Sunday Thoughts: Multiplayer Lag

I love competitive multiplayer games. I’ve yet to put my finger on exactly what it is but there’s just something unexplainably awesome about going head to head with other human opponents around the globe while enjoying my biggest hobby. Maybe it’s the competitive nature I have, or maybe I just like to gauge my skills against other players but for me, multiplayer gaming is an experience like no other.

Like most gamers, I play to have a good time but my enjoyment in multiplayer primarily relies upon the success that I have while playing. When it just doesn’t feel like it’s going right, it can be a very frustrating experience. I tell you this so you’ll hopefully understand where I’m coming from when I confess to breaking multiple controllers over the past decade. Why would I do that? Because sometimes, multiplayer games just aren’t fair.

When I say unfair, I don’t mean that someone is using a weapon that is too powerful or that some aspect of the game is being abused. Granted, that stuff happens but I mean the game is quite literally, unfair. Anyone who has played a Call of Duty game online (specifically Black Ops) probably knows what I’m talking about. Let me walk you through a scenario that I see happen all too often.


I’m hauling ass around a corner with my favorite firearm in hand. Low and behold, an enemy appears in front of me. I aim down the sites of my gun and reign down hell fire on him. I see the barrel of my gun pointing straight at his chest. I fire off a solid 5-6 rounds, yet the hit detector doesn’t go off a single time. In the time it takes to do this, he realizes I’m there, turns and pounces on me without so much as a scratch on his camouflaged face. Controller-breaking rage, initiated.

This doesn’t happen all the time and sometimes I’m even the recipient of kills that I know I shouldn’t have been able to collect, but it still pisses me off to no end. For most players, I think the most frustrating part about that kind of scenario is not understanding why that occasionally happens. Last week, a video hit the web that inspired this piece. A YouTube user by the name of ‘WhaleMasher’ posted a video online in an attempt to explain what lag really is and how if affects your ability to play against other users.

This kind of lag is more prevalent in games that use a ‘peer to peer’ connection (or P2P). P2P means that an individual person that is participating in the game is hosting the match, rather than a server. When an individual is hosting a game, the information packet of you firing a bullet has to travel all the way to his network and back. Granted, with internet speeds being what they are these days, this may only take a quarter of a second (or less) but when playing on a live battlefield, that quarter of a second is the definitive difference between life and death.

The game used for this demonstration is the multiplayer juggernaut, Call of Duty: Black Ops, which uses a P2P connection. Essentially, the video walks you through a handful of kills from the perspective of both the host of the game, and another player that’s not hosting. You can clearly see that what’s happening on both screens is different. Traditionally, the person that is hosting sees everything just a bit before everyone else does, meaning that this person will likely have an unfair advantage over any player that they come across.

Treyarch has taken steps to try and ensure that this kind of lag is compensated on both ends in an attempt to make things as equal as possible but as we saw from the video, that doesn’t always happen just the way it should.

This leads us to the next step in this discussion; server-based games. In my highly uneducated opinion, server based games are the way to go for competitive multiplayer. They’re designed to be even and provide the most consistent experience possible. Sure, your connection still has to communicate back and forth with another network but in theory, everyone has a similar distance to travel which should make for a level playing field.

But that’s just the beginning of the benefits that servers provide. In most cases, a server based game is easier to balance because the developers have complete control over the servers that are hosting the games. Not to mention that servers can handle huge amounts of players, where as the max for a good P2P connection usually caps at around 16-18.

Also, if one player is lagging on a P2P connection, it has the chance to affect everyone in the room. When you’re playing on a server, it will likely only affect the one player, and maybe anyone else that he happens to stumble across. Another benefit of servers is that you don’t have to deal with the inconvenient hurdle that is ‘host migration’. If a player should happen to quit mid-game while playing on a server, it doesn’t really affect anyone else, other than the fact that there’s now a hole that needs to be filled with a new player.

Granted, I’ve never seen a comparison like this for a game that uses dedicated servers but based on my personal experiences, I don’t run across nearly as many kills that seem quite so fishy. The two games I’ve played the most that don’t rely on P2P are Killzone 2 and MAG. I can honestly say that if you combine my time with both of those titles, the number of matches I’ve seen lag in can be counted on one hand.

