In an online shooter, the tech better work, or you’re in for a miserable experience. Whether it’s network lag, or your bullets going somewhere other than where you fired them, the frustrations can be endless. And that’s exactly what Riot’s engineers want to fix with Valorant.
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, Polygon visited Riot’s headquarters and sat down with a few of the game’s engineers to talk about how they plan to resolve players’ frustrations before they even happen.
Making the seams invisible
According to Valorant senior software engineer David Straily, one of Riot’s main focuses with Valorant is competitive integrity. The goal is for everything in the game to be fair and that players can trust the game’s underlying systems to correctly register their actions.
“Competitive integrity is that for every single game you play, whether you win or you lose, you are in control of that outcome,” says Straily. “Through no fault of the computer, the internet, or the game servers, you control your own destiny. Our game is hard to get really good at, but it’s fair. That’s the guarantee through and through.”
For the engineering team, the challenge on Valorant is to make itself completely invisible. Chances are, if players are thinking about something on the technical side of Valorant, whether it’s their frames-per-second, latency, or hit registration, it’s because they just had a bad experience with it.
“As engineers and technologists we’ve done our job if no one notices what we’ve done,” Valorant engineering manager Dave Heironymus says. “If they complain about any of these things, we haven’t done our job.”
Senior network engineer Paul Chamberlain chimes in as well saying, “we want to be facilitating the experience and if we get in the way that’s a problem.”
128 tick servers were a no-brainer
All of this technical precision has to start with Valorant’s servers. Servers in multiplayer games are where matches are hosted. A server’s tick rate is how often it communicates with the computers that it’s hosting for each match. The more frequent the communication, the more accurately actions are registered. For most first-person shooters, standard servers are 64 tick. Valorant’s servers will all be 128 tick, meaning that they’ll communicate with their clients twice as fast.
Servers with higher tick rates help smooth out motion, because the server is receiving twice as many updates on a player’s location from the computers that are doing the moving. This makes aiming easier and smoother, but also makes walking appear more natural and predictable. It also makes it easier for Riot to ensure that every bullet that’s fired in Valorant registers correctly.
Servers that refresh that often aren’t easy or cheap to maintain. In fact, in the case of games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, you can pay third-party companies like Faceit to join a matchmaking pool where games are hosted on Faceit’s own 128 tick servers. But the standard servers for CS:GO’s matchmaking are 64 tick. Valorant’s 128 tick servers being the standardized sets it apart from other shooters, but according to the development team, Riot never saw it as a choice.
Valorant executive producer Anna Donlon told Polygon, “I’ve never worked at a company where it was just a no-brainer to give 128 tick servers to players for free. It was just like ‘well, of course we’ll do that.’”
35 ms ping for most players
Servers are only as good as the connection that players have to them, but Valorant’s team has a plan for that too. According to Straily, the goal is for most (about 70%) players in primary markets, like North American and Europe, to have latency under 35 milliseconds (ms).
Latency is the time it takes for your computer to send a message to the game’s server. In most games latency is just a product of how far players are from servers and how strong their connections are. But for Valorant, Riot is spreading data centers out around the world — including four in the United States — in hopes of creating consistent latency for as many players as possible.
While this should help keep latency low for most players, there will always be players with bad connections, but Riot is also taking a new approach to dealing with them as well.
Everyone has played a shooter against an enemy with bad lag. They skip around the map, seemingly teleporting from one spot to the next.
In Valorant, the player with the offending network connection will, by and large, bear the brunt of this choppiness. Instead of other players seeing them teleport around, making them difficult to shoot, the player with the bad connection will see themselves teleporting. Meanwhile, the game’s server will fill in that players movements while trying to make them as smooth as possible. That way the other players in the game can see and shoot them, even if the person with the bad connection will have a hard time controlling their character.
In other words, if one person in a match has a bad connection, their movement should still appear normal for the other nine players. The person with the bad connection will be an easy target, without disrupting the experience of the other nine.
Peeker’s advantage mitigated
Another consistent problem in the shooter genre is peeker’s advantage. In most shooters, because of the way that computers interact with servers, a player who rounds a corner will have a split second where they are able to see a player on the other side of the corner, before that player can see them. While this can’t be fully solved, Riot has managed to get it in a better spot, where it doesn’t give either player a significant advantage.
According to Straily, the development team did significant research to attempt to find the optimal amount of time they needed to get peeker’s advantage down to in order to make engagements fair.
“We measured with a bunch of pro players and experienced folks here in the studio,” says Straily. “And we deemed that less than 80 miliseocond is fair for peeking with our weapons and tuning. Not good, not great, but fair,”
Thanks in large part to the fact that most players (again around 70%) will have 35 ms latency and the fact that the game’s servers are 128 tick, Straily says the team at Riot have managed to get peeker’s advantage down to around 60 ms in most cases.
According to the networking team, peeker’s advantage was a sort of goal post. If they could fix peeker’s advantage, or at least balance it out, then it would be a sign that everything else was in a good place.