With the PS5 and Xbox Series X now only weeks away, we’ve all spent a lot of time obsessing over the hardware that powers them. There's also a big Call Of Duty: WarzoneHalloween event just about to drop, which is another exciting thing for gamers to enjoy.
Yet, while us gamers often pay attention to the consoles we're buying, the games we're playing, the model of TVs we use or the custom controllers that we play with, our industry rarely spares a thought for the glue that holds our gaming lives together – our internet. Thanks to a global shift to people streaming TV and film (and now with Stadia and X-Cloud, games too) almost all of our entertainment is now reliant on these connections.
It’s a fact that’s rung true for years, but in the midst of a deadly pandemic an internet connection is no longer a luxury – it’s a lifeline. With these mysterious bits of cable offering many the means to both work and play, we reached out to Virgin Media to find out just how the biggest games affect our network, and to see whether providers are prepared for the mammoth downloads that come with the next generation of video games.
READ MORE:How to speed up your Call Of Duty update
You can keep reading to discover the outcome of our interview with Virgin Media, which touched on both next-gen consoles and the current impact caused by Call Of Duty: Warzone...
Warzone is demanding, but next-gen will ask for even more
“The next gen consoles are going to bring about a big shift in how people play games and manage their gaming libraries,” states Alex Depper, Network Assessment consultant at Virgin Media. “It will take some time before there are enough next gen consoles in the wild to see much impact, but we expect to see additional traffic at the end of this year as last-gen titles get their sizable next-gen patches.”
While game downloads of the future could well bring many people’s connections to their knees, Depper reveals that today’s video games are already enough of a challenge for him and his team.
“Since Warzone launched, we’ve seen huge spikes on our network – with daytime peak traffic up by 60% when patches are released,” Depper explains. “We design our network to cope with periods of very high demand, including traffic spikes during exceptional events. But to ensure we keep our network performing, we now make sure that our engineering teams have foresight of when major updates will drop, so that we can avoid carrying out any maintenance that might temporarily limit capacity at the peak time. This isn’t easy as the exact dates and times of patches are sometimes only revealed shortly before they are published.”
Communication is key, but what else could be improved?
With Virgin Media connecting over 15 million homes in the UK, it’s vital that Depper and his team manage to stay on top of the massive spikes that come with a major update, and allocate bandwidth accordingly. So how can this be improved? Depper believes it is the lack of communication between games companies and network providers that hinders everyone.
“During lockdown earlier in the year, there was better information sharing on when big updates were being released between ISPs and major game publishers,” says Depper. “Other impactful services – like OTT video providers – also took steps to manage their impact on networks to support the smooth running of services. Whilst some of this has continued, building stronger relationships with game developers would allow us to better optimise the traffic that results from game releases and updates.”
While that dialogue has improved slightly during lockdown, Depper believes that both game companies and gamers could benefit from the two having closer relationships. If he’s dreaming of tech-side improvements, however, Kepper reveals that there is one thing that game developers can do to help make life easier for internet companies and their customers.
“Ensure that bandwidth minimization is a key consideration in packaging up game files for publishing. This has been a hot issue this year with 60GB+ downloads for CoD. As we move into next gen consoles, new game engine technologies and increased asset sizes, we may see larger and more complicated updates unless they’re well managed by game developers.”
While Warzone is currently the main pain in the arse for UK internet service providers, it’s far from the only title that has the power to cripple its network.
“Typically, it’s the AAA live-service games that have the biggest network impact, as they are monetized through their content drops,” Depper explains. “The first game to flag on our radar was Fortnite back in 2018, with Apex Legends also causing significant network spikes when new updates are released. They are the big three. Still though, without doubt, Warzone has had the biggest impact on traffic on the network.”
Unsurprisingly, sales and patches can have similarly headache-inducing effects on poor old network consultants. “Big game launches can also see large traffic spikes, but this depends on how the publishers handle pre-loading and day one patches, so it can be hard to predict. Steam sales, Epic Store free games and PS+ monthly games can also cause spikes, depending on the titles being offered.”
New tech could save the day
Thankfully for gamers though, providers like Virgin Media are constantly investing in new tech in order to keep their service ready for whatever game companies throw at them.
“We are constantly investing in and upgrading our network to meet future demand. We launched our Gigabit broadband service in 2019 and it is now available to 3.7 million homes, with the aim of connecting our entire network of 15 million homes in the UK by the end of 2021. We have recently demonstrated a 2.2 gigabit broadband service to real homes in a trial in Thatcham, Berkshire, and are working towards making a multi-gigabit future a reality.”
Although, the rollout of gigabit broadband will undoubtedly be a gamechanger, for Depper , it’s an existing tech that will really help improve our internet. While next gen consoles have SSDs and awe-inspiring GPUs to keep our games feeling fresh, for Depper, Wi-Fi 6 is undoubtedly the sexy new hotness of the network world.
“Wi-Fi 6 has been around a while, but adoption is still low and it still has a way to go before it is the default Wi-Fi standard. With Wi-Fi 6e coming soon, that could be the key to unlocking the market.”
Why should you care about the Jason Statham-esque sounding Wi-Fi6, you ask? Well it’s because allows people to go from a maximum speed of 3.5 gigabits to 9.6gigbaits. Yet, with few houses in the UK likely to get even 3 gigabits by 2021, the real game changer for Wi-Fi 6 is that it improves your network when a bunch of different devices are connected, improving stability and removing latency.
“Combatting latency is the big push in both gaming and networking industries at the moment,” agrees Depper. “This is driven by increasingly competitive MMOs, game streaming services and us looking ahead to VR & AR streaming. WiFi 6 allows for more stable in-home connections with lower latency .
Depper suggests that it’s something that will be especially handy for queasy VR users: “[Wi-Fi 6] enables wireless VR streaming on Oculus Quest 2 with no perceptible difference to a cable connection. In order to achieve VR streaming, network stability and latency will have to be equally strong to ensure a motion-sickness free experience.”
What about the impact of say, XCloud and Google Stadia? Well, somewhat unsurprisingly, Depper reveals that game streaming has barely been a blip on Virgin’s radar so far: “We’ve not yet seen a significant impact from cloud game streaming services as they have only gained limited market traction so far. However, we’re preparing for this to change over the next few years as their business models and technology improves.”
It turns out, the future of network technology is genuinely exciting. Who knew?