If there is a master server, others are slaves

If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 05 Jul 2020, 01:31

Note: This article is canonically hosted on libre-gaming.net but I have halted the work and taken down the website due to my mental health. I'm reposting it here due to special circumstances.

There original title of this article was "Master servers considered harmful". However, now that Black Lives Matter has made the word "master" offensive, they did the bulk of the work for me so I have changed the title to something that is much easier to understand.

This case study explores the aspects of video game master servers and highlights their dangerous pitfalls.

What is master server?

Multiplayer video games usually follow client-server model where server program simulates the state of the game world and transmits it to clients while clients render the world and sends input to the server. Client program runs on the player's computer while server usually runs 24/7 in a datacenter. However, the client will only be able to access the server if the client knows the address of the server. That's where master server comes in. Master server is a special server that keeps the addresses of other servers. It has the well known address that may be hardcoded in the client and server programs. When server program starts, it usually looks up the address of the master server and tries to connect to it to be listed. When the client program starts, it usually connects to the master server and gets the list of all servers. As you may observe, master server becomes the single point of failure.

Let's see what the consequences of this model are based on 3 games: Team Fortress 2, Red Eclipse and Blue Nebula.

Team Fortress 2

TF2 is a proprietary video game by Valve released in 2007. The game relies on Steam DRM and uses it for the master server. It is a multiplayer first person shooter where 2 teams battle against each other. The main gimmick of the game is that the player is required to choose the class ranging from offensive ones such as Scout or Soldier to support ones such as Medic or Sniper. All classes have different stats and weapons and work in a rock-paper-scissors way.

The game used the model of previous Valve titles were Valve relied on the community to host its servers. The EULA allows you to download the TF2 dedicated server free of charge and run it without serious restrictions. The server also has semi-official way to load plugins at runtime. While there was no official support for plugins, the community embraced the opportunity and started work on many of them. There is now several popular plugins which can do a lot of things and most of them are OK with Valve as long as they don't remove the DRM.

When it was released, the game didn't offer any progression and the only thing player could earn was achievements. So it was easy to modify all aspects of the game. In particular, I've found that it is possible to use console to spawn any weapon and pick it up as any class. This allowed to play the game in a new way and I quickly made a SourceMod plugin which allowed people to buy weapons that don't belong to their class. Then in 2008 Valve announced the Gold Rush update which promised new weapons and so I thought that they would be just like any other and prepared the GUI of my plugin for them.

However, when update was released, I've found that new weapons share the same classname with old ones and it was not possible to spawn them. I have used the GiveNamedItem function from the vanilla Source engine which exists in any Source game. By disassembling server binary I have found that a new function was added which took a pointer to CScriptCreatedItem but reverse engineering further was far beyond my skills. So I was not able to spawn new weapons.

Now, there are a few very important points to note. Before the update, all content of the game was available at the start. But new weapons had to be unlocked by earning achievements which were non-trivial. This had a side effect of people starting to host "achievement servers", servers where players didn't play the game but were helping each other earn achievements. This was the first sign of the downfall.

After that, a few other updates were released which added more unlockable weapons and spawned more achievement servers. However, after some time, a peculiar update was released. Valve was frustrated that people farm achievements and wanted to combat this. So they designed a new system which awarded player unlockables based only on played time. This resulted in a very negative reaction from players and Valve reversed the decision for weapons. However, a new type of unlockable was added - hats. They didn't have any gameplay value and the only way to earn them was playing a lot. Every once a while the game would roll the dice and if the player was lucky, it would award the hat. The consequence? Idle servers - when players start their client, join the server and keep the game running indefinitely. The winning move is not to play.

After some time a person with the alias DrunkenF00l created a program which would fake the player playing on a server, saving the need to actually run the game. He ran a special server which had a very large player limit and it was possible to see thousands of people "playing" on it. This resulted in Valve announcing that it would remove all items earned by idling and give players who didn't idle a halo. Since the game used Steam spyware, it was easy for Valve to see what the players were doing. This was dubbed a "Halocoust" and again resulted in a very negative reaction from player base.

