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Game Smarter - Reducing lag when playing MMO's

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Greetings once again!

In my last article, I spoke about some of the big issues with connectivity that would typically affect your gaming experience – and this happening at the proverbial “last-mile”. Today, let’s look at international gaming and the challenges in getting around that hurdle.

If you play games such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, World of Tanks, Eve Online – basically just about any game qualifies that has the words “Massively Multiplayer Online” as part of its acronym, or MMO for short. This means your gaming network traffic is making the long journey from our fair shores and up along the coasts of Africa before re-joining the larger Internet in Europe. (There are other trunks that go to other locations, but like that one weird cousin everyone has or knows, no-one talks about them much…)

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Yup, the weird one...

In the Dark, Murky Depths...

There are several under-sea internet trunks leaving South Africa; the ones most people tend to be familiar with are SAT-3, WACS and SEACOM. All of these undersea trunks are managed by a consortium of businesses and governments that are serviced by these communication lines. While this is a fascinating subject in its own right, it is outside of the scope of this article. Suffice it to say – MWEB, I.S., MTN, Telkom and a variety of other providers rent a portion of the bandwidth of those cables (usually from a combination from both east and west coast cables for fail-over reasons), to get your data to Europe.

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Going up these cables is going to add a penalty of about 120-150 milliseconds to your traffic. on that hop alone. And before you ask: that’s about as good as it’s going to get, and no, that part of the journey  won’t go much faster – although there might be a few ways to help out with this. 

For the most part, the MWEB GameZone crowd work closely with the egg-heads at Optinet to identify and prioritize gaming traffic. Although not specifically a part of the gaming optimization process, one of the tricks that they (and some other service providers) have employed, is by using MPLS tunnelling. If you’ve heard of Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s), then this concept is similar, although on a much grander scale. A ‘tunnel’ is created, that, from your point of view, makes it look as if there is but a single jump between your traffic leaving the shores of South Africa and landing up in Europe. In reality, your traffic is really making a series of stops all the way up, but the tunnel that is established helps with the “overhead” that all these stops would add to the journey if the data weren’t put into a virtual tunnel. From a logical perspective, your data is making a single hop.

The advantage gained here is primarily around with how TCP network traffic works – part of its magic and charm is that, like a scared singer not wanting to stray too far from the side-walk, checks in with every packet to make sure it is where it’s supposed to be, and in the right order to be processed – it acknowledges all traffic in return. UDP traffic doesn’t have this issue; much like some guitarists out there breaking legs and keep going on regardless. UDP traffic, like that particular guitarist, lack the traffic management overhead and will be sent, and the sending and receiving applications don’t really care whether it arrives in- or out-of-order, or if at all…

Games that use TCP traffic as their primary method of transmitting data have the most to gain here - or lose, as it were. The reason why you’d want to use TCP traffic is that while the need to instantaneously get your traffic isn’t the games’ highest priority, but the need to ensure that the traffic does arrive, in a timely fashion, and exactly when it was sent or received. Usually your MMORPG’s will use TCP traffic – these games need to know when you cast your DoT (damage over time) spells, who gets what loot from drops, effects that are present on yours and others’ characters. This information has to be compiled and sent out and it has to be in the right order. If you have played a laggy session of World of Warcraft during a PvE session where it looks like you’ve stopped, and all of a sudden the game catches up, and it registers all the moves you did, all at once, this part of the joys of TCP traffic at work, making sure that the information sent and received between you and the game server cluster.

Another reason why TCP is usable and more desirable for games such as MMORPG's is due to the speed at which they process their information. I explained that FTPS and MOBA-type games such as Counter-strike, DoTA and others operate at a much higher rate than is typically required for an MMO. EVE Online's server tick is once a second. Games like Counter-Strike typically process information at 64 times a second or more.

If you excuse the guy’s colourful language, here is a video showing the effects of lag being compensated for with TCP network traffic (although the source of the lag in this case is more attributed to an over-worked game server; for illustrative purposes, the end-result of what you experience is the same).

What to do

Although it has generally not been needed as much with gaming traffic optimization as mentioned elsewhere, VPN tunnelling can be done to further improve your network performance. Third-party VPN providers like WTFast.com may be able to help. The ability to create VPN tunnels to a destination as close to your preferred games’ server as possible does have advantages. The basic idea is like previously described: Tunnelling reduces traffic overhead, and is generally most effective with games mostly using TCP traffic. UDP traffic does get a slight advantage as well, but nowhere near what TCP traffic potentially gets.

There is the old Leatrix Latency fix, which you can also try – this makes a system-wide change to your PC to alter the frequency that your PC responds to the acknowledgment of TCP packets being sent and received. While useful, it doesn’t work with all games – notably games that are UDP dependant.

Games Like World of Warcraft have their own internalized speed tweaks, and like the Leatrix fix, it has an optimization trick that can potentially reduce network game lag, at the cost of increased network traffic between your PC and the game server, by transmitting data in smaller packets, more frequently. On slower connections this can have an adverse effect, especially if your upload speed on your connection is small. You’ll have to play around yourself with these settings, depending on your line speed. Interestingly, I had just re-installed World of Warcraft, and found this setting was enabled…

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Oh Look at that! enabled by default, and why is my ping higher than first thought?

While applying fixes to the TCP segment of your network may not necessarily affect UDP traffic directly (which is used in games like World of Tanks and League of Legends), the high presence of TCP packets might be impacting traffic abnormally. If you’re playing games like World of Tanks or League of Legends which are UDP-traffic-intensive, and had the Leatrix fix enabled for WoW (which is TCP-intensive), that may be negatively impacting the UDP-based games (although it generally shouldn’t).

Doing some research in preparation for this article, I’ve also come across various articles describing disabling Windows’ network scaling heuristics, along with disabling TCP auto-tuning in later versions of Windows as a method of improving TCP networking traffic as a manner of regulating TCP to improve UDP network traffic, similar to the Leatrix issue described above.

I’ve not had the joy of being able to test this fix, but if any of you readers have had experience with this particular fix, please let us know in the comments section! I’ll be testing it out myself and reporting on this as soon as I am able to.

Conclusion

Optimizing gaming for traffic for overseas transfer isn't easy, and each game - or at least each category of game - has different methods with which you can approach and solve this challenge. Check through preferred communication lines with your games' vendor. Forums, friends and social media should be awash with tips and tricks which are too numerous and specific for this article. If you feel unsure about making some of the proposed changes you find this way, ask friends for help. Ask the guys at MWEB GameZone - they may have come across the problem before, and may have a solution for you!

Good luck, and remember to drop me a comment about PC tech-related articles you want me to write about.

Chocs:Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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