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Latency and speed hold the key to cloud gaming

(Image credit: Image Credit: Carballo / Shutterstock)

It will come as no surprise that the popularity in online gaming has skyrocketed in recent months. With more of us at home under lockdown conditions, many have turned to our consoles, computers and mobiles to compete with friends and other gamers on the internet. There was once a time when families battled for the landline, but now both family members and all of your home’s connected devices are simultaneously competing for speed, reliability and latency under the same roof.

As operators continue to roll out their 5G networks across the UK, many cloud gamers may look to mobile networks to handle their entertainment and gaming needs. But what exactly does cloud gaming mean for the future? Hint: You will no longer need a console like PlayStation or Xbox to play the biggest and latest games and the mobile operators can compete against broadband with 5G.

It’s an area of gaming that is advancing quickly, with staggering numbers. IHS Markit expects the cloud gaming market and services market to grow from £309 million in 2018 to £2 billion in 2023, with new cloud infrastructure and 5G being key catalysts for growth. Cloud gaming runs on remote servers and streams directly to your device, and it is touted as the future for gaming, whether you’re at home or on the move.

In order for cloud gaming to reach a point where it’s capable of truly replacing the gaming experience found on PC’s or consoles, connectivity must be consistent and nearly flawless, with fast speeds and ultra-low latency, particularly for fast-paced, multiplayer online games that require precision and quick reactions.

This dream of untethered, cloud-based game play is within sight, thanks to benefits that 5G will bring to five key areas:

  • Capacity
  • Speed
  • Latency
  • Jitter
  • Packet loss

As you can see, while the games themselves can be challenging, there’s also incredibly complicated work going on behind the scenes from a network perspective!

Capacity: 5G will provide greater capacity that will allow cloud gaming providers to support countless games at the same time (and more and more users), and it will also improve the gaming experience in areas of heavy congestion.

Speed: The leap forward in 5G speeds will enable more detailed and faster video rendering, which allows for more complex, highly detailed games to be played on any cloud-connected device. Those game-changing speeds on 5G mean you can download and process data a lot quicker. Streaming games on the cloud is not too dissimilar to streaming a movie or series on Netflix. However, the difference is cloud gamers are in control and it impacts every stage of a game. The commands you give will be received by the cloud server, which then executes the commands you initiated and then streams the results back. If speed (or latency—see below) is missing, gameplay won’t be able to keep up.

Latency: Perhaps even more important than capacity or speed, 5G will also (eventually) provide much lower latency and faster speeds than 4G LTE networks can offer. Online gamers may not have heard of latency but they very well may have experienced ‘lag’ when gaming, which often ends in frustration. Latency represents the time between a command and transfer of that data, to the command being acted on, or put simply, the time between you pressing the trigger and your game reacting to the command. Latency is critical for gamers, and the lower the latency, the better. High latency can disrupt (or even stop) a game in mid-stream, while low latency can provide smooth, buffer-free gaming.

Jitter: While latency is arguably the single most important factor for mobile cloud gaming, jitter can also cause problems for gamers if it’s too high. Jitter occurs when latency is inconsistent rather than stable. The effects of jitter are similar to those of latency: high jitter can lead to choppy or laggy gameplay and/or distorted audio and chat functionality, while low jitter can keep games running smoothly (as long as latency is also low).

Packet loss: Packet loss occurs when pieces, or packets, of game data are lost in transit to and from the user and cloud server. Packets can also arrive out of order, which could theoretically lead to a game that’s unintelligible. Like jitter, packet loss can lead to an extremely frustrating gaming experience and can make the difference for a gamer between mission completion and mission failure.

Different games, different needs

In the first couple of years of mobile gaming, you may recall relatively simpler, casual games such as Candy Crush being played on mobile. Nowadays, the mainstream console titles such as Call of Duty and now Fortnite are able to be played on mobile thanks to cloud infrastructure. These different types of games, though, require different levels of speed. Casual, single-player games like Candy Crush can often be played in SD (720p) and can handle slightly lower speeds. The newest, multi-player and battle royal games, on the other hand, are best played in HD (1080p) and require even faster speeds.

What we’re seeing so far from 5G

RootMetrics’ early testing of 5G in the UK shows that users could have a vastly better gaming experience thanks to faster speeds, lower latency and better connectivity. Based on speed testing alone, Birmingham outranked London and Cardiff for the fastest median and maximum download speeds. On EE’s 5G network, the median download speed was 185.7 Mbps. This compares to 47.4 Mbps on a non-5G network. In real terms, if you’re downloading a 600MB game off the App Store, it would take just 26.6 seconds on EE 5G, compared to 102 seconds on EE’s non-5G mode. That change is set to be experienced across the country as more operator’s rollout their infrastructure.

In Cardiff and London testing the results were similar. Gamers will be able to enjoy vastly faster data speeds, which is one element needed for better game performance, bigger game processing and the ability to play on the move with ease. 

We’ll be testing 5G performance throughout the year to keep an eye on what consumers can expect and how close we are to fulfilling the promise of cloud-based gaming.

Where we’re at and looking ahead

Whether you’re playing Animal Crossing or ranking up on Call of Duty, connectivity is critical to how seamless your gaming experience will be. With more of us working, staying and gaming at home, there is potential for a strain on network provision. Networks have already planned for capacity in city centres and on commuter routes, but the demand has increased in the suburbs where more of us are at home. Operators will likely be keen to push on with their 5G rollout to ensure they can meet the increased consumer demand in out-of-town areas where networks aren’t always necessarily provisioned for.

It will be interesting to also see which areas operators prioritise as the UK lockdown eases. Historically, city centres received the most provision and infrastructure given population density increases in office spaces and retail areas during the day. But if more of us are working, gaming and surfing online from home in the future, operators may turn their attention to providing the best true 5G experiences elsewhere, in the suburbs and beyond.

Kevin Hasley, Chief Commercial Officer, RootMetrics