And somewhere near that time, there was a breakthrough in SourceMod community. Someone reverse engineered CScriptCreatedItem. This made possible to give items which were not available before, such as unlockable weapons and hats. Quickly, a TF2Items extension was released which provided a simple API to give any items to anyone playing on the server with it. Valve's response? Adding a special DRM in client which would make a request to Steam server to see if the player actually earned the item they were wearing and, if they didn't, not rendering it. So even from the server's point of view, the items were legit, client-side they weren't rendered. Of course, "NoSteam" servers didn't have this problem.

This was a strong indication that Valve is obsessed with their total control and would not give anyone freedom. Their ultimate goal was revealed shortly. Valve sponsored the contest held at Polycount which promised winners that their items will be included in the game. The result? "MannConomy update" - selling items for real money. Not only Valve were now selling items, their prices were extremely high, a single kit from Polycount was more expensive than the game itself.

The most insulting thing were crates that are earned the same way as hats - just by playing a lot. However, to unlock the crate you need a key and the key is sold for real money. And crates were the only source of "unusual" items which were very highly priced between players.

And this whole chain of events had a single cause - Steam. Only by having any step to be approved by Steam it was possible to make this Orwellian scenario possible. The direct solution? Don't use Steam.

Red Eclipse

RE is a free/libre/open source video game developed by Quinton Reeves, Lee Salzman et al. The game code is licensed under zlib license and assets use various CC licenses (but all of them are free culture compatible). It is also a multiplayer first person shooter. It used arena style gameplay similar to Quake 3. The main gimmick of the game is parkour tricks which allow you to travel fast and reach otherwise unreachable areas.

The game also uses clients-server model, however, most of the calculations happen on the client and server acts merely as a proxy to transfer data. Upon request to the master server, it responds with a script which will be interpreted on the client. This means anyone who connects to any master server is vulnerable to remote code execution.

By default, the game used master server hosted at play.redeclipse.net. When you first start the game and select "play online" you are presented with multiplayer guidelines. The 2 points are important:

  • If the source code of the server is modified substantially you must contact the Red Eclipse Team to check that the changes are permitted.
  • The server must honour the auth system, allowing global bans and grant the correct access by the Red Eclipse Team, or moderators assigned by them.

The first point basically prohibits freedoms 1 and 3 of Free Software definition. The second point is more interesting. The game uses so-called "global auth system" were there are players with global accounts which have various auth levels. When you run your own server, you can give out local auth levels such as Supporter, Moderator, Operator and Administrator. There are people out there which have global auth levels such as these. In essence, you are forced to give out the control of your server to random people on the Internet. In practice, if you are using official master server, you are giving a control of your server to trolls who blindly worship the main developer.

re_admins.png


Here the global administrator Acerspyro tries to troll Xonotic IRC channel on Freenode.

You can remove all control from levels up to Administrator but you can't deal with global Administrators such as the one you see on that screenshot. To put insult on injury, there are 2 levels higher than Administrator: Developer and Founder. They have more control of your server than you are. I have contacted Richard Stallman to discuss this and his response is "this is going too far".

If you remove the global auth from your server and connect to play.redeclipse.net, your server will be banned. It has occurred before. One server owner made every kill called First blood and his server was banned. Apparently, making any kill first blood is "substantial modification".

Last point, when you use global auth and connect to any server, a connection to master server happens to prove your account level. This allows owners of master servers to spy on anyone with account.

You can connect to another master server, but since the community is small, it means losing almost all players. Promoting a new master server can be compared to promoting a separate game. It is a very hard goal.

All in all, using any master server in Red Eclipse is dangerous. Forking the project and fixing the mentioned issues is the only way to go.

Blue Nebula

I've just said that forking Red Eclipse is the only way to remove malicious features from it. Blue Nebula is such fork. However, instead of removing global auth system, they decided to keep it with slightly different rules. The cancer is spreading.

