It’s turtles all the way down

I read on Hacker News about the demise of Glitch, which I understand was a browser-based MMO.

In the post on Glitch announcing the closure of the game was this passage;

Why don’t you give the game away or make it open source or let player volunteers run it?
Glitch looks simple, but it is not. Any massively multiplayer game is several orders of magnitude more complex than a multiplayer game (and those are usually an order of magnitude more complex than a single player game). The state of the world changes hundreds of thousands of times a second, and each of those changes has to be immediately saved in a way that is safe and redundant. Most of those changes — decrease in a chicken’s lifespan, the regeneration of a rock, the health of a tree, the movement of every player — have to be sent from server to server and from server to player’s local computers. If you’re in a busy place in Glitch, your computer might be receiving hundreds or even thousands of messages about stuff that’s happening around you every second.

It takes a full-time team of competent engineers & technical operations personnel just to keep the game open. Even if there was a competent team that was willing to work on it full time for free, it would take months to train them. Even then, the cost of hosting the servers would be prohibitively expensive.

This is Glitch.

Glitch Game

There’s the game interface on the left, with a chat window on the right, some icons on the bottom, a few players in the game. There’s lots on the screen, sure. But, gosh, this is just the start.

It isn’t unreasonable to intuit that Glitch has tens of thousands of lines of code, ran on multiple servers located across distant geographies, and required hundreds of hours of input from designers, artists, engineers, support providers, and management. And it’s just a game, right? A nice looking game that happens to be so complex that it resembles the activity of a miniature universe.

It’s a little bit frightening, I find, to think about the complexity behind the systems and tools we use everyday and take for granted. This game, your banking website, the phone in your hand. It’s all built on the shoulders of giants but have so many giants (and lesser mortals too) ever before been so involved in such an intricate, inextricably tied web?

Looking at this as a veneer, a mere portal into the workings of the systems and infrastructure that give it life, is a little like looking into the abyss. Where does it end? In the mind of the designer who created the icons, or the developer who implemented them, or the person who tested, or the server admin who deployed the code, or the data centre guy who performed some routine tests on the Linux server, or the thousands of people who’ve contributed to Linux, or the people who built the Enigma machine, or developed electricity, or first created fire…

When someone asks me ‘how long will this take to implement’ I just have to give them a wry smile. Because the answer is about 13.75 billion years or so.

2 Responses to “It’s turtles all the way down”

  1. Jacob Aldridge

    I’m going to start giving 13.75 billion years (or so) as my standard response.

    Reminds me of one of my favourite jokes (favourite in the sense that it appeals to my scientific rationalism and yet doesn’t seem to offend the strict religious believers I know).

    Having mastered string theory, the Hadron Collider, and Twitter, a group of scientists decide that man no longer has a need for God. They select a spokesman to go and tell God that He is no longer required:

    “God,” the scientist says, “we’ve decided we no longer need you. We can handle miracles all on our own. So you can probably just go and get lost.”

    God, ever patient and kind, lets the scientist finish before responding. “Very well. But I’m not sure if that’s the case. I believe we should have a man-making competition.”

    The scientist responds: “OK. Great.”

    “And,” says God, “we will do this like I did in the old days. Back when I created Adam.”

    “Very well indeed.” says the Scientist, who (egged on now by his supporters) bends down and collects a handful of dirt.

    God looks down and shakes His infinite head. “Wait, wait, no, no, no. First, you have to get your own dirt.”

    • k

      “To bake a cake from scratch, you must first create the universe”.

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