Accelerating Multiplayer Games with Edge Computing
Online gaming began in the 1980s and has never looked back. Today, it’s critical to the gaming industry. Statista estimates that online gaming revenue earned over US $18 billion in 2020 and expects this to reach US $19 billion annually by 2025. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate this trend as people spend more time at home.
Gamers increasingly expect the same, lag-free experience that they get from downloaded and disc games. However, multiplayer games require connections between game servers and clients.
This article discusses the benefits of edge computing’s shortened round trip times. It will:
- Explain how edge computing can help developers improve their game servers
- Explore the benefits of applying edge computing to matchmaking and leaderboards
- Examine how all the components, from architecture to actual gameplay, fit together
1. Improve the Game Servers
The Effects of Lag
Lag is a common problem for gamers. The delay detracts from the gaming experience. A 2011 study found that players often feel frustrated when lag occurs because they can’t identify the root cause. Although underpowered client-side hardware sometimes causes a delay, persistent latency issues indicate back-end networking inefficiencies.
When dealing with lag, players might waste time seeking solutions to problems that they have little understanding of. Outages and improperly distributed hosting solutions are beyond a gamer’s control or knowledge. Because they don’t stem from client-side errors, it’s natural for players to blame other parties or simply accept a subpar multiplayer experience.
Compensation algorithms can only take us so far. So, developers have turned to the cloud in their search to eliminate the most bothersome of all lag components: the laws of physics. That is, the amount of time it takes for data signals to travel a physical distance. And, as the practices of virtualization and containerization mature, edge computing platforms such as StackPath provide a way around the limitations of traditional, centralized cloud workloads.
Location is Everything
Cloud-based virtual machines (VMs) and containers are great. They’re even better when they’re running on fast hardware with high-bandwidth connections. However, the cloud isn’t always enough.
Cloud providers locate their data centers in areas where land is cheap, energy is unrestricted, and regulatory standards are agreeable. As a result, your cloud apps are often running in server farms surrounded by actual farmland. While a rural location is fine for many situations, it’s not ideal for the most intensive applications where proximity is critical.
Most of your customers will live in major metropolitan areas when you host a multiplayer service. Edge computing processes data at the interface between an end user’s device and the rest of the network by using infrastructure for computation and data storage distributed in or adjacent to these metro areas. Developers use containers and VMs on a wide range of edge devices like servers and other computing nodes to run latency-sensitive tasks physically closer to the user, reducing the physical distance that packets must travel between game clients and servers.
A New Generation of Game Servers
Multiplayer servers form the backbone of the online gaming experience. They are obvious candidates for edge computing because they require low-latency connections to the connected players.
Although CPU time on the server can be a performance bottleneck, network latency is difficult to eradicate, even by adding more powerful hardware. A fast-paced online fighting game may require more than just an increase in physics processing versus an online board game. The fighting game also demands a much higher-quality connection to minimize the dramatic effects of lag.
A lengthy round-trip adds a noticeable lag between a player’s interaction with the game and the game’s corresponding update to the player’s view.
Reducing the physical distance between client and server by using local edge VMs or physical machines allows you to improve the player’s experience without implementing more work-intensive solutions, such as rewriting the client software or paying a provider for better hosting conditions.
Hosting your back end on a cloud service that’s out of your control means that your game servers may be in different parts of the country—or even in other countries. Connecting resources over long distances can be costly.
You may also need to invest in legislative or legal processes with entities that can be challenging to work with to ensure your data’s location doesn’t violate local industry regulations, such as privacy laws. These issues are routine and minor in some cases, such as when Canadian players connect to American servers, but players in less well-serviced areas, such as those connecting to servers in the Middle East or Africa, may be forced to connect across multiple countries or through unstable channels. Processing data at the network’s edge saves time spent navigating diverse infrastructures and political realities.