The solution

We have observed that master servers are a single point of failure and people who run them get unjust control over their users. In fact, any system with a central authority has this weakness. So we need to remove this central authority. We need a peer-to-peer system. Since there are not a lot of people who play libre games, implementing such system with single game will not produce a robust network, the system should be able to handle many games at once with developers of each game running their server and contributing to the whole network. The good effect of this is that small dev teams without budget for servers will be able to use the network to promote their game.

There are a lot of technical details to be ironed out and the work on this system has begun. Expect more information in the future.

Update from 2020: The original article was written around 2014 and there has been 6 years without a public release of anything. I have hit severe mental health issues and halted all work around 2017 and I can guarantee that I can't work on this for at least several more years.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 05 Jul 2020, 02:01

Yeah, the global auth system in RE is rather taking it too far (although I guess it was developed with good intentions).

I think the system present in Xonotic is better, where servers that have much modified gameplay are sorted differently in the server browser of the client.

But of course that still all depends on a central server.

FTEQW (that can be used to run Xonotic by the way) has a XMPP plugin that allows you to have a friend list and connect to the same server your friends are playing on directly. So that is quite decentralized and could work as a model for games that are not primarily played on public servers with strangers. But combined with some kind of connection history or build in server subscription/favorite storage this might work quite nicely without any kind of "master" server.

Game launchers could also include server browser functionality similar to previously popular multi-game external server browsers such as: https://xqf.github.io/en/ as those could easily include multiple "master" servers for the same game.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 05 Jul 2020, 02:34

Julius {l Wrote}:I think the system present in Xonotic is better, where servers that have much modified gameplay are sorted differently in the server browser of the client.


Xonotic is pretty good for a centralized system. The most ironic thing there is that Xonotic devs don't control the primary master server so there is a client-side hack to hide servers that Xonotic devs don't like. But since it's client-side, removing it is just a couple lines of code.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby MoonPadUSer » 05 Jul 2020, 19:50

Hi, I'm one of the ppl working on Blue Nebula.
I understand your problem in general and agree with you, BUT I do not agree with your solution.
We are currently implementing what we call "multi-master-system" it allows users to have access to multiple masters simultaneously.
Accounts can still be decentralized between masters and all, but at least I feel like having masters is a way nicer way to manage bundles of servers.
Take for example thesnisp, if they had their own master they could host all their servers on there, now imagine you want to have more than one admin, you can just configure "global" admins for your own master that way you don't have to remove and add every admin to each server manually, that's just one of the advantages.
Also, I haven't spoken about this with the others yet but I think we'll probably provide an "official freedom" master where basically everyone can enlist their server, no rules apart from general copyright etc. no global admins. It'd be added to the game by default, but it'll probably be disabled. I think that way we can get the best of both worlds. And for a decentralized account list, there would only be the accounts shared, no privs at all. we'd also like to introduce labels, they don't give you any power but they look cool. Those would be for devs etc. maybe even supporters, all of that is still theoretical tho. and we are quite far from realizing some of this stuff.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 08 Jul 2020, 06:05

MoonPadUSer {l Wrote}:Accounts can still be decentralized between masters and all, but at least I feel like having masters is a way nicer way to manage bundles of servers.


This would be the same with P2P approach. Users set their bootstrap nodes where to get initial list of servers from.

MoonPadUSer {l Wrote}:Take for example thesnisp, if they had their own master they could host all their servers on there, now imagine you want to have more than one admin, you can just configure "global" admins for your own master that way you don't have to remove and add every admin to each server manually, that's just one of the advantages.


This can easily be automated with symlinks, rsync, "git pull", etc.

MoonPadUSer {l Wrote}:we'd also like to introduce labels, they don't give you any power but they look cool. Those would be for devs etc. maybe even supporters


This looks like another malicious feature to me. How can users and server owners control labels?
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 08 Jul 2020, 14:19

Just like the global auth system, lables could work as an opt in feature. Voluntary servitude might not be the best idea in the long run, but it can work to the benefit of both sides (I.e. global auth can help with server moderation).

Ultimately there is a conflict in the playerbase though. There are people like Lyberta who have the skills and fun in tinkering with the system and come up with new ideas and such. Trying to prevent them from doing that either excludes them completely or starts a "anti-cheat" arms-race to the detriment of all involved and a lot of collateral damage.

