Tag Archives: thin client

Is EVE Anywhere Anything to Care About?

I like the idea of being able to just play any game in a browser rather than having a dedicated client, but are the limitations worth the effort of building such a client?

This, of course, is related to CCP’s EVE Anywhere implementation, which was announced quite a while back and has been out in a limited beta version since March of 2021.

EVE Anywhere as long as you accept the limitations

I bring this up again because CCP released a dev blog yesterday announcing that EVE Anywhere was now available for Alpha accounts, which are those who haven’t opted for the monthly subscription plan.  The free players.

(As an aside, to whoever wrote the headline for that dev blog, it sounds like EVE Anywhere is ready for alpha testing, though it has been in beta for over a year.  I can’t tell if that was poor phrasing or a warning about the state of the implementation… though why not both?)

I tried it out when it was first available and I tried it out again this past week and… almost everything I complained about back then is still true now.

  • Fixed resolution (1920×1080)

Not the worst sin possible in and of itself, but if your monitor is not that resolution things may not look right.

  • Can only be run in full screen

This, on the other hand, is a pain in the ass, and all the more so as the app makes you think you can run it in a window or some mode besides full screen.

The lies the client tells me

But no, as soon as you get out of full screen the window is obscured by the banner that required you to click to get back to full screen.

No, you must play full screen

Oh well.

  • Doesn’t remember any settings client settings

I could probably live with the first two and find some utility in being able to log in with a web client, but then there is this.  This is the deal breaker.

Basically, any setting that the standard client stores locally… which is pretty much all of your UI choices and your overviews and such… are not picked up by the web client.

You might expect that.  The real problem is that it doesn’t remember any changes you make in the web client either.  Every time you log in it is the new unconfigured client experience.  I don’t like fiddling with my overview on the best of days, so I certainly don’t want to do it every time I log in and undock.

I will say that at least it does run in Firefox now.  It wouldn’t work for me last time, though I will admit I have my copy of Firefox locked down pretty tight.  Now it will run… it just doesn’t work very well.  Keyboard short cuts don’t work so you need to mouse and click on everything, including quitting the client.

I know, you’re going to tell me it is in beta.  It says so right there on the launch button, so it is a work in progress, and I should be charitable.  And, even a year in, I can buy into that idea.  It still isn’t very useful to me, but nobody is forcing me to use it, so its problems do not have my problems.

The little red beta flag is there to deflect criticism

And I wouldn’t have bothered with this post at all save for one detail in the dev blog.

They did, indeed, make it available to Alpha clone players, but those Alphas have to pay to use it.

Every 24 hour period required you to pay 30 PLEX which, assuming you buy the 3,000 PLEX package, means you have to pony up $1.25 a day to play.  And that just blows be away.

There are, in my world view, only two reasons you would bother making a web client version of EVE Online.

The first is that CCP is concerned that some portion of their player base, real or potential, don’t have machines that can run the client in a way that makes the game look good.  A cloud based thin client, something about which I wrote about previously, puts all the processing and rendering on the server side of the equation and the end user can just look at the pretty space pictures on their Chromebook or whatever.

And maybe that is the aim of the feature.

But the other reason you would do all of this work on a thin client so that players could run your game in a web browser is to reduce the friction that keeps new players from trying your game.  Remember that chart CCP showed us back in 2019?

How many new players log back in as time passes

CCP has been focused on the 10K or so players who log into the game to keep them logging in.  But you could argue that the stand-out number on that chart is the gap between the number of accounts registered versus how many actually log into the game.  Half of the potential players don’t even make it to the point where the game is confusing and the UI is indecipherable.  They fail somewhere between making their account and clicking “play” on the client, and I would guess that most of those fall off somewhere around download and install of the client.

Downloading and installing and configuring, those all represent friction that can keep players from getting into your game.

Ideally you could find a way… like a web based client… that would remove that friction and allow a player to just create an account and then click a button to start playing.  So the web client should at least push more new players into the game so they can hate it for what it is rather than for making them download and run an installer.

Except, of course, that new player cannot do that with EVE Online because in order to use the web client you need to spend some money to get some PLEX, and if you think downloading and installing a client is friction, getting people to pull out their wallet will dwarf that.

Back when MMORPGs were making the transition to free to play en masse, one of the primary arguments was that not forcing people to pay up front would get more players to try the game and that some percentage of those who wouldn’t pay up front would pony up once they experienced the game.

And, just because I feel like piling on a bit more, I am also very much of the opinion that if you charge for something, “it’s in beta” is not a defense.  If I’m paying you can call it whatever you want, but I am going to treat it like a finished product because what else is it at that point?

