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How to Game Smart - Understanding Lag to Reduce Lag

Editor's Note: Welcome to "How to Game Smart," a brand new series on MWEB GameZone. Reinhard "Choc_Salties" Rheeder-Kleist, the man who was in charge of all MWEB's 200+ gaming servers, will guide you through the finer nuances on how to game smarter. He'll cover topics like how to reduce lag, tweaking your rig and any topic you would like him to cover. So drop us a comment! We're aiming at publishing at least two articles per month, and we hope it adds value to your gaming experience. On a side note, Chocs is obsessed with My Little Pony, so in case any strange references creep in, just smile and read on. Enjoy your first guide

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Greetings fellow Gamers!

Whether you’ve played Counter-Strike, Doom, Tribes, World of Warcraft, Dota, Halo, Call of Duty, or any number of other games too numerous to list here - at some point in time, you’ve had an interruption that ended your gaming session. It could be any number of factors; a bug in the game you’re playing, network traffic issues, or your computer having difficulty presenting the game to you in a manner that effectively suspends disbelief and pulls you - forcibly and jarringly, out of the game world, back into your world.

Today, we’re going to look at the basics of network traffic in multiplayer games. How it functions, where problems can arise, and how you can minimize or prevent these issues from affecting you getting your game on.

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We've all felt like this guy, from time to time...

Game Architecture

For the most part, multiplayer computer games work in the same manner as other computer systems that have extensive user input and output. There is a central “server” computer which is then connected to a number of “client” computers. This server computer will present a set of information to the various clients connected to it the specific session. Those client computers and users will receive that information, act on it, and send it back to the server. The server will then take the combined information from the users, collate and sort it, create a new set of information based on the input from the previous session and pipe it back out to the clients for them to act on and send back again, repeating the basic cycle.

To make the previous paragraph less dry-sounding and DUST-y (see what I did there?), let’s put this into a practical example: Counter-strike.

 

The server is, well, the server you connect to when you want to play your session:

  • The session (or instance) is the map you’re currently playing, be it Dust2, cs_italy, de_cbble, or any other map, and the scores of you and other players playing that set of rounds (using Counter-strike: Global Offensive as an example).
  • The client is your computer that has a copy of Counter-strike running that visually represents your movement vector, weapon fire spread, co-ordinates calculated based on your movement, projectile type and combined with any other objects located in the game’s universe. To both computers, they’re just sending a bunch of numbers in an agreed method – you as the player are trying to bunny-hop through double-doors while no-scoping - with an AWP - some chump after you’ve flash-banged him, to try and land that achievement.
  • And, this is all happening typically about 64 times a second… For everyone… and the server is receiving your data 64 times a second as well as everyone else, putting it all together, and sending it out again to everyone.

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I play, I never said I was good at it...

Network Traffic Types

Network traffic types for gaming, Like most other types of network traffic, uses two distinct types of data, called packets. The big differences between these two is how they are transmitted and how they are expected to arrive at their destination: TCP and UDP packets.

Disclaimer: to the network buffs out there – yes - I’m grossly over-simplifying this; we’re mainly interested in the transport layer of the OSI model for the purposes of illustration.

TCP network traffic (Transmission Control Protocol) can broadly be described as working like registered mail – it gets sent, and it gets logged and acknowledged when it was been received at its destination, and put in the correct order before being acted upon. This type of network traffic mainly used in setting up games like your first-person shooter sessions, or in games that require to make sure that the data is being transmitted in the right order, and no mismatch or loss can be afforded. Typically, MMO-type games use this traffic extensively or any other networked multiplayer game where either a lot of data has to be processed correctly and in order.

The other significant type of traffic used is called User Datagram Protocol, or UDP for short. This type of traffic differs from TCP, mainly in the fact that there is no real checking that the packets of data being sent are being received in the right order, or whether they arrived at all. UDP packets are typically much smaller in size than TCP packets and require less bandwidth. A good real-world example of UDP traffic other than being used extensively in FPS-type games, would be in streaming media, or SIP-type traffic, like Skype voice calls or YouTube videos – the data might be fragmented but it doesn’t significantly detract from the experience of either sending or receiving this data. As a user, you’d experience it like a scratchy-sounding Skype call, or a YouTube video where there may be a slight colour shearing for a split second – there was a brief loss of information, but between the data stream and your brain, you compensated for this lack of data, and moved on.

