Why fast unlimited broadband is essential for videogames

Videogames are big, big business. In the UK alone there is an estimated 33.5m gamers, and the global market is on course to be worth in excess of $90bn by the end of 2015.

And broadband is an ever more important part of gaming. Affordable and ubiquitous internet access has changed the way in which we acquire and play games, making it easier for gamers to access new titles and developers to distribute their work.

But the downside is that a satisfying experience can live or die on the quality of your connection and those with slow or heavily restricted access will find it an increasingly difficult hobby to maintain. Our recent gaming survey found that a significant number of UK gamers are using broadband connections which are barely adequate for the increasing size of digital downloads, and many also regularly have to deal with lag when playing online.

Do you need gaming broadband?

You might see some broadband services advertised as gaming broadband or think that you need to hunt down a gaming focused connection to get the best experience, but any reasonably fast broadband service will do. Online gaming itself does not demand a huge amount of bandwidth so even a few megabits per second will be sufficient.

The overwhelming majority are using ADSL (27% of our survey respondents), fibre optic on the BT Openreach network (28%) or cable broadband (30%). These numbers aren't surprising given that those are the most common services, though 4% are on satellite broadband, which brings its own complications for gamers (see ‘broadband and lag’ below).

But while faster connections do not necessarily confer any huge advantages in an online match against other players there is a good reason that any gamer should want the quickest unlimited service possible.

How do you buy games?

Game download services like Steam, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are an enormously popular way to purchase games. Steam is especially busy with over 125m active accounts, partly due to its famous sales which offer deeply discounted pricing.

But game downloads can be massive, requiring hours to install even on rapid cable and fibre connections. That's problematic if your connection is slower than average, somewhat unstable or has a data usage cap.

One question asked in our survey was whether people preferred to buy games online or go for a physical copy. We found 36% had no preference between online or boxed, 39% said they’d stick to a good old disc install and 25% prefer to download their games.

But here’s where things get tricky. You’d expect that going for a disc would save the time and bandwidth of a downloaded copy, except now it’s common for a physical purchase to involve a hefty download too.

The boxed PC release of Grand Theft Auto 5 came on seven DVDs which could take hours to install, and even after this required an additional 5GB patch. Batman Arkham Knight had an even bigger surprise in store for those who bought the PC DVD release: after installing five discs it still needs around 30GB of downloaded files.

Luckily it seems most of us are on unlimited broadband as 92% of our survey respondents said they had an unrestricted connection, but that still leaves millions of gamers who could potentially hit difficulties in the future as we move away from physical releases.

The fact is that no matter how you like to buy games you will need to download some big files at some point, whether it’s for a patch, DLC or just to complete a boxed installation. This is why we would always recommend that gamers opt for the fastest unlimited service they can afford. The unlimited part is particularly important as one single game download can exceed the monthly usage allowance of some cheap broadband packages, but a higher speed will also save you from waiting around too long.

The current average broadband speed as reported by OFCOM is 22.8Mb. At that rate 30GB would take just under three hours to download, while the 65GB of GTA5 could take more than six hours. But our survey found that 13% who preferred online purchases also had broadband of 'up to' 8Mb or less. At 8Mbps a digital purchase of GTA 5 could be 18 hours of downloading!

And remember that in practice your actual download speed may be much lower than the theoretical capabilities of the connection. ADSL will often deliver performance far below the stated 'up to' speed, and while cable and fibre broadband are generally better at providing something close to the quoted rates you'll also need to take into account the impact of other users - both in your home and elsewhere on the network - and the speed at which the download server can transmit data. All of this can result in much higher download times.

Broadband and lag

Another area where fast broadband is better for gamers is latency in online play, though it’s not always a massive difference.

Many online games depend on a low latency connection. Latency, measured in milliseconds (ms), is the time it takes for data to travel between your computer and the server, and when playing online it's the difference between a fun session and total frustration.

Lag is a noticeable delay between your input and the game's reaction. It occurs when the latency is high and can manifest in various unhelpful ways, perhaps making the game feel juddery or making it look like other players are teleporting. Lag can make fast paced titles which rely on rapid reactions and pixel-perfect accuracy unplayable. That’s particularly frustrating in competitive shooters like Call of Duty, Destiny and Counter-Strike.

Our survey asked whether lag was something you experienced. 10% of respondents said it was frequent, 49% occasionally, and 41% only rarely.

When it comes to fast moving games you ideally want a latency (or ‘ping’) under 100ms. They will generally remain playable at higher rates however lag can become very apparent at around 180ms, and many servers will automatically kick players who exceed a certain threshold (typically 200ms) to keep things smooth for everyone else.

Latency can be affected by numerous factors and is not dependant on a fast connection alone, though it does help. Fibre optic and cable broadband can deliver a latency well under 50ms, but ADSL or even mobile broadband can easily handle online gaming. So long as your connection is able to achieve a speed of a few megabits you should be able to comfortably play online. Though if you’re looking to get an edge you’ll want to go for the fastest connection available to minimise the ping.

One exception is satellite broadband. While it can now offer speeds in excess of a good ADSL2 line, satellite has a very high latency due to the time it takes to transfer data to and from the orbiting link and as such is generally unsuitable for online gaming, at least for anything which relies on fast reaction times.

Solutions for lag in online games

Lag is not necessarily something that can be blamed on a broadband provider. While you should speak to tech support if you feel the line is too slow it’s important to understand that playing an online game will involve sending data across different points which may be spread around the world, and delays could be introduced anywhere.

If you're suffering here are a few potential fixes for common causes of lag…

  • Choose a server that’s close to home

Geographical location is important. The less distance data has to travel the lower your latency, so when selecting a game server choose the one closest to you. The options for each game will vary - there may be specific cities named or a server may cover an entire country or continent.

  • Use the server browser to sort by ping

If the game has a server browser it should indicate ping times - often colour coded - and offer various ways of filtering and sorting to find the most suitable match. Any reasonably popular title should have a choice of servers to suit everyone though if it's an older game the selection may be more limited.

  • Pause downloads and uploads

Make sure you’re not hogging the connection with a lot of activity in the background such as automatic updates or P2P file sharing. This is particularly true for uploads as the upstream bandwidth of most home connections is far more limited than the download rate. This can be tricky if you’re sharing the connection, but then that’s where the added speed of fibre and cable also proves helpful.

  • Use a network cable, not wireless

Handy as it is, Wi-Fi can introduce additional delays, instability and packet loss so if you’re trying to get the best online gaming experience we’d recommend plugging in an ethernet network cable to see if that makes a difference. If you’re far from the router a powerline networking kit is an easy way to extend wired coverage around the home.

  • Is it lag or framerate?

Sometimes a game may appear to be lagging when in fact you’re experiencing the effects of low Frames Per Second (FPS) caused by insufficient hardware or graphics settings that are too high for your computer. Play around with the settings to see if you can improve the FPS. It can help to use something like the Steam overlay to display FPS, and also search online for optimisation guides to help get the best performance from your system. Console players should not have to worry too much about this as the software should already be optimised, and console titles rarely have many options to tweak anyway.