Remember the days when playing video games consisted of plugging in your Nintendo to your TV, then spending the next ten minutes trying to figure out where to plug in those color-coordinated plugs? Figuring out why the colors never seemed to match up with the inputs on the TV was often a game in and of itself. That time has passed. The Internet made it possible for a whole new era of gaming to emerge, and it’s changed the entire video game landscape. 1. The Shift From Solo to Multiplayer Before Dragon Age there was Donkey Kong. Generation X spent hours trying to maneuver Mario up the ladders and over rolling barrels in an effort to save the princess from that nefarious ape. It was a solo mission, and the only way to win was to keep at it until you found the right strategy. The Internet enabled gamers to team up with other players from all over the world for an enhanced game-play experience. Instead of going on these quests alone, these virtual friends can help you in battle or talk you through conquering a level. The online era made gaming a social experience with more than the other gamer down the street. 2. Mods and Patches The Internet also brought coders and gamers the opportunity to expand their gameplay experiences. Gamers skilled in coding can now insert modifications (or mods) into games, allowing them to create their own unique characters, weapons, or quests. These skilled gamers can also fix glitches and bugs the creators of certain games might have missed. Gamers today are able to alter entire storylines both on the PC and through systems, like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox Live. You don’t like a certain character design and would rather come up with your own? That’s fine, just create it or find someone savvy enough to do it for you. If you’re tired of Mario always saving the day, switch him out yourself and play as Toad. 3. In-Game Sales Online gaming took off quickly and companies like Square-Enix and BioWare began to insert what are known as microtransactions into their games. Microtransactions are additions available for in-game purchase, like extra levels, special weapons or, horse armor. Gaming companies found ways to stick microtransactions into just about every game out there. Some gamers argue these transactions are blatant attempts at garnering more money, which can be frustrating when you’ve already paid for the game itself, but rarely are you required to make an added purchase to finish a game. Fans of Angry Birds might recognize microtransactions as those pesky pop-ups telling you to buy more lives, which leave you wondering if it’s the birds that are supposed to be angry or the players. 4. Mobile Gaming Speaking of those dastardly birds, they wouldn’t be flying very high without the advent of mobile gaming. When the Internet came to mobile phones, it brought with it a new way to spend our time, all in the form of gaming apps. Suddenly, everyone is gaming. It’s not something with a stigma of being just for nerdy guys hiding out in their mothers’ basements, but now for everyone with a little time to kill, wherever they are. Mobile games opened the gaming world up to a wider audience and even allowed anyone with coding ability to become a game developer. 5. Piracy and Hacks All of this led to some pretty great stuff but of course have to come in and spoil it. With so many people involved in the world of gaming, some have taken it upon themselves to begin hacking into online gaming environments and stealing people’s personal information. Thanks to microtransactions and mobile gaming, people’s credit cards and private info are available for hackers to get through games. This takes what used to be a fun experience at home in front of the TV now poses quite a few privacy and financial risks for those involved. Gaming is also susceptible to people who just like to mess with your head. The recent attacks on PlayStation 4 and Xbox Live systems show how easily it is to interrupt the gaming experience now that it’s online. Hackers can simply go in and overload the systems so players can no longer access their games because many of them are no longer available without an Internet connection. So is it Better or Worse? It’s safe to say that gaming has become a better all-around experience. Since the Internet allowed gaming to go global, it’s become a way to gain more social interaction from the comfort of your home and allowed many people to let their imaginations soar. The Internet enables more people to bring their skills and creativity to the table rather than just the video game companies. Of course, there’s still something to be said for going outside and using your imagination face-to-face too. Photo Credit: Mack Male/Flikr With the release of PlayStation TV, PlayStation carves out a unique position for themselves in the streaming market. Could this new market distract PlayStation from its focus on gamers? Recently, at E3, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. President and Group CEO, Andrew House, stated PlayStation’s vision remains focused on gaming. “Our vision is grounded in an uncompromising commitment to gamers that insures PlayStation is, above all else, the best place to play,” House said. The release of PlayStation TV seems to be at the very least expanding that vision if not redirecting it. The name PlayStation TV itself suggest the device is for streaming TV shows. Sony has thousands of titles available to stream using this system and the advertised price for PlayStation TV is only $99 as opposed to the $400–$500 range for a PlayStation 