peer games!

(In fact, if that's what you came to do, you can leave now and make your dream project!)

There are some parts of "Pizza Peers", however, that I find too interesting not to share. I'm talking about the algorithms I used to randomly generate cities and kitchens. They are quite simple and naïve approaches, but they worked wonderfully (to my surprise).

I also have some things to say about Pixel Art (this is my first attempt at creating a pixel art game) and other aspects of game development in general.

So, see you in the next (and probably final) article!