Cloud Gaming Customer Experience: Opportunities for Telcos and OTTs

Cloud Gaming Experience: Opportunities for Telcos and OTTs?

author: Jaime González

Cloud Gaming Customer Experience: Opportunities for Telcos and OTTs?

Big technology firms, Gaming companies and Telecommunication Operators are driving the paradigm shift in the video games market towards cloud and online gaming. According to Telecoms.com “cloud gaming and subscription services revenue is expected to grow 9 percent per year, reaching $8 billion by 2023.” However, it is not only about the increasing market size, but also about leading technology revolution as some believe that Cloud Gaming is a “killer use case” for 5G or edge-computing.

Cloud gaming services enable consumers to play video games using any device connected to the internet – the software and hardware required are mostly hosted on remote cloud services, – but there are still some doubts:

  • Can cloud gaming rival the experience offered by leading consoles, such as Microsoft’s Xbox or Sony’s PlayStation?1
  • Are the Telecommunication Operators ready for the opportunities and challenges of delivering the quality and experience required for these services?

Technology has always been a key driver of business model changes, content distribution and consumer behavior. Now, technology is also an enabler of best-in-class cloud streaming and gaming customer experiences.

As a result of the cloud gaming revolution, consumer´s demand for high-bandwidth and low latency connectivity could skyrocket, particularly when it comes to massive multiplayer scenarios. Gaming video and audio is streamed to the customer’s device, such as a smartphone, a connected TV, a PC, or a tablet. Thus, the quality of service becomes one of the most critical factors that determine the gaming experience, including a stable high-bandwidth connection with low latency, jitter, and packet loss.

Nvidia GeForce Now, Google Stadia, Microsoft xCloud with xBox Game Pass, and Sony Playstation Now are the most successful attempts launched by some big tech companies. All of them are on the race to provide a satisfying cloud gaming service that reaches all gamers worldwide through subscription services.

Some Telecom Operators such as MagentaGaming from Deutsche Telekom and Sunrise Game Cloud from Swiss Telco Operator Sunrise and Gamestream are launching their cloud gaming platforms, challenging the big Gaming companies. The advantage of operators is that they own both the service and underlying network infrastructure, which enables them to ensure the best Quality of Experience (QoE). Other operators are forming partnerships with cloud-gaming providers. For example, AT&T is holding hands with Playgiga, while Sprint and Vodafone are allying with Hatch. This win-win proposition helps both parties learn about how to deliver the best QoE to their customers, and it also reflects operators’ incentive of using the popularity of cloud gaming to upsell higher-speed and lower-latency packages to gamers.

Before the rise of online and cloud gaming, if you wanted to play games, you needed to download the content locally in your smartphone, gaming console, or PC. However, there are still millions of users who want to play the latest video games but don’t have a console like PS4 or Xbox. Some believe that these new services are a step closer to democratizing gaming. In contrast, others are still skeptical about whether the access, cost, and processing power will be the barriers that stand in the way of letting more people enjoying this novel gaming service.

One of the benefits of cloud gaming is that the hardware and software you use to store and run the games will be, essentially, in the cloud, and just a high-resolution screen connected to the internet will be required. This convenience is revolutionary for gamers as it grants them the possibility of playing high-quality games for a fraction of the original cost instantly on any device. Game developers are also benefiting as they can reduce costs by focusing on a distributed platform and minimize security breaches.

The Challenge

In cloud gaming, the software and hardware required are hosted on remote cloud services. Cloud platforms are in charge of the remote execution and rendering of an interactive gaming application and stream the scenes as a video sequence back to the player over the Internet via Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) with regional points of presence near population centers.

Figure 1. Framework of a cloud gaming platform | Source: SFU. Cloud Gaming: Architecture and Performance

Figure 1. Framework of a cloud gaming platform | Source: SFU. Cloud Gaming: Architecture and Performance

Cloud gaming platforms may seem straightforward, but all pieces must perfectly fit together to reach customers’ expectations, particularly the cloud server infrastructure and the communication between the cloud gaming platform and the gamers.

Cloud server infrastructures cope with the demands of a growing number of cloud gaming users to ensure high-quality, robust, and sustainable cloud gaming services in terms of cloud resources allocation and content distribution. The connectivity between the cloud gaming platform and thin clients are over the internet, which makes supporting real-time computer games challenging.

To overcome the challenge, not only gaming companies and broadband providers are involved, but also cloud service providers, content delivery networks, and streaming service companies. The truth is many Telcos are working to find out whether and how well their networks can support the needs and expectations of billions of gamers due to the demanding cloud streaming requirements.

