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Quarantine questions for the streaming future | Opinion

The games industry has pinned its future to fast broadband infrastructure -- but as the world self-isolates, the risks of those choices become clear

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an enormous degree of strain on a lot of global institutions and infrastructure -- most prominently healthcare, of course, but also various supply chains and anything related to supporting the lives of a large population suddenly forced to remain at home for an extended period, such as home delivery services and data networks.

The latter is an aspect that hasn't received much commentary -- understandably, of course, as digital communications and entertainment are a fair way up the modern-day equivalent of Maslow's Pyramid of Needs from things like hospital ventilators and grocery deliveries -- but it's one that's had a significant impact on the games industry specifically. With almost half the planet's population under some form of movement restriction at present, huge numbers have turned to the internet for communications, information and entertainment to an even greater extent than usual. The massive strain this has placed on internet infrastructure has resulted in slowdowns or restrictions being imposed on many major game services.

Huge numbers have turned to the internet for communications, information and entertainment to an even greater extent than usual

These restrictions -- the handful of official announcements we've seen on this topic from Sony, Microsoft and Valve, at least -- may just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the actual impact this is having on game consumers. It's not just games, of course; services like Netflix are throttling their feed quality as well, and these actions are really just an acknowledgement of reality.

A lot of consumers are experiencing for themselves exactly what happens when their local broadband infrastructure is put under pressure, regardless of any measures taken by streaming and digital distribution giants -- and in a great many places, it doesn't even need to be a lot of pressure. The rapid rise in bandwidth usage by ordinary households switching over to HD video streaming and game downloading in recent years has left many regions, even in wealthy developed countries, with broadband infrastructure that already struggles to keep up during periods of high demand.

Well, now we're in a period of high demand lasting not just for a few hours on the occasional damp evening or for the duration of a big sporting event, but for weeks, if not months. For almost everyone that means degraded quality in streaming video and slower game downloads -- realities that the companies concerned have acknowledged by throttling their services, in the hope of protecting the ability of the majority of consumers to at least access basic services like lower-definition video, or more connection-sensitive services like actual online gaming.

For quite a lot of us, unfortunately, such measures are merely band-aids on the gaping wound torn by the current demand through the creaking internet infrastructure of our countries or cities. As the world has moved inside and fired up their computers, smartphones and consoles to while away the hours of self-isolation, online games have become nigh-on unplayable and video streams unwatchable as heavily-contended broadband pipes are saturated beyond breaking point.

It's perhaps just as well that long-promised game streaming services have been so slow to get off the ground

It's perhaps just as well, then, that long-promised game streaming services -- which pledge, or threaten, to move all our gaming experiences into cloud data centres and serve them to us over these suddenly enfeebled broadband connections -- have been so slow to get off the ground. If a lot of consumers were relying primarily on services like Stadia, PlayStation Now or their ilk right now, this crisis would likely be a bolt in the brain for the nascent sector. The viability of such efforts may actually be rescued in the long term by simply not being popular enough yet for this situation to negatively impact very many consumers -- a curious silver lining to the otherwise entirely disappointing launch of services like Stadia.

Yet while streaming services may be the most obviously and heavily impacted of the industry's sectors by any event that drives an unmanageable surge in broadband traffic, there's a lot of the rest of the industry's offering that has increasingly taken for granted that consumers will be able to stream large amounts of data at high speeds. From increasingly enormous file downloads for digital distribution -- for both initial downloads and later patches -- via ubiquitous sharing tools for live or recorded video, through to the seamless integration of multiplayer aspects into single-player games, the core assumption of many of the industry's biggest games and services of the past decade is that players will have a fast, reliable broadband connection.

This is the caption for the image

This is the caption for the image

In the worst-case scenario, the industry has anticipated that players might be unable to access a fast connection temporarily -- while travelling, perhaps, or due to some unforeseen but short-lived situation. Few planning meetings for games or services have ever considered the possibility of a huge proportion of players being unable to access fast, reliable broadband for weeks or months on end.

All it's taken is an uptick in Zoom calls and Netflix streaming to bring the whole thing to its knees in many regions

This pandemic, of course, is a uniquely terrible situation -- and one we all sincerely hope not to experience again in our lifetimes -- but it should not be dismissed out of hand as an unforeseeable "black swan" event. This is also a stress test of a core assumption of the modern industry, and not only has it revealed how much slack there is available in consumer broadband services -- not much, if any -- it has also shown us how these systems will perform, or fail to perform, under future stress.

We will hopefully never again experience another pandemic on this scale or of this severity, but there will likely be many, many occasions in future which drive network traffic spikes lasting hours or days, some of which -- major sporting events -- can be planned for, while others -- extreme weather events etc -- cannot. There's a solid chance that a lot of the services the industry wants to offer in future are simply going to fall over under such circumstances, and even as technologies such as 5G promise to improve the technological foundations of modern connectivity, new services and higher demand from consumers are also accelerating in a way which makes any complacency about the ability of Internet infrastructure to keep up with such events deeply misplaced.

Should such outages become a regular occurrence, it's going to be pretty damaging to the industry in the long run. The perception that videogames and their associated services are not something consumers can reliably access in various circumstances is one that should be avoided if at all possible.

These are things that need to drive careful consideration among game creators and publishers. Internet infrastructure continues to develop rapidly, but it does so extremely unevenly and is rarely very far ahead of the curve in terms of how consumers want to use its capacity. Just how confident should we feel about any vision of the future which relies entirely on fast, reliable and stable broadband access for everything the games industry has to offer?

All it's taken in the past two weeks is an uptick in Zoom calls and Netflix streaming to bring the whole thing to its knees in many regions. That isn't a data point that should be easily dismissed as the industry takes stock after the current crisis ends, because it's one consumers will be thinking about too -- and it's likely to drive a significant change in their attitudes in the months and years to come.

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