But wait… what if it isn’t actually still in beta?

CCP also ran a press release on their corporate site that said that EVE Anywhere launched yesterday.  That was enough to get some gaming sites who did more than copy and paste what they had been emailed to point out that the service is live.  Game Developer (formerly Gamesutra) took that to mean that it was out of beta.  They should have tried logging I guess.

Or maybe CCP should just be clear in their freaking press communications, because the dev blog headline sounds like it is in alpha, the dev blog itself doesn’t say it has left beta, and the corporate press release says it has launched.

I am this close to making unfavorable comparisons to Daybreak when it comes to communications here.

So what are you going to do?  As I said, it something that doesn’t affect me really, so I can safely ignore it, but it still managed to irk me and serves as an example of a poor product being handled badly.  And I can’t even start in on the fact that EVE Anywhere is not available everywhere, but still in a limited number of countries. You can’t make this up.

All of which makes the answer to my question in the headline a pretty definite “No!”

Related:

The Allure of the Thin Client

For a couple of decades various companies have been trying to get us back to the thin client model of computing.  Oracle has suggested this loudly more than a few times and Google ponders it now and again, with things like Stadia being based on the idea.  Also, if you work for a big company I assure you that your IT department has wet dreams about taking away all your laptops and desktops and making you work on some sort of thin client appliance.  IT at my company keeps pushing Citrix virtual desktops as the solution to every problem.

I say “back to” because I am old enough to remember when dumb terminals and terminal emulators were a mainstay of computing.  In addition to my time spent in the computer lab in college, the online games I played back in the 80s and into the mid-90s, things like Stellar Emperor or Gemstone on GEnie, MegaWars III on CompuServe, and Sonjourn/Toril MUD, were all built on that model.

Star Trek in vt52 emulation

As personal computers came along and started growing in computing power, much of the heavy lifting was put on that end of the equation.  Air Warrior rendered its very primitive visuals on the player end, and shooters and action games like Marathon and Diablo made the user’s system do the graphical work while just data about inputs and positioning were shared.   This meant that in the low bandwidth of the time… I played Air Warrior on a 2400bps modem… the back and forth between client and server was kept to a minimum.

So the end user client became fat.  Eventually so much data was stored at the user end by the late 90s that EverQuest had a little test module app that let you run around a mini-zone to test your 3D card, but you could rename many of the game maps and run around the main, if empty, world if you knew what you were doing.  You couldn’t zone or do much, but if you wanted to explore it was a boon, and you were not even connected to Sony while you did it.  And that is the way that many MMORPGs and other online games went, keeping data on the server and letting the end user machine do the graphical work.

For video game developers there are many benefits to going with a thin client, of keeping all that data on their servers.

For starters, the downloads and patching at the user end are kept to a minimum.  This has often been viewed as a point of friction that keeps players from trying out new games.  The holy grail is for a player to just be able to play without any sort of download, something CCP has been experimenting with recently with EVE Online and their EVE Anywhere browser beta.  If you can just play the game on any computer, then your potential market is greatly expanded.

It also makes updates easy, since things only have to get pushed as far as the servers.  Very little need be pushed to the player’s machine.  New content just appears or is unlocked without a download.  You also get all your settings and configurations as you move from device to device.

It is also a major boon for security.  If all the key files are on the company’s secure servers, then secrets can be kept.  We are familiar with every new pet, item, mount, or NPC being spoiled for us in WoW by the race to datamine any pre-patch update.  And, of course, addons, illicit or benign, and hacks are kept at bay.  This all falls under Raph Koster’s admonishment that “the client is in the hands of the enemy.”  Overall the environment is more secure.

Finally, all the end user issues that come from the wide variety of PC configurations, a huge problem for many applications, are largely eliminated.  A thin client stops caring about processors and video cards and operating systems and the like.  Your game can theoretically run on somebody’s TV or refrigerator.

All in all there is a lot of upside.  Control! Security! Ease of access!

Sign me up today!

So why isn’t every new online game in a thin client in the cloud?

Since I used the word “cloud” there, I am going to take a moment to point out that cloud computing is not the same thing, or required for, a thin client, though when people who should know keep conflating the two things I get how you might be confused on that.  Thin clients are as old as computing.  See my reference to dumb terminals at the top of this post.  And cloud computing is, simply put, a scalable server architecture with redundancy built in… though, again, some things that get referred to as “the cloud” are better labeled “somebody else’s computer” and not used as examples of the technology.  Talking about cloud computing as though that means any remote computer is a simplification that renders the term meaningless.  If that is your frame, then every online game is “cloud” and there is nothing special about it.

