Gaming QoE: Fit For Purpose?

15th February, 2017 by

There’s no doubt that the principles of streaming have revolutionized modern entertainment. No longer is it necessary to wait patiently for an appointed hour to watch a particular program; no longer are games passive experiences played offline in isolation. Cloud-hosting pioneers like Netflix and Steam have introduced streaming into modern media consumption, and our lives are undoubtedly richer for it.


Quality Of Experience: Patchy Isn’t Good Enough

Unfortunately, these expanding and competing leisure forms are all being piped down communications infrastructure that is patchy at best, and downright inadequate at worst. Even though the average American broadband speed hit the 50 megabits per second threshold last year, the 20% annual growth in data volumes is causing major headaches for providers and consumers alike. The dreaded buffer wheel remains an ever-present danger, and it’s often unclear who is actually responsible for the lag and delays that can ruin online gaming experiences.

How To Quantify QoE?

In this challenging climate, where consumer demand often outstrips bandwidth supply at peak times, quality of experience is becoming a hot topic. Better known as QoE, it attempts to quantify the highly subjective issue of whether a service is fit for purpose and acceptable to individual end users. That involves much more than a simple speed test to establish whether a particular game is compatible with someone’s line speed – a crude snapshot of upload and download speeds could be inaccurate an hour later. Instead, QoE involves measuring factors like the number of times a game has to rebuffer, the average bitrate per second, and whether audio and video streams remain synchronized. By comprehensively analyzing packet loss and latency, this provides a detailed overview of network robustness.

QoE streaming will have a major impact on the gaming industry in 2017, because it represents a key way to differentiate rival offerings. Mobile gaming is hugely outperforming PC and console gaming, while streaming has become commonplace on devices from tablets to laptops. Today, games are often purchased on the basis of average customer ratings, but it’s not hard to foresee a time when a QoE mathematical formula is used as an alternative to conventional reviews – or even published alongside them.

Electronics giant, Huawei, announced late last year that they had refined the time-honored Mean Opinion Score, for evaluating mobile gaming in terms of its loading times and streaming performance. Huawei’s attempts to standardize the nebulous concept of a quality gaming experience are welcome, though the precise computational formula involved may need some refining. It also fails to take into account the price paid for a particular title – empirical evidence suggests players are more likely to tolerate software glitches or issues if the title was free rather than paid for.

Does QoE Limit Game Developers?

To minimize the risk of an online game being badly received, there has been a tendency among developers to rein in the technical attributes of new titles and avoid overburdening our creaking telecommunications infrastructure. The focus on QoE is likely to perpetuate this throughout 2017, since most multiplayer titles are effectively ruined by lag greater than one second. That will continue to focus programmers’ attentions on playability and difficulty curves, rather than millimeter-perfect collision detection or the realistic depiction of moving fluids. Until 5G arrives in the next decade, expect this focus on playability over visual drama to be continued throughout the gaming industry.

Of course, the degree of latency experienced by gamers can be due to factors outside of a developer or host platform’s control. These can include wider network congestion, other devices competing for available domestic bandwidth, or interference from wireless devices like baby monitors. Consumers should be made aware of these external factors whenever they sign up or log into an online game, and it’s advisable to advertise minimum connection speeds below those actually necessary to minimize the risk of consumers being unable to play a particular game online.

In an attempt to prevent buffering or latency issues being blamed on the wrong things, the FCC and Europe’s equivalent organization recently issued QoE guidance to ISPs and telco operators. These requests for information on latency and packet loss prevalence may become compulsory in future, as societies grow ever-more dependent on broadband connections. In turn, this would allow games developers to create titles with confidence that network issues beyond their control won’t result in low quality of experience ratings among gamers…