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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Gaming platforms keep up with surge in traffic amid lockdown

Firms take steps to avoid congestion on home networks, offer seamless experience to gamers

On 15 March, several Microsoft Xbox Live users took to social media lamenting that they were unable to log-in to their Xbox consoles. The issue was fixed a couple of hours later. However, five days later, the service went down again with users experiencing issues in “Matchmaking", “Party Chat", and “Looking for Groups" sections within Xbox Live, the social part of Xbox.

As covid-19 spreads across the world, millions of people, who have been confined to their homes due to lockdowns enforced by governments, are turning to gaming. This sudden spike in time spent on gaming has caught such platforms unawares.

“Downloading a game through Steam Cloud is going to be very heavy," said Oliver Jones, co-founder, Bombay Play, a mobile gaming company. Steam is one of the largest game distribution services. “And then, there’s the amount of upload and download that happens throughout the course of a game. In online first person shooter (FPS) games, like PUBG (an online game), you are hitting the server a lot compared to a simple mobile game like Ludo where you just roll a dice."

It’s not just console or PC games that cause a surge in traffic. Around the same time that Microsoft was dealing with its issues, mobile gaming platform WinZO Games saw three-fold increase in gameplays and 30% spike in traffic. “We worked closely with the AWS team for the next few days to scale their servers until they were in a position to deal with the high concurrences on the platform," said Saumya Singh Rathore, co-founder, WinZO Games.

The entire gameplay and experience of playing a modern day AAA title that is frequently updated, or an online game like PUBG, which is constantly compiling and sending data to servers, depends on the capacity of the games’ servers to deal with such surges.

According to Akamai Technologies, gaming software downloads account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released. A software update for a modern game generates an amount of traffic roughly equal to 30,000 web pages. So multiple people in the same house trying to work, study, watch a movie or play an online game at the same time can put a lot of stress on any home’s internet bandwidth affecting everyone’s experience.

Content delivery network (CDN) providers like Akamai have deployed intelligent edge network architecture, which are designed to mitigate and minimize network congestion. To avoid congestion during peak times caused by growing demand for games, Akamai will be reducing downloads at peak times, allowing normal speeds only late at night.

The company is working with leading software and game distributors, including Microsoft and Sony, to deal with congestion during peak usage periods.

“As people look to gaming for entertainment and social connections, we’re seeing record engagement across Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Live, and Mixer. We’re actively monitoring usage and making temporary adjustments as needed to ensure the smoothest possible experience for our gamers," Dave McCarthy, corporate vice-president, Xbox Product Services, said in a press statement.

Steam is also undertaking measures to avoid congestion on home networks during the pandemic. Updates for games, which have not been played recently, are being scheduled for the next off-peak local time period. Only games played within the last three days will be updated immediately. Users can also choose to limit the amount of bandwidth that Steam can use when updating and downloading games. This will allow users to download games without slowing down home Wi-Fi networks for others. In an official Azure blog, Microsoft assured its users that it is actively monitoring performance on Xbox Live and usage trends to ensure services for gamers worldwide are optimized.

People who can buy premium games from libraries like Steam or Xbox Live, or who have a desktop or Xbox One console, are comparatively small in number. However, given the size of games on PCs or consoles, platforms like Steam and Xbox Live suddenly have a lot on their plate. Jones pointed out that most PC- or console-based platforms have never had to deal with such high volumes as what we see on mobile. In terms of volumes, mobile gaming far outstrips console or PC with over 100x more volume. “The period we are going through is similar to the surge when Jio came and everyone had free data plans. Many of the mobile gaming platforms who weathered that storm are prepared for it, perhaps more so in India because we know what volume really looks like," added Jones.

While there is no denying that both PC/console and mobile gaming platforms are facing an unprecedented situation, this is also a make or break time for many gaming platforms. In emerging markets like India, where volumes are high and revenues are low, the challenge is even bigger.

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