5G infrastructure presents a number of solutions to improve the quality of experience of the gaming market.
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Transforming The Market Opportunity for Cloud Gaming
Investment in 5G infrastructure is building as the number of 5G deployments ramps up past 150 trialed or commercial installations by the end of March 2021. There is considerable expectation that 5G could enable a 10 to 20 Gbit/s download experience for mobile users, as well as support a range of enterprise services such as smart manufacturing, smart mining & exploration, and smart retail services, as mobile operators are hankering for the opportunity to expand the mobility experience for their consumers.
Cloud-based gaming, that could potentially leverage not just 5G but also edge computing, is being promoted as a potential lucrative revenue opportunity for mobile telecoms. ABI Research estimates the online video and gaming markets generated US$ 330 billion in revenue, but how easy is it for a mobile operator to “spin” up cloud-based gaming?
Latency is the Bottleneck
The cloud gaming experience is shaped by:
- Traffic Characteristics: The amount of bandwidth utilized in a game session. This includes payload size and packet rate (DL and UL).
- Graphics Quality: The quality of the images/videos streamed over the network is especially important for the Quality of Experience (QoE) for the user.
- Latency: It can be defined as the response time of a system, and it is the net sum of all the underlying latencies incurred by different components. Latency can stem from a variety of sources. For example, within a gaming computer rig: a) HDMI Transfer (16 – 33 ms); b) monitor Refresh Rate (4 – 16 ms); and c) USB Polls for Peripherals (i.e., gaming controller, 8 ms). To perform a local gaming render on a console is around 35 to 40 ms. However, fetching data from a data center can incur 100 ms to 500 ms in potential latency. Many gaming platforms reduce this networking latency by establishing regional and/or country level hubs for gaming content delivery. For example, Tencent operates 33 data centers, 14 of which are outside of China.
Game graphics will continue to evolve as games ratchet up from 1080p (High Definition) to 4K and beyond, but Microsoft’s Xbox Live currently requires a minimum of 4.75 Mbit/s or 9 Mbit/s or more for an optimal experience. While 4G LTE could handle those data throughput scenarios, it is evident that latency could have a more substantial impact on the gaming experience. Microsoft’s Xbox Live stipulates a required maximum of 125 ms and an optimal experience of 60 ms or less. The impact of latency will vary depending on the type of game being played. Real Time Strategy games can tolerate a languid 1,000 ms but for a First-Person Shooter game, anything over 100 ms could have a material impact on their enjoyment of the game. Role Playing Games have a bit more leeway, with 500 ms. Remember that QoE has to factor in the end to end latency. Some latencies cannot be improved on, but networking and compute latency can be reduced.
5G, with its augmented bandwidth, network slicing strategies, and the promise of edge computing, does provide an opportunity of bringing down the network-side latency to 2 to 3 ms. Therefore, 5G could transform the cloud gaming experience by bringing the gaming compute function (used for tracking the position of the end-user’s avatar, executing end user gaming instructions, and rendering the video feed) closer to the end-user. However, the challenge with gaming is that most multi-player games are “regional”, if not “global”, in reach. Ensuring a level playing field regarding latency will improve the gaming end-user’s satisfaction and their long-term retention.
Federating Edge Computing for Regional Market Opportunities
Therefore, mobile operators not only need to bring edge computing closer to their customers but also, just as crucially, collaborate with other operators where their customers may also be on the same gaming platform. As a result, there is growing interest in not just “edge computing” but in “federated edge computing”. A prominent example of this was demonstrated in the March 2021 Proof of Concept (PoC) announcement by Singtel, SK Telecom, and the Bridge Alliance. The Bridge Alliance’s Federated Edge Hub helped the operators to rapidly integrate their respective edge platforms and provide a one-stop-shop for on-demand edge compute services within each of their markets. At the PoC, SKT and Singtel, with the support of a game streaming provider, GameGrid, streamed World of Warships, an online multi-player game that is popular across Asia. The Bridge Alliance has a second phase that will involve AIS in Thailand and Optus in Australia.
A new service or technology will only succeed in the market if it solves “real world” problems. As the infrastructure vendors, software developers and mobile operators iterate their 5G solutions and PoC scenarios, we are starting to see use-cases that do solve a real world “need”. 5G connectivity and edge computing could radically transform the cloud gaming experience from one where you really needed dedicated hardware (i.e., a PlayStation 5) and a fiber-optic connection to one that just requires a 5G-connected device (PC, laptop, or tablet) that can be adopted by any person on the planet.