Real world example – capturing network traffic

I hopped onto a server and connected as a spectator just to view the bulk of the traffic between myself and the server, and used a wonderful tool called Wireshark to capture a copy of the data being transmitted between my computer and the target server. Here we have some fascinating info to see, and can come in useful later if needing to diagnose issues with your gaming session if lag is a problem in your gameplay.

 


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Looks boring but it 's VERY useful for the eggheads!

While looking at this traffic info is a bit on the boring side, and tends to be more of an academic exercise, it is very useful for the egg-heads in the networking department that can help optimise gaming traffic. This data is useful for them and if there is a new game that they haven’t analysed yet, this could be very helpful for them in starting the optimization process! The process can start with YOU!

Analyzing where your gaming traffic might be going astray

Most issues with getting “lag”- as it is related to networking in your game, can usually be attributed to the aptly-named “last mile” portion of your internet connection – getting from your ISP, to you. Let’s have a look at some of the factors that can affect this. This following section can hopefully help you identify where a potential problem might be. It is by no means an exhaustive diagnosis, but could definitely narrow down any troubleshooting that may need to be done to resolve your gaming lag.

Something to consider when trying to diagnose a problem with gaming network issues - ensure that your PC is the only device using the Internet. This can potentially help or immediately alleviate lag issues, if the rest of the family is always using Facebook or streaming stuff from YouTube to the Chromecast device, especially on slower lines. Also, try and ensure that you’re using a wired connection to your ADSL router; wireless connectivity can add extra overhead depending on signal strength, distance to the router, and interference because of walls, trees, dogs, spooky aliens, etc. Finally – close all other programs you don’t need running in the background, as examples: Google Drive, Skydrive, Evernote, Facebook, web browsers – everything. Try to get your PC as lean as possible so that only your most important app is running – in my case, Counter-strike: Global Offensive…

Let’s look at a fairly healthy connection profile, using an MWEB ADSL account as well as one of their branded routers, and performing a trace-route to a game server in Cape Town and in Johannesburg (with me being in Cape Town). I’m also going to be making an assumption that you’re using a “normally configured” ADSL device that is configured as a router, rather than a bridge or mixed-mode bridge (this could also be referred to RFC1483, or RFC 2684 in some cases).

 

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Do the trace-route

Performing a trace-route interrogates each device that your traffic is being piped through to get to its final destination, for how long it takes to get a chunk of network traffic from your PC to it and back again at each step along the way. In the examples shown, you’ll see that there are timeouts on the requests, especially in the later hops. This can be considered a normal occurrence, due to some network providers disabling Internet routers ICMP echo request or ability to be “pinged”. Think of this as playing Marco Polo in the pool – when someone you’re getting close to stops responding, they’re either not there (anymore), or you’re right on top of them. Also, like Marco Polo, you’ll need to perform the trace-route repeatedly and also at different times of the day to get a good indication of your Internet connections’ state of health.

The first entry is your ADSL router which should have a response time of 1 or 2 milliseconds or 1 - 2ms. If this response time is either not responding at all or has a response time of more than 20ms, then either your router is not configured for internal ping (unlikely) or the device is either faulty or under incredible stress (possibly lots of data might be going across it, not necessarily to / from the Internet. Make sure your gaming rig is the only thing connected to it, unplug everything else, disable wireless access (if you can) and try again.

The second entry is your ADSL router’s connection to the local Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer – or DSLAM for short. This is the largest segment where things can potentially go wrong. One quick (but not very accurate) way to see of all is in order, is to simply listen: if you have a “normal” telephone handset, plug it in to the phone line that the ADSL router is using and listen to the dialtone. If you would hear what sounds like a scratchy noise interspersed with your dialtone, then one or a combination of the following could be at fault:

POTS Filters – devices that filter out noise from other devices that could be sharing your ADSL Line. These filters have to be fitted in-line between themselves and the telephone jack. Make sure to unplug every other telephonic device from the ADSL line and listen again. If your tests improve after removing other devices (handsets, older fax machines, card payment processing machines) chances are these devices either need their POTS filters replaced, or get them their own dedicated phone line. You can generally get POTS filter replacements from either your local Telkom shop, larger grocers stock them (Pick ’n Pay or Checkers, if they have an electrical section), or just about any computer shop should stock replacements; and they are inexpensive.

