You’ve probably heard ISPs promoting a bandwidth tier as “fast enough for online gaming.” There’s no doubt you need a faster connection for gaming than you do for basic browsing, email and social media, but how fast is fast enough?

Getting playable, let alone enjoyable, online gaming speeds isn’t all about download bandwidth. Upload speeds and especially latency play a big part, as does the kinds of games that you play; multiplayer games have specific demands that may not be satisfied by simply upgrading to a more costly tier.

The Ups and Downs of Bandwidth

Don’t get the idea that download speeds aren’t important. With more bandwidth comes faster loading, especially of graphical and map elements. If you’re playing Counter-Strike or Ultima Online, nearly any broadband connection is going to give you plenty of bandwidth to spare. But with modern games like Call of Duty: Ghosts or even World of Warcraft, a lot of background data has to be sent and updated throughout the course of a gaming session. And keep in mind that your ISP’s quote is for maximum (i.e., not guaranteed) bandwidth — a 5 Mbps connection may seem like plenty of bandwidth, but in practice you may be regularly getting half of that, or less. So with Xbox Live recommending at least 3 Mbps, you can be sure that a 3 Mbps connection will always be too slow, and your 5-6 Mbps connection may struggle just to reach the minimum.

Most Internet connections are asymmetrical, meaning that the download bandwidth is much greater than the upload bandwidth. On average, upload speed is about half of download speed, chiefly because consumer Internet technology was developed to serve a “passive” market — one that was far more interested in getting stuff off the Internet than getting things onto it. That was fine when text chat was the only communication option in multiplayer games, but modern multiplayer gaming usually requires constant and reliable real-time digital audio communication. So don’t neglect upload speeds when shopping for a gaming ISP.

Latency, Lag, Ping

Bandwidth is important, but it’s only half of the speed equation. Latency and lag refer to the time that it takes for your input to register. Latency is the central concern for anybody who plays fast-paced FPS games, whether it’s Counter-Strike or Battlefield 4. Lag is also of major importance for real-time strategy games like StarCraft II and MMORPGS like Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic. The only genres not much affected by latency are turn-based strategy games and RPGs, but these only make up a small percentage of online multiplayer games.

You get some local lag from your gaming setup, including controller lag (from gamepads, keyboards and mice) and lag from Wi-Fi networks, long Ethernet connections, HDTV video processing, or possibly a PC in need of fine-tuning or upgrade. However, Internet-based latency is of much wider concern, partly because you have so little control over it; gamers can minimize local lag by fine-tuning their setup, but there’s only so much you can do to reduce the latency that shows up in that “first hop” between your home and the closest ISP node. For example, satellite connections are notoriously laggy — every button or key that you press has to make a 22,000 mile trip into space and back, and no amount of bandwidth is going to make it any faster.

Checking your latency on that “first hop” is easy — a networking utility called “ping” is built into nearly every network-connected device to check the response time between your machine and any given IP address. Although the words have technically distinct definitions, ping has become functionally synonymous with “lag” and “latency” (e.g., “what’s your ping?”). Windows and Linux users can simply open a command box to run a quick ping test, while Mac users and console gamers need to delve more deeply into their utilities menus to find the ping function.

What’s an acceptable latency? There are no hard and fast rules. The human nervous system is thought to be sensitive to response times as low as 10 – 20ms, with 50ms being the generally accepted threshold of responses seeming “instantaneous” to the online player. Most sources agree that latency of 80ms or lower is ideal, and that gameplay becomes tangibly frustrating somewhere between 150 – 200ms.

Xbox Live recommends a minimum of 3 Mbps bandwidth down (0.5 Mbps up), and a maximum lag of 150 ms. Microsoft admits that these numbers are a bottom-line minimum for a “certified” experience, and frankly anything above 150 ms will make you a multiplayer liability in a fast-paced game. Xbox Live, like many online services, dynamically adjusts server response times to compensate for different player latencies — which sounds nice, but what it actually means is that the entire team is forced to game at the speed of the player with the biggest lag. If everybody else is hopping with 50-80 ms and you jump on with 100-150ms, they’ll definitely notice the slowdown.

If you’re looking for a provider or Internet plan that will best serve your online multiplayer gaming needs, your best bet is to look at the minimum recommendations for the games that you want to play. Don’t worry too much about the download speeds, as you can always upgrade them, but as long as you can measure your connection in Megabits per second, your primary focus should be on latency. A bit of research and comparison with fellow players in your area will pay off in smooth frame rates, fluid communications, and uninterrupted fragging.

Photo: Steve Petrucelli

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