Netrek Game Design

This document lives at It was created for a CS 198 seminar class on game design at UC Berkeley, Spring 1997.

Pre-history: Empire and Plato

1986: Xtrek

The actual play of the game has not changed much since the original Xtrek. There are 10 planets per team, and two teams in a 40-planet galaxy. At the time, all ships were identical, and there were two types of weapons, torpedoes and phasers. The objective of the game was the same as it is now; to capture all the enemy planets by bombing their armies down below 5 per planet, and then captuer them by dropping your team's armies on the enemy planets (one friendly army kills one enemy army). The game ends when one team loses its last planet; this is known as genocide.

1988: Netrek

Netrek's client-server model made for improved playability over the Internet, and soon after it was released to the world, servers started to show up in places other than Berkeley, notably at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where Terence Chang, a UCB grad in a master's program at CMU, set up, which soon became one of the most popular servers.

The introduction of the DI system also spurred growth. The idea of the DI system is to reward people for trying to accomplish team goals, such as bombing and taking planets, instead of individual goals, such as trying to live as long as possible, or have the highest kill ratio. This system had two effects; one, it encouraged team-based play, which accentuated the strategic aspects of the game and thereby made it more interesting, and two, it gave people more incentive to come back, so they could build their characters to higher ranks (although rank isn't rewarded with additional privileges, with a few exceptions). It also provided a feedback mechanism so players would know when they were improving their play.

1992: The International Netrek League (INL)

The INL took the team aspects of netrek to a new level; for the first time, players from all over the world came together into teams to discuss strategies and play organized, time-limited games. In games between good teams, netrek tends towards a 10-10 equilibrium; genocide is extremely rare. So the INL defined games as 2 hours long (later shortened to 90 minutes), with winning conditions of 11-8 (with one neutral planet). If neither team is ahead by a score of 11-8 at the end of regulation, a 30-minute sudden death overtime is begun.

The league increased the amount of time people spent talking about strategies, and created some new strategies and tactics, particularly relating to the opening of the game, the beginning of OT, and winning in OT. The league is still active today.

1992: UDP

TCP is an easy protocol to use for networked games, but for a game like netrek it has many drawbacks. The majority of information sent over the wire in netrek is transient; if it shows up 2 seconds after it's sent, it's no longer useful (examples are torpedo and ship positions). TCP guarantees that all packets will arrive, and that they'll arrive in sequence, so if one of your torpedo update packets gets delayed or lost, more urgent information will be delayed waiting for the first packet to get re-sent. With this addition to the netrek protocol, non-vital information could be sent via UDP. While you'd still lose just as many packets, a lost packet would no longer freeze up your game. This improved cross-country play immensely.

1992: Metaserver

The METASERVER polls known servers to see how many people are playing; it allows people who are looking for a pickup game to join to find active games. It has now been integrated into most netrek clients.

1992: RSA

Since the source for the netrek client is publicly available, anyone can change, for example, the phaser() routine to automatically hit the closest target, instead of aiming at the cursor as it does in most clients; this sort of modification is usually referred to as a "borg". With the RSA system, servers can require that only clients which are on an approved list can connect and play. This has allowed client development to grow without harming the nature of the game.

1993: Short Packets

Why Netrek Rules

Netrek in its various forms has been played for over 10 years, and it still manages to hold the interest of thousands of people. There are a number of reasons for this, but among them are:

More information

The Netrek Home Page:

The INL Home Page:

The Netrek FAQ and FTP list:

Netrek clients

BRMH: various Unix clients

WinCOW (requires Windows and 32-bit networking):

Macintosh (PowerPC only):

Last Updated 8/24/97