Yet, I totally understand why many regular players want to play the game as is, with little or no modifications and "funny" additions. In many games you basically have to disable half of the functionality (voice messages, decals, voice chat etc.) just to play without being constantly bombarded with some nonsense.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 10 Jul 2020, 03:49

Julius {l Wrote}:There are people like Lyberta who have the skills and fun in tinkering with the system and come up with new ideas and such. Trying to prevent them from doing that either excludes them completely or starts a "anti-cheat" arms-race to the detriment of all involved and a lot of collateral damage.


Yes, and considering game code, I (and any other person) can release a 100% legal FOSS cheats that allow anyone to kill anyone no matter where they are on the map, noclip through the map, can completely sabotage bots because they are client-side (client-side bots!!!!), etc.

If the game code is broken and was written by amateurs (gotta admit here, I'm pretty sure that 90% of blame lies on Cube 2 and Red Eclipse devs in this case) it doesn't mean you have to add slavery on top "to protect the mythical purity of the game".

And if I use a cryptography metaphor, the scenario would be this: "our crypto doesn't work, but don't worry, every time you want to encrypt or decrypt, you have to give access to law enforcement before we encrypt for you. You know, what if you are a human rights whistleblower? We'll have to put you and your family in re-education camps, and if need be, torture and kill. The purity of our country and Our Leader must be protected at all costs".
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 10 Jul 2020, 11:45

AFAIK that Cube2's networking is mostly clientside was an early deliberate design choice that makes sense if you think it will be mostly played with friends on a LAN. Which really wasn't an unreasonable assumption back then for a hobbiist project.
It ended up a bit different, so that achitecture is not ideal for multiplayer games with strangers over the internet, but I sometimes do wonder what makes it so "fun" to cheat in a game...

Oh and as a side note: IMHO that metaphor of yours is really blowing it out of proportions and (as all metaphors cut two ways) belittles the real struggles of whistleblowers and other politically persecuted persons.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 11 Jul 2020, 06:57

Message remove by moderator for widely inappropriate language and making comparisons to nazi-ism and so on.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 11 Jul 2020, 12:23

Sorry, please read again what I wrote. I am not denying those struggles at all, but I stand by my point that comparing networking code of an open-source game to cryptography used to protect wistleblowers is taking it too far.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 11 Jul 2020, 15:23

Moderators notice: Content removed again. Wish for a temporary ban granted. While you cool off, think about this: very often the abused become abusers themselves. Please don't do that :heart:
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 19 Jul 2020, 10:46

I would like to thank Julius and Blue Nebula devs for reminding me that moderation only exists to silence free speech and oppress people. I refuse to be opressed. I would rather side with alt-right fascists on platforms like Gab and Saidit that value free speech than be oppressed in games like Red Eclipse, Blue Nebula or this forum. There is no free speech on this forum. So I request my account to be removed. Goodbye.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 04 Aug 2020, 03:24

OK, fine. You are not mentally disabled and can control your emotions to a certain extent. That still doesn't excuse Julius provoking me. I suffered 2007-2010 under Valve's tyranny in Team Fortress 2, then I suffered 2013-2016 under Quinton Reeves's tyranny in Red Eclipse. And I suffer enough in real life. I have strong reasons to hold my position.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby GunChleoc » 04 Aug 2020, 10:50

You cannot have a discussion though if other people can't voice their opinion politely - Julius even prefixed it with an "IMHO". We just can't possibly know how you will be feeling at the moment when you will be reading a message, so the only alternative would be not to reply and ignore you unless we voice complete agreement with what you're saying. That's also not a good option - it would be insulting your intellect and thus more disrespectful to you than to risk triggering your emotions.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 04 Aug 2020, 11:07

This is something I sent to Julius privately:

I still think that current wave of censorship on the Internet is just giving Alt-Right power. Gab, Saidit, Ruqqus - they all
spawned because of censorship and now they are Alt-Right echo chambers who are very good at recruitment.