Network Congestion in MMOs
Additionally, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) require many back-end servers interconnected by low-latency links to provide computation as close to real-time as possible. They must also allow geographically dispersed players to play together. Due to the massive number of players connecting to these games’ servers, network congestion impacts both the player experience and the bottom lines of the businesses they support. It’s cheaper and easier to hitch several servers together in an edge cluster near the user.
Today, mobile gaming dominates the market. In 2019, player spending on mobile gaming surpassed spending on PC and console games combined. Mobile gamers, by definition, often play on the go (for example, during their commute) and may be passed from server to server while playing the same game for an extended duration.
To ensure a seamlessly fast mobile experience, multiple geographically separated game server clusters are required. This setup enables players to smoothly transition from one edge server to the next. Edge computing will be a vital tool in ensuring that users are always connected to game servers if desired and that servers communicate fast enough to support the player experience.
2. Apply Edge Computing to Matchmaking and Leaderboards
Matchmaking is another part of the gaming experience that can benefit from edge computing. Popular games must quickly match thousands of players in the same geographic area.
Using edge computing to implement matchmaking allows us to use player lists stored on servers close to the client. So, we can group players into lobbies more quickly, allowing them to enter games faster, especially in games with low player counts. Using local servers also enables us to optimize the most popular features and matchups by storing information such as player data or lists of commonly matched players where they can be accessed quickly. This setup can provide a quick backup if the client loses their data and help the server start the matchmaking process independently of a client connection, perhaps in the background.
Edge computing is ideal for matchmaking. It can help you gain and retain players by matching them based on geographical location and skill level.
Leaderboards are another gaming area that can benefit from edge computing. High score leaderboards have been a critical component of games since the days of the pinball arcade. They continue to be a crucial part of the multiplayer experience today, as gamers are often competitive with their fellow players about their rank.
After matching against others of a similar skill level, players often care more about how they rank against familiar players than they do about randomly selected gamers. Other nearby gamers may include friends or acquaintances, or they may be regular matchups due to good connectivity. Players looking for a co-op experience often prefer to match with people they know and trust.
Although online gaming allows you to play with friends worldwide, it’s easier to start a quick game with someone who’s in your time zone. Based on data stored on edge servers, a local matchmaking server could suggest that a player start a game with a familiar player from their area if it notices that they’re beginning a match.
You can encourage players to keep returning to your servers by maintaining a reliable local network of gaming connections. Climbing the ranks among people they know and care about is a more satisfying challenge for players to overcome than defeating distant, faceless adversaries they might only play against once.
3. Fit the Components Together
You’ve explored how edge computing can help game companies improve their leaderboards, matchmaking, and connections to game servers. When developers adopt edge computing, these components work together holistically to create a smooth, competitive, enjoyable, and robust multiplayer experience.
At the edge, your games play effortlessly on a server architecture with endless backup capability, combining traditional lag compensation methods with the competitive advantage of physically shortening the cable between your users and their computations—or between your users and each other. You address physical proximity as a primary concern, adding a layer of specificity to your matchmaking algorithms that a centralized server architecture would not allow.
Finally, edge computing can improve one of the most important aspects of competitive gaming—leaderboards. By storing, processing, and serving data from hardware located near these players, it’s easy to offer the satisfaction of knowing that these players are the best among their friends and are not simply blessed with the best internet connection.
Meanwhile, your business reaps all the benefits of reducing your internet footprint when processing data. You get the peace of mind that comes with having insightful control of your data’s integrity, and you reduce the expenses associated with piping your traffic through expensive, congested copper highways that can be volatile.
However, to be successful in gaining and retaining players, you must select the right edge computing partner. StackPath is one of many content delivery network (CDN) companies that specifically supports gaming, including providing infrastructure to support Steam. We provide resources such as to suit a variety of needs.
Although we’ve discussed the benefits of edge computing for gaming at a high level, you can examine more detailed examples of how StackPath can benefit game developers like you. Explore how StackPath Edge Compute helps video game developers thrive in a hyper-competitive market and how StackPath’s edge computing can help game developers succeed.