4. With the price and selection PlayStation TV is sure to have a broad appeal for the streaming ability alone, plus gamers can use it to play old games without compatibility issues. Although PlayStation TV can be used on its own to stream some PS, PS2, and PS3 games from the PlayStation Now catalogue, or in conjunction with your PlayStation 4 to play games from your main console on a different television, comments from the Editor-in-chief of Joystiq.com, Ludwig Kietzmann, suggest we should look at PS TV as a streaming device you can use to play games instead of a gaming device on which you can stream videos. “PlayStation TV is an interesting device in the same category as the Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV, but I wonder if consumers will take advantage of it fully,”Kietzmann told highspeedinternet.com. “For someone who wants a cheap streaming box and wants to dabble in the occasional PS3 game—which they’ll be able to rent and stream through PlayStation Now and play with a decent controller—the PlayStation TV might have an edge over competitors in the same space.” Looking at PlayStation TV as a streaming device with gaming as a secondary function may give it an advantage over other streaming devices, but seems to contradict PlayStation’s game-focused message. So, why isn’t PlayStation getting the same type of backlash from gamers Xbox got when it tried moving into the multi-platform arena? Editor-in-chief of kotaku.com, Stephen Totilo, told us it goes back to the marketing message from the PlayStation 4. “I don’t know of many gamers who dislike when their consoles can play movies or music. I just constantly hear that gaming is the thing they most want their consoles to excel at,” Totilo said. “Sony has shown, from the get-go, that the PS4 will be a gaming-first machine, and that has spared them a lot of backlash. Microsoft designed the Xbox One to do a lot with TV programming—everything from letting a cable box plug into the console to letting you do picture-in-picture displays of your cable feed while playing a game. All that is pretty cool, but Microsoft’s choice to focus on that when they revealed the Xbox One, all the while announcing some gaming policies that seemed to interfere with how gamers wanted to access their next-gen games, was what gave them a lot of aggravation. Microsoft is finally recovering from that, happily. Sony hasn’t had to dig itself out of that kind of hole.” Kietzmann agrees with Totilo. “The difference between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One isn’t as tremendous as it seems, but this stems from how the systems were announced. Microsoft positioned their hardware as a home for TV, games and sports right away, making it an inexorable part of that system’s identity. But players thought they were being asked to pay extra for that functionality in a $500 system. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 also has music, movies and TV, but with much less emphasis from the executives. There’s less backlash in the case of PlayStation because Sony is always sure to shout GAMING just a bit louder than anything else.” PlayStation may be shouting “gaming,” but their actions are sending mixed messages. Following in the footsteps of Netflix, PlayStation has already begun production on an original streaming series, Powers, that will be available exclusively on PlayStation Now. Although more original series may follow, Totilo thinks this is just Sony being Sony. “Powers is a pretty good comic book series and has a shot at being a pretty good show, so I think that specific project has a good chance at being worth everyone’s time,” Totilo said. “I don’t think this is a big change of pace for a company that in the previous generation also tried to bring some of Sony Entertainment to Sony PlayStation. I just think that what they’re doing now is smarter than, say, using the Spider-Man movie font on the PS3.” Kietzmann says Powers in particular will work because it could appeal to gamers. “A serial drama drawing from graphic novels and superheroes does seem like a good fit for what they presume are the interests of the gaming audience, so trotting that out as an exclusive is a good idea—in theory.” Gamers seem to have no problems with PlayStation expanding its presence in the streaming realm as long as gaming remains the focus. But while PlayStation talks about gaming, it continues to expand its scope.  Kietzmann says that’s just good business. “Sony is sure to leverage the content it has with its TV and movie studios—they’re making those products anyway, so why not use them to leverage the PlayStation brand? Sony as a business has taken several steps over the years to make its fractured departs more coherent, and popular entertainment is a connective tissue between the PlayStation platform, their televisions, phones and creative studios.” With Sony’s wise decision to emphasize the gaming aspect of the PS4, it seemingly has the freedom to experiment with other platforms without upsetting the gamer community. The association between PlayStation and gaming is so ingrained that Sony is able to pass off a streaming device, PlayStation TV, as a gaming console. Do you think PlayStation is straying too far from gamers? Let us know in the comments. PlayStation recommends 5Mbps minimum bandwidth for its streaming content to work comfortably. Is your Internet fast enough? [zipfinder]
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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 Find John on Google+
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