Now if there would be free speech but individuals instead would choose whom to listen to, suddenly there is no more problem.
Centralization is evil. Let The Algorithm(TM) be run as the browser add-on, not automated centralized flagging machine.

My post was removed because it was "offensive". How about the readers of my post decide if it is offensive or not. And they
should have The Algorithm(TM) as browser add-on that would warn them according to their preferences. And it will be their choice
to read it, argue against it, support it or ignore it.

So yeah. The system is broken. It needs to be fixed. The "master server" of this forum is unjust. Let me invent decentralized
platform of discussing free software games where there are no "master servers" and no "slaves".

Now if only I had enough time and personpower...


Come think of it, my instance of The Algorithm(TM) would flag Julius' post as offensive and I would ignore it.

GunChleoc {l Wrote}:That's also not a good option - it would be insulting your intellect and thus more disrespectful to you than to risk triggering your emotions.


I'd take dumb emphatic person over a smart prick any time. The importance of intellect is blown way out of proportion. This is the same exact rhetoric that was used to not give women rights to vote because they are too "emotional" to participate in "pure" "intellectual" discourse. Get those women back in the kitchen. Yeah. Don't complain when your wife will stab you in your sleep.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby GunChleoc » 04 Aug 2020, 14:54

Sorry, I didn't explain myself well enough. What I meant that being talked down to is not fun, neither is it fun when nobody wants to talk to you because they are so afraid of hurting your feelings that all communication must cease.

Of course, we should not set out to deliberately try to hurt anybody's feelings.

Now, what I'm confused about with your latest argument is that you think that Julius should not have voiced his opinion which provoked you, but on the other hand you don't want anybody to be censored about anything. This is a paradox. If you want the right to dish it out, you will also need to recognize that you will have to take it, because others might also want to dish it out.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 06 Aug 2020, 02:49

GunChleoc {l Wrote}:Now, what I'm confused about with your latest argument is that you think that Julius should not have voiced his opinion which provoked you, but on the other hand you don't want anybody to be censored about anything. This is a paradox. If you want the right to dish it out, you will also need to recognize that you will have to take it, because others might also want to dish it out.


Right. I think I need to explain the "old" system and the "new" system.

The old system

The old system is what we have now. There is no browser add-on, no personal moderator that can filter triggery speech and many people get triggered as a result. This has been forever and laws are written with the old system in my mind. Essentially, on the federal level "hate speech" is punishable because historically it caused way more harm than good. On a corporate level this centralized censorship extends towards many other rules of what speech is banned. This is an unfortunate compromise and it gives power to groups fueled by hate speech because of the echo chamber effect and essentially turns Internet into a series of echo chambers where distinct groups are fueled by hate towards other groups. Here is a good video why human psychology works this way.

The solution to the echo chamber effect

Talking outside of echo chamber in a calm good-faith manner. And of course, very few people have desire and mental health to do so. I sure as hell don't. But government-level and corporate-level censorship only exacerbates the problem. There has to be a system where individuals should be able to step outside of echo chamber and see all the speech without censorship if they choose to do so. But that should be the individual decision. Which means that any government-level and corporate-level decisions should not apply. Which leads to...

The new system

The new system is designed from the ground up to combat echo chamber effect. There is no government-level and corporate-level censorship. There is only individual-level censorship. This is done by having machine learning algorithm running on the personal devices that is tailored to the individual user. Such algorithm would process all the speech the user wants to interact with and flags it as "hate/triggery speech". Then it's up to the individual to click/tap "read" or "skip" button. Most users will eventually operate in "auto-skip" mode and end up in an echo chamber as with the old system. But users with desire and mental health to combat the echo chamber effect will have powerful tools to do so. And the other big effect is that Nazis/Alt-Right/TERFs/etc will not be able to gain significant fame every time they are banned from social media platforms because there is no government- and corporate-level censorship. Therefore this will lead to destructive ideas not being able to spread via reactionary mechanisms. So the net gain of such system is huge.

So...

