What Can Kill a Game Faster Than Darth Vader? Answer: Latency

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What Can Kill a Game Faster Than Darth Vader? Answer: Latency

Performance is really essential, especially in the gaming world. Think that level 90 boss is difficult? Try taking on latency.

· Performance Zone ·
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When we look at the growth of the Internet, there is one industry that is seeing singularly remarkable growth: the gaming industry.

The advances in digital distribution are changing the game industry in the same dramatic way they changed music, video, newspaper, and book publishing. In fact, NewZoo projects the global video game industry to reach $1.07 billion by 2019.

The burgeoning digital marketplace is changing traditional game business models. Episodic games, free to play (F2P) and games as a service (GaaS) shift computer game delivery away from packaged goods and toward 24/7 online services. This creates new pressures on developers and publishers to be able to manage and predict consumer demand, so they can ensure positive online gaming experiences.

Gamers Are Still Waiting for Instant Gratification

These fantastic advances in gaming are great for consumers. In our instant gratification culture, consumers love the idea of being able to instantly play whenever and wherever they want. Whether downloading the latest PC title, grabbing a mobile game on their smartphone, streaming a game instantly to a smart TV, or updating new downloadable content (DLC) for their favorite console game—nobody wants to wait to play.

But we do wait.

While digital downloads should be faster than driving to the store to purchase a game, they often aren’t. Modern PC games can be anywhere from 15 to 30 GB. BestBuy.com informs its customers that wait times for digital purchases can be up to four hours. Ordering from the couch might be convenient, but most gamers could shop at multiple brick-and-mortar stores and return home with a dozen games in far less time.

Measuring Success in Thousandths of a Second

It isn’t just the big waits that cause customer dissatisfaction, either. The smallest delays in loading a Web page or waiting for a video to start can determine a game publisher’s ability to acquire new customers.

Consider these facts:

  • Online gaming customers are twice as likely to abandon a game when they experience a network delay of 50 additional milliseconds
  • A one-second delay in website performance can mean 7% fewer customers and the associated lost revenue
  • 81% of Internet users abandon a page when a video fails to start immediately
  • A 20% drop in Google traffic is attributable to a 500-millisecond slowdown

Latency, the time interval between an action and response during multiplayer gaming, is another area where consumers don’t like to wait. The amount of acceptable latency varies by game type. Academic research on the effects of latency on gameplay in different game genres is instructive.

In a first-person shooter (FPS) game like Call of Duty, where a high degree of precision is required, completing an action has a very short deadline, and latency of more than 100 milliseconds can affect the experience of the gamer. In turn-based or simulation games such as Civilization or The Sims, latency has a less pronounced effect but can still negatively impact the user experience. Game developers and publishers need to find ways of ensuring that every possible amount of latency is removed from the entire value chain.

Image title

Generally, gaming represents challenges in many areas. Let’s list a few of the most obvious:

Simply put: When Internet traffic slows game state information, players lose advantage and their immersive experience suffers. Game publishers face the technical challenge of simulating the smooth unfolding of time we experience in the regular world.

These customers will let the world know when traffic is ruining their experience. To have a successful product, providers of intensive gameplay for the vast audiences of massive multiplayer online (MMO) games face the technical challenge of simulating the smooth unfolding of time we experience in the regular world. Worldwide. All day. All night.

That means getting packets to every client on time, no matter the traffic conditions.

Image titleBut what happens when latency rears its ugly head?

Failed downloads are a huge issue as well for these digital companies. The larger players are typically both building and maintaining their own download manager, or have outsourced that to one of the handful of download managers in the market. These products do a good job of dealing with loss connections and restarting when the connection has been restored, but they can only work as well as the content delivery network (CDN) or Cloud from where the asset is coming from. Download failures are too high even with a perfectly performing download manager.

Lastly – a new emerging entry into the gaming world – eSports! All the traditional issues with broadcasting live streaming events is now a part of the gaming continuum. Video start failures, buffering, and all the other video specific metrics and issues must be addressed.   

RUM Measurements as the Standard

You cannot fix what you have not measured. So measuring latency and throughput are a high priority within the gaming industry.

Because of the high-tech nature of the Gaming industry, they have quickly realized that latency and throughput are best measured using Real User Measurements (RUM), not synthetic monitors. If your measurement is leading to a false sense of performance security then you will not understand the problem enough to fix it.

Synthetic measurements always lead to a false sense of security. So these companies typically already get the importance of RUM. What they sometimes fail to understand is the importance of community. When Gaming companies take RUM measurements they are typically taking them directly prior to associating a player with a game server.

Image titleThis is great as a first step. However, it does have some important issues, including:

  • Without a community of RUM providers you are not seeing enough networks on a regular basis to make good decisions.
  • RUM is noisy. By just taking a couple of measurements or even a couple of hundred you do not get a correct sense of how a network/geo combination is performing. An occasional measurement can tend to be very wrong.

To overcome this one must develop a community of RUM contributors. The problem for a single gaming company – is that to do this requires billions of transactions a day.  And none of them have that much traffic.  Without adequate measurements, your decisions engine is making guesses as to what Geo/Network combinations have the best connectivity to the various CDNs that you are deciding between. Guessing is not a good strategy.

The Solution

So how can we avoid congestion and make for perfect gameplay? Clearly, having an active-active multi-vendor multi-cloud (or multi-private-data-center) architecture improves availability. When cloud vendors have outages in one or more of their regional locations, traffic can be diverted to clouds (or data centers) that are still available.

But what about performance? Can using performance-based global traffic management to route traffic to the best-performing clouds mitigate congestion issues? The answer is a resounding yes. 

Today, multiple CDNs are needed for delivery and Clouds or data centers for gameplay, and to route traffic to the best performing infrastructure in real-time one should use Performance Based Load Balancing.

But to do this – as we discussed above - billions of measurements from every network/geo combination to every piece of infrastructure in use (Clouds, CDNs or Private Data-Centers) are required. These measurements must be made available to the global traffic management engine in real-time.

But this is not enough for an industry that demands flexibility and scalability. What is also needed is the ability to consume this service as an API that allows the gaming client to be an informed participant in this decision tree.

In the end – the gaming industry is perhaps the most demanding major vertical doing business on the Internet today. Other industries can learn from this vertical as it is forced to solve these challenging problems.

game dev, gaming, latency, performance

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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