Online gaming is one of the most demanding activities that your Internet connection can experience. On a par with streaming video, gameplay is impacted by every possible step from you to the server. That’s not a big problem if you’re playing turn-based and / or low resolution games, but most of today’s games are fast-paced and graphics-intensive — and a troubled connection can spell doom for you and your teammates.
The Main Focus
The two most important ISP issues are bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth is the well-known “speed” rating that your ISP tempts you with. Try to get used to NOT thinking of bandwidth as speed, but as capacity (after all, we don’t call it “fastband”, we call it broadband). Bandwidth measures how much data can be sent “down the pipe” at once. The difference between a fiber ISP and cable / DSL is the difference between a fireman’s hose and a cocktail straw.
All things being equal, higher bandwidth is better. Cable networks can be subject to congestion when too many people are online at once. DSL is actually ADSL, and the A stands for “asynchronous”, meaning that your upload bandwidth is MUCH smaller than your download (and remember, gaming is a two-way street). Both types rely on copper wire, which is subject to electromagnetic disturbance, corrosion, and other kinds of signal degradation to which fiber is immune. And in all cases, there will be conditions that are almost completely out of your control, such as the number of junctions, nodes, and “hops” along the way.
Bandwidth is very important to gaming, especially where high-res graphics are concerned, but it’s not the whole story by a long shot. It’s very possible to get improved performance by switching from a higher-bandwidth ISP to a “cleaner” and more direct lower-bandwidth connection.
Latency’s Gaming Impact
Gamers depend just as much — maybe more — on latency. Unlike bandwidth, latency really is speed. It’s a measure of the delay that you experience between hitting a button and getting a response. More technically speaking (at least relatively), it’s the time that it takes for the signal to travel from your home to the server. It’s measured in milliseconds, but don’t be fooled — it doesn’t really take too many milliseconds before you start to “feel” a certain sluggishness in response. When it’s enough to affect gameplay for you and your teammates, it’s called “lag.” Typically, the weakest link in the lag chain slows down the experience for everyone around them — and you know what happens to the weakest link. Goodbye.
This latency is why satellite ISPs are virtually useless for gaming despite offering more than enough bandwidth. Each trip from you to the server has to travel an average of 70,000km (44,000 miles) from you to the satellite in orbit, back down to the ISP’s receiver, and from there to the game host server — and then back to you along the same route. And that’s not even counting the typically inefficient coaxial cable from your PC to the dish. Satellite ISP generally off at least 500 milliseconds of latency, which is at least half a second between pressing a button and getting the intended response. And at least another half a second before you hear the dismayed cries of your teammates.
It May Not Be Your ISP’s Fault
Before you point your finger at the ISP, examine your non-Internet connections. Traveling through your controls and into your PC, your gaming encounters bandwidth barriers and processing bottlenecks from the motherboard, CPU, GPU, storage drives, memory sticks, and the connections to your USB and Ethernet ports. Plus, the path to your modem and router, especially with a wireless network, can add unnecessary obstacles in getting the most from your Internet connection. And that’s not even considering the countless software and operating system variables.
Bottom line: before you begin to blame your ISP for poor gaming performance, make sure that your hardware and software is up to snuff. A thorough guide is beyond the scope of this article, but one extremely helpful resource that I’ve found is Tweak Guides.com, which has many helpful guides to game-specific as well as system-wide optimizations.
Satellite Versus Dial-Up
You’re actually better off with dial-up than you are with satellite. A good dial-up connection can offer an average of 150ms latency, which is frankly still horrible for gaming but can work under certain circumstances. There’s still a healthy contingent of online players who prefer games such as Ultima Online and the original EverQuest, not to mention less graphically-intensive games from the earlier days of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, what we old-timers used to call MMORPGSs). Newer casual games or turn-based games (such as Atlantica Online or the quirky Kingdom of Loathing) have no significant latency requirement, so dial-up or even satellite may be sufficient.
But for serious gameplay, you’ll be looking at broadband: cable, DSL, and fiber. Cable and DSL are, as usual, broadly comparable, both offering ideal-world latencies in the 10-20 millisecond range. For once, fiber doesn’t provide a clear benefit; latency in fiber is comparable to DSL and cable. “But doesn’t it travel at the speed of light?” you ask. Well, yes… but it also travels with a little less “concentration” or “focus” than electrical.signals over copper wire, due to the nature of light refraction within the fiber “wire.” Not to mention that a fiber signal usually has to jump to good old copper wire for that “last mile” to your PC.
Ask The Audience
My advice is to listen to the reviews and anecdotal experiences of others who have tried broadband solutions in your local area, which is why (shameless self-promotion to follow) a site like ours is so valuable.
I hate to take the easy way out, but there really is no substitute for personally trying the different ISPs in your area to see which one provides the best gaming experience. Between DSL, cable, and fiber, you’re certain to find the best combination of high bandwidth and low latency that will eliminate the lag, keeping you (and your teammates) playing at peak performance levels.