Back to my recent posts. When I said that Julies should not have provoked me, it has under the assumption of the old system. This forum is run by government-level and this-forum-level censorship. In fact, this forum is designed to be an echo chamber for free software game developers. It runs under the echo chamber system. So when Julius written his post, he violated the unwritten but assumed echo chamber rule of this forum. And in this time I assume many overlapping different echo chambers active at the same time because I was trained this way.

When I said that I don't want anybody censored I was talking about the new system. The "paradox" is that I'm talking about the new system while on the forum that runs the old system. So the new system will never work on this forum.

OK, I think I have explained myself.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby GunChleoc » 06 Aug 2020, 08:03

If I understand correctly, what you're aiming for is similar to child protection filters, only set individually by yourself instead of by a parent. The engineering challenge here is how much training the thing would need to be able to do individualized filtering so it will actually filter according to your personal wishes/needs. I'm no AI expert.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 06 Aug 2020, 10:50

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I think you are right that this is a possible way the social internet will develop, because right now it is becoming more and more obvious that social media is wrecking havoc with global psyche. This will actually accelerate massively once future AI systems like GPT-3 are optimized on creating outrage inducing "news" content. And I guess an individual filter would be much preferable to an AI driven corporate filter one at a larger level (case in point, Apple and their puritan rules for app store).

However groupthink will continue to exist, and hence many of the individual filters will converge to a certain set of values with the users either unwilling or unable to really look at what the filter is doing. Thus people will operate in maybe comforting but ultimately equally harmful filter bubbles that are not really much different from echo chambers.

In addition those individual filters will be a prime target for government level secret intervention to implement a system that will be even more difficult to circumvent than the great firewall of China. FOSS software will not help with that as a sufficiently well funded organization will be able to run adversarial attacks on your AI training process via the websites you visit with very few ways to detect it or understand the resulting machine learning model. But I guess that can be still considered dystopian SciFi at this point :)
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 08 Aug 2020, 05:08

GunChleoc {l Wrote}:If I understand correctly, what you're aiming for is similar to child protection filters, only set individually by yourself instead of by a parent.


Well, if you look at it this way, yes. The primary objective is to protect mental health of a user.

Julius {l Wrote}:However groupthink will continue to exist, and hence many of the individual filters will converge to a certain set of values with the users either unwilling or unable to really look at what the filter is doing. Thus people will operate in maybe comforting but ultimately equally harmful filter bubbles that are not really much different from echo chambers.


Yes, this was implied by

Lyberta {l Wrote}:Most users will eventually operate in "auto-skip" mode and end up in an echo chamber as with the old system.


Of course, eventually such "auto-skip" solution will be distributed to those who prefer to install and forget. Even I use tons of uBlock Origin subscriptions because I'm too lazy to flag each individual ad myself. But what's crucial is that uBlock Origin runs as a client-side browser addon that I have full control over. What I'm proposing would be very similar, just based on machine learning instead of strict matching rules.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Lyberta » 26 Sep 2020, 09:44

GunChleoc {l Wrote}:You cannot have a discussion though if other people can't voice their opinion politely - Julius even prefixed it with an "IMHO". We just can't possibly know how you will be feeling at the moment when you will be reading a message, so the only alternative would be not to reply and ignore you unless we voice complete agreement with what you're saying. That's also not a good option - it would be insulting your intellect and thus more disrespectful to you than to risk triggering your emotions.


My wife has dumped all the razor blades so I can't cut myself with them.
My wife has dumped all the alcohol so I can't get drunk.
My wife has hidden all the pills from me so I can't overdose on them.

So the "censorship is bad" argument is laughable. Censorship is required for survival. If it wasn't for my wife's censorship, I would get drunk, cut myself with razor blades and try to overdose on pills for 9000th time.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby qreeves » 20 Dec 2020, 17:13

It has been over four years, get over it. I am sick and tired of getting Google alerts from this forum because one person with a grudge wants to continue posting slanderous comments years after the issue was put to rest. Just ban them already.
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Re: If there is a master server, others are slaves

Postby Julius » 21 Dec 2020, 00:39

Why do you bump such threads then? FYI we temp banned Lyberta a few times already. Thread locked.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” - Philip K. Dick
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Julius
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