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Latency holds serious gamers back from streaming

Further evidence that serious gamers are not ready to embrace streaming has come from Ipsos MORI’s GameTrack survey for GamesIndustry.biz. It found that only 3% of serious gamers are very interested in playing via a Netflix-style streaming service instead of via a dedicated console or PC, and that 70% have little interest at all.

We are talking here about serious rather than casual gaming, since the latter is now being widely played on smartphones. A major difference is that for serious gaming ultra-low latency is critical rather than just a nice to have and that is a major barrier to adoption of streaming at a time when the major tech players have been coming in with offerings. Google launched its streaming service for gamers called Stadia in March 2019 with a lot of hot air about upending the serious gaming field now worth $135 billion a year. Yet upon closer inspection it became clear that Google’s emperor had no clothes since there were no games for users to play on the platform and no clear business model, since that had not been worked out. Those deficiencies can be quite readily addressed but greater concerns emerged when serious gamers started getting their hands on the service, as we have seen from numerous posts.

They tended to have no complaints over the graphics or UI but the experience often fell down over latency. Typical of such posts was one gaming expert who complained that he died five times when playing the first training level of the game Doom, a game centered around gun-based combat from the perspective of the shooter, hence called a first-person game. This game was published by Bethesda Softworks and released worldwide on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in May 2016. The problem was that Google had actually simulated latency to mimic what it anticipated would be real-world conditions but that turned a seasoned player into a novice.

Typically, a game like Doom running on a Windows PC at 60 fps would run at latencies in the 50ms to 70ms range played locally, but this particular gamer reported 200ms from Google’s Stadia, which was too high in this case. Generally, a ping time of 20ms or lower will be good enough for any type of game, while 20ms to 70ms will be sufficient for most but as it approaches 100ms it becomes problematic for the most timing-critical games such as these shooters and over 150ms it becomes hopeless, as this particular gamer found.

There is scope for getting latency down to the required levels, providing playing is confined to continents so that the transit speed of signals does not add too significant a component. Even a direct fiber link transit around the world would add about 200ms to round trip latency, or at least 50ms across the Atlantic between North America and Europe.

Given these latency concerns expressed clearly by gamers evaluating Google’s Stadia, it is surprising that was not the principal reason identified by the Ipsos MORI survey for people being unsure over the attraction of streaming. In the four European countries covered by the survey – the UK, Germany, France and Spain – 43% of respondents believe their internet connection is fast enough to stream games against 23% who did not, with the rest unsure. However, 32% of gamers said they would worry about their internet connection dropping, while 28% did not, suggesting that many of them had little experience of actually playing games online.

Indeed, the survey indicated a continuing loyalty to packaged games, which were strongly preferred to streamed ones by 31% of surveyed gamers, while cost was also a concern, with only 22% agreeing that a subscription-based streaming service would offer good value for money. This again reflects lack of clear details over how such services will be priced.

We should remember that streaming aims to increase the reach of gaming by encouraging participation from people who currently do not own a dedicated gaming device. This factor is most prevalent though in developing markets where more people cannot afford a dedicated device as the Ipsos MORI survey reaffirmed the enduring popularity of console and PC-based gaming in Europe. Yet many of those same European consumers have taken to streaming for non-game services, especially SVoD, and the survey did unearth potential interest in games streaming for downloading content to PC hard drives and also to receive regular updates.

The message then for the likes of Google is that there is a sizeable market to be tapped in serious games streaming but they must firstly generate some novel games and events themselves, secondly come up with compelling pricing packages and thirdly deliver on their vague promises over latency, which means demonstrating consistent values below about 80ms.

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