Fans eagerly anticipated the early November release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the 11th installment in the video war game series. Developed by a new studio for game publisher Activision, it promised a nearly lifelike experience with advanced graphics and audio, a functional exoskeleton, and the lead role played by Kevin Spacey.
Gamers scooped up an estimated 3.7 million copies in the first week. But when this large number fired up their connections to enjoy the multiplayer goodness, many experienced crippling network problems.
Being the digitally-savvy folk they are, gamers made their frustration known in ways that continued to consume bandwidth. They flooded Activision's Twitter account with complaints and posted their own videos to YouTube expressing their outrage. Interestingly enough, 75,000 of those also live-streamed their games on Twitch.tv to make Advanced Warfare the most streamed video game of the year. During launch week, 6 million Twitch users watched 5.4 million hours of other people playing the game online (I swear, I am not making this up).
Clearly, gaming has become a different animal than it used to be. It's not just the individual, sitting in front of a TV or a PC. It is an interactive, social experience that requires one heck of a network. In fact, the mass users of a game like Advanced Warfare have many of the same characteristics as a DDoS attack and can be a great way to stress test a large network, Rich Bayliss, chief architect at Juniper Networks, told me in an interview.
More communication services are being embedded directly into games, so the model has moved toward playing against your friends, or playing cooperatively with your friends. Games have rich communications, more storyline, and cinematic effects, delivered over a network in an experience, added Bayliss. That demands a solid infrastructure and is pressuring providers to upgrade.
The game software itself must also be able to adapt to changing network conditions, which seem to be a particular sore point for the latest Call of Duty. Its developer is in the process of releasing a two-part patch including "connectivity optimization" to improve matters, but even some who have implemented both patches remain plagued by problems. As YouTube user Espresso tK noted, there is no avoiding the fact that the game is "extremely network dependent."
Game companies and service providers are building up the networks, but they require more than capacity to provide the convergence of digital services beginning today. "Gaming is a great case study of how cloud services are evolving," noted Juniper's Bayliss. "To control a global network on that scale requires a very good set of software tools."
Gaming is now akin to a cloud-hosted service, where Microsoft and Sony are building global networks of gaming servers to create a platform on which game publishers like Activision launch their titles, Bayliss explained. Xbox and PlayStation users must subscribe to get access to these "premium" networks and, in theory, should expect superior service.
When you connect to Xbox Live, for instance, you connect to a platform server supporting a certain gaming title, said Bayliss. It uses a private cloud capability to host its game within the thousands of servers working together to support the users of that game. Each server has multiple gaming instances for different player groups, and these can be quickly adjusted in an SDN manner, depending on the number of users and type of game play.
Game experts also recognize the importance of the network and the shift from the physical game and console to gaming as a service. As Kris Graft wrote on gamer community Gamasutra:
Sony’s network strategy, wherein the network is the backbone for its hardware strategy rather than vice versa, is the future of PlayStation... It’s the network and its reach that will be a major deciding factor in whether or not PlayStation remains relevant in the years to come.
So far, those networks are a work in progress, as evidenced by the launch issues of Advanced Warfare and other titles. Activision has a list of best practices to follow for reducing latency. And Juniper's Rich Bayliss recommends the following, both at home and at the office:
- Connect using a physical connection, if possible
- If you must use wireless, invest in 802.11ac (Although gaming platforms don't use this yet, it will help to offload other wireless device traffic)
- Streamline corporate networks to support a range of media services
- Recognize the value new platforms may have to the business
The last point is a sticky one. Enterprise IT may be reluctant to allow gaming via the corporate network and may question the value to the enterprise. If you look back, said Bayliss, we have examples of services that were forbidden that suddenly became business enablers and a way of connecting with customers, like smartphones and social media. If nothing else, he said, it's a good test of how your network performs under heavy load and to pinpoint the weak spots.
Are you a gamer? Can you share online connectivity tips with the community? What do you think of games in the workplace? Let us know in the comments!