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WebRTC Data Channels for Great Multiplayer

WebRTC is getting great press lately for it’s amazing applications in voice and video communication. But did you know that WebRTC also has support for peer-to-peer data? Below I’ll talk about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of data channels, and then I’ll show you how we’re using them in BananaBread to support peer-to-peer multiplayer. 

Browser caveats
If you want to use WebRTC data channels, you’ll need the latest Firefox Nightly or Chrome Canary. BananaBread multiplayer requires binary message support for WebRTC data channels, which hasn’t landed just yet in Chrome. 

What is a data channel?
A WebRTC data channel lets you send text or binary data over an active peer connection. Data channels come in two flavors. Reliable channels will guarantee that messages you send have arrived at the other peer. If you send multiple reliable messages, they will be received in the same order. You can also send unreliable message that are not guaranteed to arrive in the order they were sent, or they may not arrive at all. These are analogous to TCP and UDP. 

Creating and using data channels
Unfortunately, setting up peer connections and creating data channels requires a non-trivial amount of work. It’s very reasonable to rely on a library to handle these things, as well as abstract away some of the implementation details between Firefox and Chrome. The library used in the examples here is p2p. It provides a simple API for establishing peer connections and setting up streams and data channels. There’s also a broker server component and a hosted broker you can use instead of setting one up for yourself. 

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