The constant barrage of gun shots and the sounds of exploding flash bangs and grenades are suddenly punctuated by a long pause of silence, and you find yourself isolated from your team mates and deep in enemy territory. Quickly and instinctively, you seek refuge in a room. Suddenly, the sounds of foot steps are all too clear to you as you lay prone in the room. Gun in hand, you quickly position yourself to face the door as you wait for your enemy to enter. You begin to aim down the gun’s sight, and you wait...
And sure enough, an enemy soon peeks into the room to check. "Easy kill," you think to yourself as you squeeze the trigger. After all, you have all the advantage. And yet, inexplicably and perhaps much to your horror, instead of adding yet another kill to your name, you die.
The above scenario should be no stranger to anyone who has played first person shooter games online. And it is deeply, deeply frustrating when it happens. Here are some tips that can hopefully help enhance your online gaming experience, but first it is important to understand what and why lag occurs.
To understand why lag occurs in online gaming, it is first necessary to talk about latency. Latency is measured by ping times and this refers to the time required for you to send a signal to the game server and for the game server to send a reply back. This time varies based on a number of factors, but arguably the most important is the geographical location of the server. Remember that the internet is really a network made up of millions of computers and each computer serves as a node, which can receive and pass data. The further away the server is, the more nodes the data will have to travel; hence, a higher ping time and therefore higher latency. On top of latency, the game itself also affects how much lag you will experience. This is due to the way the game engine works, but more on this later. In a nutshell, lag can be understood as the sum of your latency (ping time) and system speed. The cure for this lag? Reduce ping times and ensure that your system runs fast.
And here are some ways you can try.
As we have mentioned in our newbie’s guide to networking, a wired connection is almost guaranteed to be quicker than a wireless one, even if you are using the new Wireless-AC standard, as Wi-Fi is usually subjected to a lot of interference. But don't get us wrong: we aren't saying don't do gaming over a wireless connection. For the most part, the additional latency is minimal, and many people (i.e., non-hardcore gamers) are fine with that. But that's also assuming a properly configured wireless connection and strong signal strength. In other words, to get rid of the uncertainties (or when you need to troubleshoot what's causing the flaky Wi-Fi), plugging it in always helps.
Your Internet bandwidth is a finite resource and if you were to run multiple programs that require Internet access at the same time, performance will degrade. You might have experienced this if you tried to download multiple files at once - download speeds will invariably suffer. Likewise, it is highly advisable to close other all unwanted programs that may be connected to the Internet to preserve your bandwidth. You can check what program is using up your bandwidth by using the Task Manager on Windows PCs and the Activity Monitor on Macs.
Protip: Many a time, the applications sucking up bandwidth are your programs that are automatically downloading updates in the background. Turn them off!
Ever tried using Wi-Fi at a cafe only to find that it is excruciatingly slow? That's because there are too many people logged on and using it at the same time. Hence, building on the earlier point, it is also important to reduce the number of users on your network. You can check who is using your network by accessing your router’s setup page on your browser. If someone is streaming HD video or using the same network to download large files, performance will inevitably suffer, so get them off your network (for the time being, at least). If this is not possible (e.g., wife demands to watch Korean dramas online), you can alleviate the situation by using QoS (see next tip).
If your network is shared by many users, and for whatever reason you cannot get these other users to stop doing whatever they are doing, QoS or Quality of Service, can help by prioritizing certain traffic over others. However, do note that QoS is only really useful when your network is under full load. If it isn't, QoS does not come into play at all.
In any case, to setup QoS, go to the settings page of your router and look for the QoS setting. Enable it and it will prompt you for your download and upload bandwidths. Use a website such as Speedtest.net to find out your download and upload speeds and enter roughly 85% of that into your router's QoS setting. You should also see a list of options below that allows you to change the priorities of the service types or applications. This would differ from router to router. Furthermore, if you want to add a specific game to the QoS rules list, then specific IP and port settings are required and these differ from game to game. We suggest looking up the forums of your favorite games to properly set it up for QoS to work.
