A Gamer’s Guide to Network Performance

Pew pew! Online gaming seems so straightforward: Fire up your favorite title, connect to the server, and off you go into a digital fantasy world to light up some dragons, shoot some counter-terrorists, or sail a pirate ship over the high seas. Play over your home network, though, and you may find that your trigger finger isn’t quite as quick as you thought. If you want to take your gaming experience to the next level, you need to pay attention to the connection between your network and the servers behind the games you love to play.

Why?

One word: latency. Ignore this factor, and you might as well have “loser” stamped on your forehead. Latency is the oft-cited number found in nearly every multiplayer-enhanced title. It’s the time it takes data to travel from your PC to an online server and back again. If you’re playing your favorite car racing game in time trial mode, latency is the time it takes for your car to make one trip around the track.

Low latency is good; lower is better. In some games, you have the option to choose which server you want to play on. In doing so, you’ll want to pick the one that offers the lowest latency with the highest number of opponents to play against (a common issue in first-person-shooter titles).

Of course, the choice isn’t always so straightforward. You might have low to medium latency on a given server, but still find that online games give you some difficulty — like when the gaming world completely freezes, but you’re still able to move your avatar.

This situation is commonly the result of "packet loss," which occurs when pieces of data are dropped as they travel between your system and the server. Packet loss can be sporadic, giving you the feeling that someone is intermittently pressing a fast-forward button during your gaming session. The result can be catastrophic, as in the aforementioned “frozen” scenario, which boosts your latency level through the roof.

Finally, there’s "jitter." This lesser-used measurement tracks the variance between successive pings. A ping is a little packet of data that bounces between your system and another connected system to measure latency. Successive ping tests can help you generate an overall measurement for jitter — the level of latency averaged over a given number of pings. The lower the jitter, the more consistent your connection is.

Ping, jitter, latency, packet loss — these are important concepts to master if you’re trying to achieve the best online gaming experience. And by that, I mean, “blow up your friends in new, interesting, uninterrupted ways.” Play on!

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