Technical challenges and performance prerequisites have delayed the launch of this kind of platform. The quality and experience of traditional games played locally can be controlled and optimized directly by the device. However, online gaming demands at least a stable connectivity, ultra-low latency, and sufficient bandwidth in order to coordinate actions among the players and have a pleasant streaming experience.

Quality of Experience

For Cloud Gaming, every input from a player has to be sent back upstream to the game engine, computed the game graphic change in the cloud, encoded it as a video, and sent it back to the gamers.

This process is called interaction delay and should feel immediate and continuous for every player’s perception. This delay may have different acceptable thresholds depending on the style of the game, being First Person Avatar games the most sensible ones.

According to Equinix’s ‘The Future of Cloud Gaming,“the greatest, most unpredictable impact on gaming performance is latency from either network congestion, lost packets, lack of available bandwidth or jitter (the time delay between sending packets in sequence). These issues are generally caused by a centralized gaming platform, where content must traverse multiple router hops and/or peering points across a long-haul network. These network infrastructures are not sufficient for real-time cloud gaming, where any buffering of packets or caching of content disrupts the constant stream of packets to its users, delivering an inconsistent gaming experience. What’s required is bringing cloud gaming closer to the user wherever they are and supporting any gaming device in the same consistent manner. This means literally taking cloud gaming platforms to the edge.”

To reduce this delay to the limit, the game industry is relying on the newest technologies such as edge-computing or 5G, partnerships with hyperscale cloud providers, leaders in interconnection, and data centers. These services require powerful servers, high-performance graphics accelerators, and low-latency video encoding to stream games over the internet.

As per Nokia’s estimates, the standard latency profile required is roughly 100 ms round-trip, of which the network transport should not be more than 30 ms. However, to satisfy the need of the most demanding gamers, a widely accepted goal for cloud gaming excellence is to provide stable network latencies below 20 ms.

Nokia’s breakdown is shown as following:

  • User interaction: User commands must make its way across the internet to the cloud gaming server in under ~15 ms
  • Gaming server processing: The server will then take ~45 ms to process the input and required output (including rendering and encoding the video frame)
  • Video streaming: The traffic will take ~15 ms again to reach the cloud gaming device
  • Decoding and rendering: Cloud gaming device will take another ~15 ms for decoding and rendering

Latency buget for cloud gaming

In the end, every millisecond counts because latency impacts player actions in online games and significantly affect gaming experience, as demonstrated in the graph below.

Latency variance across mechanics

Figure 2. Latency variance across mechanics | Source: Equinix Blog

According to Trias Research’s The Emergence of Cloud Gaming’, “low latency is critical to multiplayer gaming and has been frequently cited by gamers as a major point of resistance with cloud gaming. We estimate the ideal motion-to-photon latency for smartphone gaming is 70ms, or about two full frames at 30FPS, four full frames at 60FPS. For future head-mounted display solutions such as virtual reality, head tracking creates particularly demanding requirements, and latency can create motion sickness above 20ms.” Trias Research views about the latency landscape of gaming platforms and cloud services against experience thresholds are depicted in the following table.

Latency Landscape for Cloud Gaming

Figure 3. Latency Landscape for Cloud Gaming | Source: The Emergence of Cloud Gaming

Just for illustration purposes, a game running at 60 frames per second (FPS) renders a frame every 16.7 ms, and at 30 FPS every 33.3 ms. In other words, the average latency we typically observe in our households, without considering any gaming-related interaction delays, is already about the same as waiting for one or more frames while gaming depending on the access technology (see our report ‘State of residential fixed broadband in Europe’). This effect is most noticeable in online games demanding precision timing, where quick reactions can make a difference, something that does not commonly happen with games played locally.

To fulfill the real-time requirements of cloud gaming, the time to deliver one packet cannot be limitless for the software, which in many cases, will result in data loss. Accordingly, packet delay and loss will lead to the same quality degradation from the user’s point of view.

Loss scenarios: Cloud Gaming

Figure 4. Loss scenarios | Source: Gaming in the clouds: QoE and the users’ perspective

 

When using a videoconferencing service, the threshold for an acceptable packet loss could be set up by 1%. However, based on the tests and conclusions included in ‘Gaming in the clouds: QoE and the users’ perspective, there is a big gap in user’s quality perception when packet loss is equal or greater than 0.3%. The effect of packet loss on the downlink will cause significant fragmentation of the video as well as lost keystrokes on the uplink.