Anyway, why is Google’s Stadia something of an outlier rather than the norm for the industry, at least when it comes to 3D rendered world-based games?  (Because you kind of have to count early RuneScape, Club Penguin, Star Wars: The Clone Wars Adventures, Nation Geographic Adventures, and all those Cartoon Network games if you don’t put a barrier somewhere.  So I am speaking of high end games where some level of realistic graphic fidelity is a requirement.)

And maybe Stadia is a bad example in that it is attempting to be a virtual console that can play titles that were not otherwise designed for such an environment, but if you take it off the list we don’t have a lot of other big name examples.  Well, at least no successes.  A few companies have tried to do what Stadia is doing in the past and have ended up failing.  But given that it is common as shit unless you want render a ton of polygons, why isn’t already a common thing?

Part of the issue is likely due to the cost of the infrastructure.

The problem is that if you’re going to take over all the rendering functions of the remote device, you essentially have to do all the processing that the end user’s PC or console was going to do.  If you want to run that all yourself or you want to use somebody else’s data center, that still means a lot of extra hardware.  The company basically has to pay to run your client rather than letting you run it on your own hardware.

For example, EVE Online has a minimum system requirement of a 2.0 GHz dual core processor and a modest GPU.  If it went entirely thin client, if EVE Anywhere was the only way to access New Eden, you would have to have the equivalent of 20,000 minimum spec PCs in processing power on hand just about all the time, scaling up to 35,000 or even 40,000 at prime time on weekends.

You can probably get away with less processing power for most operations, but you would most assuredly want to put more processing power behind GPU support unless you want the whole game to run in potato mode for everybody all the time.

In a modern cloud architecture where you can bring capacity online easily and only pay for what you are using at a given time, you can keep the costs down somewhat, but everybody playing is incurring a cost, and somebody has to pay for it.  I don’t think it will be like my days back in college where your online account had an allocated budget to spend on processing time (which inevitably got squandered on Rogue), but the company is going to have to find some way to pay for using their processing power rather that your own.  Expect to pay more.

And, while the company saves on bandwidth when it comes to things like pushing patches to every client, the need to pipe high quality video at an appropriate resolution and quality will more than offset that.

Meanwhile, latency and connection quality issues will become a much more visible, something that Google’s Stadia demonstrated.  These are issues in current games like WoW, but you often don’t see it because the client with all the assets and world data will keep you walking, running, riding, or flying along while it tries to catch up after any data blip.  But if you lose connectivity for a bit and far end is only routing video to you, everything stutters or stops quite noticeably.  And even when the is able to get to you but the network traffic is slow, you’ll see your video quality degrade.

Also, if you live some place with restrictive bandwidth caps you’ll find streaming all that video might put you in danger of exceeding them.  You need high speed and lots of bandwidth to play a thin client game at the quality level you’re used to with an equivalent fat client title.  But you can play the thin client title on your refrigerator, so there is that.

But, if the game decides to take full advantage of the potential platform independence aspect of a thin client, if they’re going to support your high end desktop PC with the 34″ ultra wide screen monitor AND that refrigerator screen, there is likely going to have to be some sort of compromise on quality and UI.  So even if bandwidth and network hiccups aren’t dragging down your quality, the game itself, optimized to some happy medium, might not deliver the same satisfying, high definition experience that you would get if your own gaming rig was doing the work rather than some standardized system on a remote server.  Oh, and I keep using the term “thin client,” but for most uses you can substitute in “web browser,” though a light app is also possible. (Though with that comes the temptation to fatten it up.)

Finally, if the thin client game shuts down… see MetaPlace… you have nothing left but memories and credit card bills.  All of the major pirate /private server projects to restore online games that have been closed rely heavily on people being able to get a hold of a copy of the fat client.  All the graphics and a lot of the data is stored there, which is how so many of these rudimentary projects get stood up so quickly.  The world is in the client, you just need to get a system with the right responses going to get basic walking around the world functionality running.

The thin client idea is an attractive proposition for the dev side.  It simplifies a lot of things for them, gives them better security, and hands them all the control.  Done right in a cloud environment, it could even solve the first day server load issues if they can scale successfully.

But somebody is going to pay for the additional cost, your experience may be degraded if you do not have an ideal internet connection, if the studio wants to run their title across platforms and devices you may find the experience and interface less than you desire, and the whole thing becomes a virtual world that can disappear, never to be seen again, as fast as any virtual good.