To paraphrase one of the great works of science fiction, the internet is big. Really big. I mean, you wouldn't believe how mind bogglingly big it is.
But you can make it seem much smaller by setting up a virtual private network (VPN), which reduces it to the size – or at least structure – of a domestic LAN. Why would you want to do that? To make your games run better, of course.
Not only is the internet big, there's no easy route across it from A to B. It's all jumps and hops from one node to another following paths that are criss-crossed all over the place. There aren't many direct ways for packets of data to get from one place to the other. And yet it's possible to connect to a games server on the other side of the world and send information to and fro so quickly you could kid yourself that you're playing on a machine in the same room. Most of the time, anyway.
Sadly, not all games work quite as well over the internet as they should. Writing good netcode is difficult at the best of times, and if it's just not a priority for the developers, well, budgets have always been tight and some things get overlooked.
Lag, latency and dropped packets can result in a terrible gaming experience if all you want to do is get together with a few friends for a multiplayer game of Battle for Middle Earth, for example.
With some games you can have the fastest broadband connection in the world, but getting them running over the public internet can be an impossible task. Often, the problem is associated with the way the interface between your local network and the internet at large is handled.
Every machine on a network is identified by an IP address, a series of numbers that appear in the format 123.456.78.9. The problem that many games have is that the IP address which your PC announces to the internet isn't actually it's own address at all – it's your router's.
Your router acts as a kind of bridge between your home network and the internet at large, but it doesn't put all of your computers onto the internet – it shares one address among them all, and issues separate addresses relevant only to your LAN to every device around your home.
Games that are designed to work well on a LAN often stumble when trying to connect computers. Often, this can be cured with port forwarding. For some games, however, smooth online play requires a lot of ports to be forwarded, and since each port that's forwarded through a firewall is a potential security risk, it's not an ideal situation to leave your PC in.
Neverwinter Nights 2 – a game that's best played with friends – requires over 100 ports to be left open if you want to play. Good security practice would dictate that you close them between games (and some dedicated gaming routers can do this automatically), but that's not going to happen, is it?
Your own network
Fortunately, there's another way to get around the problems of address translation between internet and your network. Just invite everyone you're gaming with to join your own LAN.
Paradoxically, they can join your local network over the internet. To get around the issues of opening up holes in firewalls for remote workers, many businesses operate virtual private networks or VPNs. These create all the conditions for an IP-based LAN, but use the hardware of the public internet.
Computers connect to the VPN using special tunnelling protocols for point-to-point communications, and once on behave as if they're connected to a LAN. Anyone with the right security credentials can log into the VPN, and once you're in all traffic acts as though there's a direct physical connection between yourself and the LAN host.
A VPN is still at the mercy of latency and lag introduced by the distance and dodgy IP nodes innate to the internet at large, but it neatly sidesteps routing and firewall issues. Older games which were designed for LAN multiplayer rather than the internet will work better over a VPN, for example, and you'll spend less time fiddling with router settings.
Even with newer games, VPNs are worth brushing up on. It might surprise you to know that even though modern games are often designed with internet play in mind, they still work much better over a LAN. Dead Island is a good example here – and coincidentally the game we'll be using for our walkthrough.
VPNs are also popular with pirates who want to get around online authentication by setting up a fake master server on a virtual network for key authentication in multiplayer games amongst friends. There are more legitimate reasons for setting up completely private servers – to avoid downloading automated patches in games that connect to internet master servers, for example.
Judicious use of Google will also throw up ways to run illicit servers for those new shooters and RTS games that insist on spawning servers for you, over which you have little or no control. And because you can, of course. What better reason is there than that?