So why don’t we see more server based games? My guess is mostly because of cost and maintenance. I assume it’s a fairly pricey ordeal to get everything up and running and the amount of time spent tending to the servers after a game launches has to be substantial. I honestly don’t know enough about what it takes to get multiplayer set up on servers to go on any further but if it were easier and/or cheaper than using P2P, why wouldn’t every developer be doing it?

In the end, this discussion leaves me with one glaring question. Would I ever pick a multiplayer game that’s hosted by a physical server over one that uses a P2P connection? After seeing this example, I have to say yes. What about you?



  1. Great read!
    I know exactly how you feel, I play Call of Duty: Black Ops qite a lot and have had many frustrating times.
    The only thing that keeps me playing now is that my Virgin Broadband connection was upgraded to 2mb upload which means I get host the majority of the time. This means I can only be killed fairly and I don’t experience laggy players because my connection usually gives everyone a four bar connection.

    If the host has a great upload speed, its rare lag occurs but the only way to avoid it completely is to be the host, which you can’t ever gaurentee.

  2. I hear ya, lag is very very annoying when you’re in a tight game and every kill counts, which is often the case in the Uncharted 2 multiplayer. The lag over there can be pretty bad, and it comes in the form of invincible players drifting around the map, through walls, wielding the socalled Shotgun-AK. I ocassionally find myself getting killed by players that I had killed seconds before…Sigh.

    Dedicated servers for Uncharted 3 would be great.

  3. After reading that, I’ve learned a lot about the way multiplayer actually works so I thankyou for that. I could never understand all the fuss about dedicated servers but now it makes perfect sense.

    Personally, I don’t play an awful lot online and the most I’ve played is by far and away on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare which was brilliant fun at the time.
    I’m not a particularly skillful gamer as my trophy card will attest but I get a lot of enjoyment from just taking part.
    I’ll never sabotage a game just because I’m tired of getting shot (or passed in a car or whatever game style it is) all the time, I always play to win but I’m very aware of my limitations so I just enjoy what I can and try to help my team or whatever game mode is being played.

    Local multiplayer however is a different matter an perhaps a subject for another writer feature. :)

    Great read Matt, and I must apologise but I had to laugh out loud when my eyes passed over the words “hauling ass”. No mistaking where you’re from. :)

    There’s been some fantastic feature pieces recently, nice work TSA.

  4. Yep, lag is the single most annoying aspect of online gaming. I’m generally happy to get beat if its fair and square and they just play better, but when the playing field isn’t even, it frustrates the hell out of me. All call of duty games have suffered badly from lag, and I’ve definitely benefited from it in the past, but its much more noticeable when it screws you over. Lag on FIFA is also pretty game breaking when it occurs. I’ve got to add, mag truly was an amazing achievement in development, to have 356 players in a game with no lag truly is amazing.

  5. Your guess is spot on, Matt. It’s all about cost. Having a dedicated (and suitably powerful) server with a nice fat pipe to handle the bandwidth means money/cost. Some games don’t suffer with minor lag. LittleBigPlanet being a good example and I think the second one does the same as the first. It looks to find the fastest connection out of the four of you and run with that.

    Having a “free” PSN is a lovely selling point but you can’t help see how the subscribe route (potentially with the game itself) is the way forward.

    Charge me twenty pound for Black Ops. I only want to play the single player. But wait… I fancy going online so I take the multiplayer hit and spend a £10 trial month (or two) with Activision’s servers hosting low-latency games with a cross-hair that feels snappy, responsive, and above all else, lethal!

    With publishers/developers trying to monetise absolutely everything, I wish they could separate the multiplayer component (in a financial sense) and realise that there are thousands of people out there that might’ve actually bought the game if they’d pigeon-hole the costs of single and multi player.

    • Agree, Although Activision really should be providing servers shouldn’t they, in account of all the income and profit they get, especially when Battlefield and Killzone provide servers without having an inflated game price?
      But considering Acti are all about making money, they don’t come up with good little ideas like Bmike and other gamers suggest, they just pump up the price and make sure there’s one out every year.