If you are a console gamer and you play online, you might come across something called NAT settings. NAT refers to Network Address Translation and it is important to set them to “open” to ensure a good experience. This is because the type of NAT you have determines what kinds of peers/servers you can connect to and can connect to you.
There are three types of NAT: open, moderate, and strict. Players with an open NAT can connect to any other players, while players with moderate NAT can only connect to other players who have a moderate or strict NAT. And finally, players with strict NAT can only connect to other players with a strict NAT. As you can see, having anything less than an open NAT can reduce your chances of finding other players and games.
Most games, will offer an indication of what type of NAT you have and if you find that you have a moderate or strict NAT type, what you can do is to open certain ports on your router - also known as port forwarding. To find out how to do so, we recommend the website portfoward.com, which provides detailed guides for many brands of routers.
We cannot stress how important it is to keep your system’s drivers and firmware updated. Driver and firmware updates often fix bugs, rectify serious issues, and can sometimes also help improve performance. Graphics drivers for instance often provide appreciable performance increases in games. Likewise, it is equally important to keep your games patched and updated, as these patches can contain vital fixes and can at times boost performance.
If you are playing offline, it is alright to treat yourself to fancy-looking graphics. Some might find it worthwhile to sacrifice frame rates in order to enjoy more realistic-looking fog. However, if you are a serious online gamer, it is best to tone down your graphics settings a notch to ensure that your system runs as smoothly as possible. Remember earlier that we defined lag as the sum of latency and system speed?
Apart from the system running the game as quick as possible, another reason why high frame rates is important is because frame rate is often one of the key base units of a game engine. And as a base unit, it can affect all sorts of things in the game, including in-game physics, run speed, jump heights, etc. We could explain in depth how frame rates can affect gameplay and therefore the amount of lag that you will experience, but that would take an entire feature article. However, suffice to say, depending on the game engine in question, it is best that gamers lock their frame rates to a relatively high figure like 60 frames per second, for example, to ensure the best possible experience and least amount of inconsistency and therefore lag.
Additionally, to bump up frame rates, you should also turn off anything superfluous in the game, such as in-game chats, which can be bandwidth intensive if there is a lot of chatter going on. If you are running translation and obscenity filters, they could also degrade your online gaming experience.
All that said, if you cannot live without the fancy graphics or in-game chats, the alternative is to upgrade your system to make it run faster. If you are going to do so, a better graphics card and more RAM are our recommendations.
Protip: Have a fast Internet connection and a high-end system, but games still feel slow? Try not to play on TVs or monitors with high input latency, which could create a less-than-desirable delay between your action and what's displayed onscreen. If your display has a Game mode preset, use it!
If you play a game that allows you to pick your server, you would know that picking a locally-based server or one that is geographically near you, is going to give you the lowest ping times and the best playing experience. This is because the further away the server is from you physically, the longer it is going to take for data to get sent there and back.
Bonus tip: WTFast - The Gamers’ Private Network
As we have established, when playing online, data gets sent across many different nodes before it reaches the game server and back to you. This data can be subjected to detours, bad routers, congested traffic, and even lost data packets. WTFast claims to be a private internet connection that optimizes the data path to reduce latency, speed deviation, and bad router hops. And according to them, they can reduce your latency by more than half. We have not tried this ourselves, but numerous users have reported positive experiences with them. You can give it a try by downloading the free 30-day limited trial here.
To summarize, the best way to reduce lag is to keep the number of non-essential network applications down to a minimum, and ensure that no one else is on your network hogging precious bandwidth. Additionally, it is beneficial if you could join a game server that it geographically near you. In our experience, this is the single best way to keep lag down to a minimum. Obviously, it also helps that if you have a fast system, otherwise it is recommended that you turn your graphics settings down a notch for smoother gameplay. That said, there are now new services springing up, such as WTFast, which claims to provide users with a dedicated network for MMO (massively multiplayer online) gaming. And fiber broadband providers like M1 and MyRepublic have gaming-oriented plans that attempt to reduce lag further through custom routing. We hope that our guide has helped make your online gaming experience a little better. Happy hunting!