Regarding bandwidth, most cloud gaming providers recommend a minimum of 10-15 Mbps downlink speed for a 720p resolution and 60 FPS with stereo sound. This Internet speed requirement could be enough for mobile games as we currently know them but not for gaming enthusiasts that want to enjoy the ultimate immersive experience in a 55 inches screen.

Bandwidth recommendations for Cloud Gaming with Stadia

Figure 5. Bandwidth recommendations for Cloud Gaming with Stadia | Source: Google Stadia

We may think that streaming a game would be like streaming a video, so if my Internet connection is good enough to let me enjoy a 4K film on Netflix without interruptions, I will have the same experience in cloud gaming. Unfortunately, it does not exactly work like that. While video streams can buffer to mitigate lag, online video games cannot use this trick, because in gaming action of the player and graphic rendering are processed in real time. To manage this, cloud streaming service must dynamically adapt the video encoding to deliver the minimum amount of data required for the best experience on a specific device. Given these facts, even if we have a connection speed above the recommendations, the slightest network instability may ruin the experience. Online gaming also involves data upstream using messaging or audio chat tools, and the streaming of gameplays for the one with a crowd of followers. That is why immersive gamers, multiplayer, and e-sports fans may also consider the uplink bandwidth as important as the downlink.

On top of basic performance and quality parameters that take part in the cloud gaming experience, there is an element that can make the difference, the access technology.  The most demanding games, both for console and PC, recommend an Ethernet connection to have the optimal performance. However, many gamers connect via Mobile or Wi-Fi networks. As it is shown, mobile games players represent more than 50% of the revenues for the global video game market.

Cloud gaming enables the “game on the go” so that users can access gaming at any time, on any device and in any place, but ultra-low levels of latency can only be guaranteed with 5G networks. A survey from the Mobile Video Industry Council revealed that most operators believe that cloud gaming could represent 25% to 50% of 5G data traffic by 2022. However, there are still some challenges for mobile operators to manage and optimize cloud-gaming traffic to ensure high QoE, for example, handover and encryption impact on latency and traffic prioritization.

The appearance of the new Wi-Fi 6 standard and routers will allow exploiting the extra wireless bandwidth for those with Gigabit Internet connections (see our posts about ‘The Gigabit broadband race for the best customer experience’ and about ‘Next generation Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi 6’). Due to its MU-MIMO technology, it will be able to communicate simultaneously with up to 8 devices, both downstream and upstream, which will contribute positively to gameplay as it is high on that constant flow of data back and forth. Also, the OFDMA channel access method will give gamers a plus as it is ideal for serving multiple users of varying bandwidth requirements, providing lower latency, overhead, and jitter.

Features and benefits of Wi-Fi 6

Figure 6: Features and benefits of Wi-Fi 6 | Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

According to EEDAR Gaming Infrastructure Survey, analyzing the issues experienced while gaming, they found that the excessive download or update times are one of the main pain points for users. In addition to this, more than 40% of them were frustrated due to the loading time and the play interruptions. As to Internet Service Providers(ISPs), they usually suffer from capacity issues when a new game faces the market, and they have to monitor the network response during the launch date closely. Thanks to cloud gaming, these issues would not appear as the game will be hosted in the cloud, which is a real relief for both gamers and Internet providers.

Experiences while playing Video Games_ gaming

Figure 7. Experiences while playing Video Games | Source: EEDAR. Gaming Infrastructure Survey

The other two major experience killers reported by gamers were related to network connectivity. Lag and disconnections affect more than 50% percent of users and contribute to a significant part of video games churn. Cloud gaming services are trying to reduce these complaints, but it remains an unsolved issue because of their lack of control over network experience.

All in all, when comparing home consoles or PC gaming (games played locally) against cloud gaming, real environment problems appear to be significantly affecting the gaming experience. Many people might not have an Internet connection and network hardware ready to excel with cloud gaming service requirements, especially when facing latency, jitter, and packet loss issues.  Cloud gaming services cannot make promises about latency because they do not own the network and services used to stream cloud gaming to your home. Only a cloud gaming service under the control of ISPs or in partnership with them would be in a position to do so.

Collaboration between ISPs and Cloud Gaming companies to provide stable in-home performance, both in terms of latency and speed, will be a crucial factor in attracting more than 2.5 billion gamers worldwide.

In MedUX, we combine Fixed and Mobile Broadband measurements to help tackle Cloud Gaming performance and experience challenges. By simulating the cloud gaming traffic at residential premises or in a smartphone, MedUX aims at covering the main indicators shaping the Cloud Gaming QoE.

If you want further details about Cloud Gaming performance and how MedUX can help with all these new challenges, get in touch with us at maketing@medux.com.

 

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