Grumpy Gamer: Gaming on a Bandwidth Budget
It's a fairly well-documented fact among the Ten Ton Hammer staff that I have a crappy internet connection. It's been a source of frustration and disappointment for a number of reasons, including this very moment, when I am downloading a very large game client.
This is kind of a "First World problem" - having any kind of internet access at all is essentially a privilege that not everyone is afforded. There are people in the world who are more worried about getting murdered in their sleep or procuring enough food to stave off death by starvation for just one more day than they are about looking at lolcats or tweeting about celebrities. Even here in the affluent west, there are folks who somehow manage to get by without the internet. I'm not entirely sure how they do it, but I think it has something to do with going outside more than once or twice a month and talking to people in person. That's not my bag.
I have internet access. It's just slow and unreliable. A 5-minute YouTube video could take 20 minutes to download. Or my connection might decide to drop out mid-download, the buffer stalls at the 50% mark and the second half never comes.
Anyhow, my crappy internet connection is something I am essentially powerless to fix. I have very limited selection where I live in rural Canada. It's a choice between this deliriously-unstable microwave wireless, which is sensitive to leaves, pollen, dust, moisture and solar radiation, meaning that there is no time of year that is exempt from frequent drop-outs and hamstrung download speeds... or dial-up. Some of you might remember dial-up internet. These days, it's the digital equivalent to banging two rocks together slowly. But it was not all that long ago that my gaming rig had a 56k modem in it and my on-board ethernet port was just for decoration. Any time I wanted to play online games, my computer sounded like a dubstep producer, and no one could phone in or out.
It's supposed to be a joke about the 90s, but this was a lot more recent for me.
It's now 2014 and my internet is still shitty because I have no options. Satellite is a "possibility," but technically so is starting my own telecom company. Either way, the startup cost is too high and my family can't afford it. I could go with a sweet 4G connection for super-fast downloads and a supposedly much more stable connection that doesn't drop out whenever a sparrow farts between my house and the transmitter tower, but 4G has some tight data restrictions that don't work for online gaming. Just try getting by on 10GB per month (for the most expensive residential package) as an online gaming journalist. A couple patches and you're done for the month.
It affects my MMO gaming constantly, and it is one of the main reasons why the Grumpy Gamer is so dadgum grumpy. Frequent drop-outs are one of the reasons I don't do a ton of group content in MMOs - it sucks dropping out in the middle of the last boss fight of a dungeon. You either cause the party to wipe, or they go on without you and you get no loot. It's a secondary reason why I loathe PvP - with latency this high, it doesn't matter how fast my reflexes are or how well I can circle-strafe. I cannot download stuff and play MMOs at the same time. I have to ask my sister to turn off her torrents while I'm gaming or doing my research. I usually only play late at night or very early in the morning when network traffic is really low, because prime time bandwidth congestion is frustrating as hell.
This snail-paced lag-fest has also affected my work many times. Internet gaming is very much an indoor activity one does at home, but I have missed interviews with developers because it was raining, and my internet connection gets all emo when it rains. The fine people at Turbine have been good enough to make special accommodations for my crippled internet when they want to demo their updates and expansions via streaming video - streaming video, to me, is usually a slide show with broken, meaningless snippets of disconnected dialogue, so the Turbine guys have worked with me to figure out a more primitive, low-bandwidth-friendly way of demoing their games. I still get the video slideshow, but I can hear what they are saying through Skype, which doesn't lag out and stutter. I always feel like a kid riding the short bus when I talk to them, but at least I am able to maintain good relations with them.
I spend more time looking at frozen goofy expressions and the little rotating buffering circle than I do watching the actual videos.
I'm about to give you all a peek inside the whirling cogs of the gaming press machine, so buckle in and keep your hands away from the moving parts so you don't lose a finger.
One of the perks of being a game writer is attending press beta events. Games are often under very strict non-disclosure agreements during the beta phase - they're still testing things out, so nothing is final and they don't want to give away any of their tech secrets and that sort of thing - but developers will occasionally stage media junkets, allowing members of the gaming press limited-time access to their games. We can then produce content that would otherwise break the non-disclosure agreement, giving fans who haven't seen the beta something to get excited about.
This sounds pretty great, but the developers work with very tight schedules, especially in the last few months of beta testing before the game goes live (which is when most press events take place, because the content is closest to being finished). That means they don't have time to give a lot of advanced notice when these beta events are about to occur. If the press beta event begins on Friday, we get an email about it on Wednesday (or sometimes Thursday, or that Friday morning), and we have a short window to download and install the game client before the event begins.
Less than 12 hours left in the beta weekend, with a gig and a half yet to go.
To this day, I have never yet seen a full beta event. It usually takes much more than a day and a half to download a gigantic game client, and then the several gigabytes' worth of patches after that. I am currently downloading an enormous game client - the largest one I've downloaded to date - for a beta event that will possibly be over by the time I get the client installed and patched. Usually I get a day or two out of the press events, but this time around I will get fewer than 12 hours out of the allotted 96-ish.
There have been times when I have been expected to have a beta client installed and patched and ready to go for in-game press demos, and have been unable to meet the deadline because of my wretched internet connection. It happened with Neverwinter last year - there was a big guided tour with the devs, and I missed out because the PR team sent out the invitations and download instructions in the morning, and I was still downloading the 3 GB client that afternoon when the tours started. The PR fact sheet assured me that the client could be downloaded in half an hour or so. Clearly, they had no idea what they were dealing with.
Three measly gigabytes seems like such a small, adorable little thing now. This current game client dwarfs it. I got the press beta event invitation on Wednesday and started downloading it that very night. As of this writing, it is now Monday morning and it's still going. It's almost done - down to the last couple of gigabytes of patching; should be done by the afternoon - but the hour groweth late, and the end of the beta event draweth ever nearer. In the meantime, I have to enforce a strict zero-torrent-tolerance policy in my household, can play no other online games that may need to download extensive patches, can stream no videos on YouTube or anywhere else, and must ensure that all of my auto-update features are turned off. Every step must be taken to conserve the precious bandwidth so I can milk every last juicy minute out of the press beta event. Copious amounts of coffee will be drunk in order that the fleeting remnants of the weekend not be wasted in useless sleep. It's a death-race against time itself, which will leave my body drained and broken. Just like every other beta client download.
Got a backwater rural internet connection you are forced to used for gaming? Let us know about your experiences in our comments!