Opinion – America's Online Infrastructure Is Failing The Games That Rely On It

by Jon Gregory on Feb 09, 2015 at 12:50 PM

When I head back home following my internship here at Game Informer, I’ll be heading back to a city on the verge of having some of the fastest internet in the world. Charlotte was recently announced as one of the next handful of cities to see the arrival of Google Fiber, a service that Google already has plans to ramp up to a blistering 10Gbps by the early 2020s.

Charlotte wasn’t always on the brink of cutting edge Internet though, and until Google Fiber actually arrives it could be argued that it’s below average. Everyone’s favorite cable company, Comcast, offers 50Mbps speed, for $70, with digital cable bundled in. Time Warner on the other hand, who runs uncontested in most of the Charlotte area’s cable market, offers the same speed for the same price, but without any other services.

My first online gaming experiences were mostly filtered through a connection that barely flirted with 7Mbps in the middle of the night when the rest of the neighborhood was asleep. The dreaded specter of “lag” graced my Call of Duty 4 matches even when I was the only person home to use the Internet. I also regularly hoofed it down the street to mooch off a neighbor’s open network from the curb with my laptop because someone at home needed to use the Internet.

Unfortunately, service even worse than what I had growing up is still common. Whether due to price or availability, few Americans have access to more than what was, until recently, the broadband standard 4Mbps download speed connection. Games haven’t started sending less information for online play since my days with Call of Duty 4, either.

In terms of games, a 4Mbps connection in 2015 won’t even let you connect to a multiplayer match in Game Informer’s game of the year, Dragon Age: Inquisition; I gave up after 10 minutes of staring at a black screen, waiting for the game to load a map on that same speed at my temporary residence here in Minneapolis. Fellow intern Justin Mikos, who is sharing the space with me, gave up on downloading Metroid Prime: Trilogy for Wii U after an overnight download session pulled in just a third of the game’s 7.7GBs.

The infrastructure around a size-obsessed industry simply isn’t keeping pace with the mammoth products it’s producing. While the FCC recently redefined “broadband” as 25Mbps of download speed and 3Mbps of upload speed, the decision isn’t likely to affect any real change. The FCC lacks the power to force ISPs to act, and the decision to update the speed threshold of a definition doesn’t make existing connections faster or more reasonably priced, so players without solid connections are left in the same position anyways. 

Even if the FCC could force companies to upgrade the services they already provide to the new standard, which is similar to my connection back in North Carolina, downloading games still wouldn’t happen in a timely manner. It took hours to download Dragon Age: Inquisition back home, and it will probably take more than a day to pull down all of The Witcher 3’s reported 40GBs of PC content – if no one in my house wants to use the Internet for anything else in the process.

The advertised speeds ISPs sell their products based on also don’t ensure customers are regularly receiving what they pay for. The Internet service at my home in Charlotte is supposed to provide 30Mbps, but rarely tops 25. Services like YouTube and Netflix also regularly buffer for no reason, and download speeds from services like Steam are similarly prone to slowdown.

A recently published study by the FCC of broadband performance shows that, while overall consistency is increasing, the average connection speed during peak hours in September 2013 was less than the services’ advertised speeds. The trend of lower speeds is especially prevalent among the more widely available connections at or below the 15Mbps mark, where just 10 of 31 services met or exceeded their advertised performance; of the 21 that didn’t, 11 provided less than 90 percent of the speed they sold their product based on.

Though most of the United States doesn’t currently have access to the new broadband standard, the service providers are far from the only ones with lagging infrastructure. Server issues for online games and the networks surrounding them have proven so common, that many people have come to expect to find online portions of new games unavailable at launch.

Publishers and developers are constantly assuring launches will be smooth, but in most cases the people working behind the scenes are stuck with technology that isn’t flexible enough for modern online games to deliver on that promise. Studios often undershoot the amount of server space they need for games at launch, and rightfully so; servers are a huge expense, and launching with enough to cover the launch day crush likely means having expensive unused space just a few weeks later.

Though there have been a handful of advances in managing server space for games in recent years, none of them have put enough of a dent in the problem to keep it from getting worse. Even Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing system, despite being a far more flexible option, couldn’t stop Titanfall from breaking down at launch. Series with previously spotless online track records, like Halo, have also been marred by instability in recent years.

Supporting the games people love to play isn’t a glamorous part of the gaming world. With the exception of Microsoft Azure, most infrastructure isn’t going to be featured in a commercial alongside the product it’s supporting. As far as I know, no one is handing out awards to games for simply launching with working servers either. However, the industry as whole is in a different place today than it was when the last generation started.

Online play is important enough that Xbox Live and PSN crashes now make it to the desks of broadcast news networks, not just enthusiast publications. Online features and services are a major draw, not far-fetched concepts. Hundreds of millions of people play games across the various different platforms for them, and gaming is more global than it has ever been.

As they grow, games are rapidly outpacing the infrastructure they rely on, and if this continues, they’ll end up hitting a wall. Players won’t be able to download the newest big releases from a marketplace that is rapidly trending in the direction of digital distribution. Developers won’t be able to confidently explore the untapped opportunities relatively young online spaces offer.

The future of video games has its foot planted firmly in the digital realm, and it’s time for America’s infrastructure to get on board.