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24 August 2021

Cloud gaming emerges as major 5G use case but needs rigorous testing

5G gaming has been in the news lately on several fronts, over predictions of rapid growth, demonstrations in the field and potential for democratization by avoiding need for expensive equipment to obtain the required performance. There has also been activity on the testing front, reflecting the high demands of gaming for ultra-low latency, given sensitivity to even milliseconds of delay.

It is the combination of 5G and cloud that promises the democratization and a new chapter in the long running gaming field.  This is because the high-performance computing can be performed in the cloud while, providing the servers are sufficiently close, latency can be kept down to “local levels” over a 5G connection. This has just been demonstrated in Chile by the country’s Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications in collaboration with telco Entel.

Billed as the first demonstration of 5G gaming in Latin America, the demonstration brought together professional gamers, such as Swaggron and Nicole Piri, playing Pokemon Go on a 5G Samsung S21 mobile phone and using augmented reality to catch Pokemon, while live-streaming simultaneously in real time to followers. Then Piri connected to 5G on a variety of devices to play different games often defined as eSports, such as Tennis World Tour and Darksiders, again without connecting to fixed networks as they would have required in the past.

“Cloud gaming, like 5G, promises a democratization of access to first-rate technologies,” argued Juan Francisco Di Nucci, CEO of Avatar World Group, “because it will allow users to achieve a gaming experience without great hardware investments. The cloud and high-speed internet connection will remove an access barrier.”

The reference to eSports highlights confusion over measuring the size of the mobile gaming market in general, which depends on what is included and what is not. For that reason, there are wild variations in numbers counted and forecast.

The biggest numbers are associated with the whole global gaming market, which includes all the big multiplayer video games provided by Microsoft, Nintendo, Twitch, Activision among others. This was worth around $170bn in 2020 and is growing at about 10% CAGR.

Mobile gaming is a substantial subset of that, defined as those games played over mobile networks, primarily with smart phones. This segment is growing faster than gaming as a whole at around 12% CAGR and was worth close to $75bn in 2020, depending on who is counting. The most recent published data on this sector from Safe Betting Sites, an initiative set up in 2020 to promote secure online gambling in the UK, pertained to that country only. That projected revenue from mobile gaming in the UK to reach $3.43bn in 2021, up 14% on 2020. Mobile gaming includes eSports, comprising organized multiplayer video game competitions with professional leagues.

Cloud gaming, sometimes called gaming-as-a-service, where the interactive video runs on remote servers and is streamed to users’ devices rather than being hosted there, is a relatively nascent field. There are huge differences in opinion between analysts even over how big the cloud gaming market is now, let alone how fast it will grow, reflecting variations in definition and scope. Estimates for the 2021 value we have seen range between $170m and $4bn.

What is almost certain is that cloud gaming will grow rapidly with the roll out of 5G. The constraining factor will also be the opportunity, that is latency, which depends so much on how close the compute resources are to the players. Ultimately the laws of physics may hold back fully global cloud gaming because of signal transmission delays.

But there will be efforts to eliminate as much avoidable latency as possible associated with processing. This has naturally attracted attention from the network and measurement industry, with Germany’s Rohde & Schwarz (R&S) among pioneers on the 5G cloud gaming front. The company has developed metrics for assessing the fitness of a service for cloud gaming, taking latency, bit-rate and continuity as the three critical measures.

Bit rate is an expression of network capacity, while continuity determines the consistency of performance. Continuity then is related to jitter, which is the variation in delay. Cloud gaming is a frustrating experience when there is significant jitter because that disrupts the play, even when latency is ultra-low most of the time.

Normally these three parameters are measured and analyzed separately, but R&S argues this makes no sense for cloud gaming and so has combined them into a continuous metric that it has found gives a way of assessing QoS from this perspective.

For many applications, one or other of these three parameters is more important than the others. For many data downloads, as in real time map updating, bit rate is most important. For say real time surveillance, continuity counts most. For UAV control, latency is most critical. But for advanced interactive applications such as augmented reality (AR), all three are vital and so that is the case for cloud gaming.

R&S has also analyzed the particular traffic patterns associated with cloud gaming and how these relate to QoS for 5G service providers. Data rates vary greatly by phase of the game with notable lulls, peaks and troughs. That of itself applies to some other applications but in this case the variations are quite stark, characterized by a set-up phase of rising bit-rate, then a sharp peak, followed by a sustained middle rate and then drop-off.

There were also significant variations between game types. R&S contends these can be catered for within a common QoS framework by assigning different weights to each parameter for every gaming use case. 5G caters for this through network slicing, allowing each use case to be provisioned within a common infrastructure.