If all else fails check this

If everything else has been disconnected and you’re still hearing noises, then there may be a problem with your phone line’s connection within the household that you may not necessarily be able to see. Corrosion inside the house (especially older household’s lines that were installed years ago) or other d
amage that may be allowing water into a connection box on the proverbial telephone pole outside might be causing interference. If you suspect this, then Telkom has to get involved, call (10217 or ) if you’re line isn’t managed by MWEB, otherwise call MWEB’s technical support number and they can arrange Telkom to investigate on your behalf.


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OK, maybe not something this old, preferably something that uses PSTN...

If you still don’t see or hear anything obvious, you can ask the friendly guys at MWEB technical support (Or your own ISP’s helpdesk) to do an attenuation and signal-to-noise test on your line on your behalf. Some models of ADSL routers can perform this test as well, but they don’t tend to be as accurate as the tools available at your ISP.

Or tune it down

Lastly – and this one sounds counter-intuitive – if all else has failed and you’re still getting poor response on that second hope, consider asking Telkom or your ISP to have your line synchronise at a lower speed. Although when initially applying for your DSL line, you are given an estimate of the maximum speed that your line can handle, but actual distance from the DSLAM to your premises at the extremes can cause connectivity issues.

Finally, we get to the third hop – the connection between your DSLAM and your ISP. If you’re getting wild readings at this point, you’re generally dealing with saturation at your DSLAM. This is usually caused by oversubscription – too many ADSL users going through a single DSLAM, or usually more accurately too much data.

Remember on the ADSL adverts, the fine print always talks about ADSL being a “best effort service”? This is where that condition comes into play. You, and however many other people that are connected to that DSLAM are being shoved down a single pipe before being carted off to your ISP’s network to get to the Internet after that. Here, things like heavy downloading, torrenting or other file-sharing systems that generally use large packets and with little regard to quality-of-service can edge your game traffic out, and brutally shove it aside.

 

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Troubleshooting this section is very difficult and tends to be nebulous. One of the methods to deal with this would be to move to another DSLAM, but this may not always be possible as there aren’t more in the region, or the DSLAM could/would/might be getting an upgrade, but this generally falls within the purview of Telkom when / if they get around to it. Testing saturation is best achieved by doing trace-routes to your gaming server at different parts of the day. Results could vary wildly: at 17:00-21:00 (peak times when people get home and start doing their “thing”; after midnight till 06:00, many people would turn on their downloading programs, since they’re going to sleep, and their machines can do the heavy lifting for them. Testing again during the day on a working day should provide the “best” results…

What it all means

When this is all said and done, a trace-route to my final destination yields in this case a result of about 11ms, which is acceptable for Cape Town –to- Cape Town traffic. This can climb to about 50-70ms when communicating with a server in Johannesburg. If you’re unsure as to what you be getting, speak with friends or colleagues who are in a geographically similar location (preferably the same suburb, or even closer) and see what their speeds are. In-game, you will get a ping speed to your server; most will provide this info with requesting a game server status, and even though it won’t display what happens in-between like with a trace-route, but it gives you a good indication of what you SHOULD be getting. Most games do have some sort of ping indicator, and when combined with Wireshark earlier as well as making sure no other applications are running on your PC, the Wireshark network traffic capture report will tell you where the data is going to and from. Armed with this information, you can perform a trace-route and see what’s going on.

Final thoughts

Speak to your ISP if you have concerns – they are there to help you and to help ensure that your Internet experience is as good as it can be, and we gamers can be a demanding bunch!

If you’re having troubles, look at and try some of these suggestions. Ask your ISP, check their social media channels, there are plenty of ways to bring your issue to their attention so that it can get resolved.

Next week, I’ll be looking at international games, their servers and services, and what type of traffic results to expect when playing them – your MMO’s, the big F2P games and the like.

If you have any suggestions, comments or criticism about this or next weeks subject matter, feel free to hit me up in the comments below or on the social media sections!

 

Other useful articles you should read

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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