      • I guess they’ll charge as much as people are willing to pay. It shows because they have the highest selling games in the world. I wish people would reject them en masse then tell them what they want but they don’t need to listen to a certain degree.

  6. I’ve competitively gamed across both PC and console platforms over many, many years. I don’t believe I’ve come across any other game that highlights the poor gaming experience to be had from P2P gaming than the COD series.

    With regards P2P, I suspect the problem is worsened by the fact regions are open in many cases, e.g. you can play gamers from around the world, whereas some games allow you to select you’re region, e.g. Europe, USA when searching for games etc., which at least give’s you a fighting chance of experiencing an almost lag free game. Even Killzone 2 with it’s dedicated servers attempts to provide lag free gaming by allowing gamers to select their preferred region, although you always find US gamers on Europes region :/

    It’s a difficult question to answer without insider knowledge I guess, but I’m not entirely sure expense influences a developers decision to support a game with dedicated servers. I suspect not so much with PC gaming in the sense gamers tent to rent their own dedicated servers. I suppose another contributory factor for dedicated server support in PC gaming would be the inclusion of anti-cheat measures such as Steam’s “VAC” and Punkbuster, I presume these anti-cheat measures cost? Something that developers needn’t worry about within console gaming.

  7. I feel exactly the same! Got through two controllers on Black Ops. Absolutely love and hate the game in equal measure. The hate is only brought on by the lag issues tho. It does work both ways – getting 50+ kills and only a handful of deaths followed by the complete opposite in the next match against the same people only highlights that this is based on connection only and not player skill. Surely can’t be a cost issue for the servers – are Activision really that tight!? First post and it’s a bit of a whinge – won’t happen again. :-)

    • 2 controllers on Black Ops?! I have luckily never broken a controller, but World at War (on singleplayer mind) Heart of the Reich on Veteran difficulty caused me to throw the controller down the stairs a few times!

      • I’m usually quite ‘responsible’ (if that’s possible) in my rage antics – a kick at the wall will do, followed by the pain, but i’m then usually determined not to let the game win.

      • I know, shouldn’t let it get to me. I’m 36 for gods sake! I find a bit of lbp2 or gt5 help calm me down a bit tho.

  8. Lag can easily ruin a great game. I recall recently when I changed from basic Sky b’band to Virgin 20m fibreoptic and there was an issue with the router that meant my games were so laggy they were unplayable. I managed to run a new wireless modem through the Virgin one and that helped. Since taken it out and it seems Virgin have resolved the issue as they’re pretty much lag free now. Here’s hoping lag reduces in general over time.

  9. I just can’t understand how, after PC gaming showed that not only are dedicated servers superior (and that people are more than willing to pay for them), & also how best to arrange and organise online play, console games can make such a pigs ear of it. It’s simple; a server list, filters for the player count / map / other variables, ping time display, basic search function for room names, & the ability to order the list as wanted. Why they abandoned the progress made in online MP by the PC crowds I have no idea; it’s like they went ‘This works! *throws book out of window* Lets do it our own way, ya? Dave, pass me that box of crayons…’.

    Actually, thinking about it the benefits of running the system as they’ve designed is that they can eventually switch it off, forcing people to buy the newer product. Could you imagine if a CoD MP game had the same lifespan as say, Counter Strike Source? Not exactly good for the profit margins!

    • The stupid thing is that a subscription model would benefit that hugely. Think World of Warcraft!

      Completely agree with the PC comparison too. COD:MW was £29.99 RRP when it launched. Imagine that was the RRP on the consoles with a £15 extra for multi-player? I would’ve picked up the single player option in an instant (okay, maybe for £25 or so).

  10. I watched the video you mentioned just last week and it honestly gave me a confidence boost.
    I didn’t understand how servers worked (your article helped too, cheers :D )and just thought I was rubbish.
    I was on the verge of trading in Black ops and resigning myself to a life of solitude offline, but I realised that while I’m still not the best player in the world, that time where I emptied a entire clip into one mans face without a kill, may not have been ALL my fault.
    I wish there was a happy medium between the two server styles but I think the cost issue is the the problem. However if my experience of trading in games I thought I was rubbish at is anything to go by it may be a cost developers should consider

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