Video games have been a lifeline for many during lockdown, keeping us entertained with epic interactive stories or allowing us to remain connected to friends and family thanks to multiplayer experiences. Now, the entire games industry is on the cusp of a great change – not only are we about to enter a new console generation, but the advent of 5G technologies will fully unlock the potential of mobile gaming.
Thanks to the boost in raw speed that 5G offers – up to a staggering 10Gbps, ten times what even 4G LTE-A can deliver – players can expect faster downloads and streaming, but the bigger impact will likely come from massively improved latency. With response times as low as five milliseconds, this means in-game action will be smoother than ever, with no lag between your input and the game’s response. With 5G’s greater reliability, this should hold true, even with high numbers of concurrent players.
Imagine playing the mobile version of Call of Duty alongside thousands of others, with unnoticeable lag, all at speeds fast enough to compete professionally. That’s the dream, according to Greger Blennerud, who focuses on 5G’s opportunities for mobile operators at Ericsson, the Swedish networking and telecoms company helping drive the 5G revolution.
“If you take Fortnite or Call of Duty, the latest versions are free to download and free to play, but then it’s all about having as many players as possible. Smartphones, in sheer numbers, is probably the broadest platform developers can find,” says Blennerud. “The challenge there is of course […] on the network quality. I think the key characteristics of 5G that really makes it relevant are the bandwidth and the low latency that we’re getting. Gaming [is] maybe one of the most obvious beneficiaries of 5G.”
Professional gamers are already reaping the benefits of 5G, with the faster technology having provided the backbone to tournament play.
“We have already held the grand finale of an esport competition over 5G during Milan Games week,” says Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone Group’s Head of Network strategy and architecture. “The finals of the Asphalt 9: Legends and PUBG games were played on Vodafone Italy’s 5G network. This proves that our network is good enough for esport professionals.”
The esports sector will potentially see twice the benefit from 5G, as the technology makes life better for both players and audiences. In April 2020, users of the game-streaming service Twitch racked up 3.1 billion hours watched, a hike of 17 per cent on the previous quarter – a spike partially attributable to lockdown viewership, but also tracking with the rapid growth in popularity of esports. As 5G improves the availability of high-definition video streaming on-the-go, fans will be able to tune into tournaments or just follow their favourite streamers, wherever they are.
The raw speed of 5G isn’t the only benefit it will offer gamers. Higher bandwidth and lower response times means cloud computing becomes more viable. This will allow developers to handle more arduous processing and rendering duties remotely, and stream a higher quality end result to players. This would lessen concerns over whether a game runs on older or lower spec phones – as long as the end user has a 5G data plan, they could enjoy higher quality games.
The key to this is mobile edge computing – effectively, localised cloud servers rather than larger, centralised ones. This basically means the devices in your pocket will communicate with more, smaller data hubs that are physically closer to them – on the “edge’ of the network. Rather than games having to send data to a distant central server, process it, and ping back a response, all of which slows down overall communication speeds, they will be able to access more power, closer to their users.
“You can offload the processing of your devices into the network, while also improving the experience of the game,” explains Carlos Bravo, who focuses on edge for Ericsson Group Function Technology. “Before edge computing, you had to send a lot of information between the players to make sure everything is fitting well together. This put high demands on the device processors and batteries. Edge servers can be dimensioned in a better, more efficient way, generating a synchronised gaming experience in the cloud. You won’t feel any lag as you’re moving around, which is critical for a good gaming experience, and you won’t have to be hooked into a Wi-Fi network. Processing at the edge will also make your device battery last longer.”
The power and accessibility of edge computing is one part of the 5G rollout that’s already exciting developers.
“With 5G, we’re heading into a future where we will be able to do a lot of cloud-based gaming, where the processing power isn’t necessarily on your phone, but it’s on a server somewhere,” says Tommy Palm, founder and CEO of Resolution Games, a Swedish developer that specialises in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) titles. “That opens up a whole range of new, very exciting possibilities. If you have cloud-based gaming, you can run all the calculations on the same machine, and you don’t need to synchronise a lot [of individual players’ phones]. This opens up [the possibility] for games that we could only dream of, where you have fully destructive worlds, for instance.”
Augmented Reality games in particular could also finally see their potential unleashed by the combination of 5G and edge. For most players, games like Pokémon Go will be their only experience of AR, but at present such titles only offer the simplest uses of the technology – most commonly, tapping into your phone’s camera and overlaying in-game characters onto a feed of the real world.
For committed players, it’s often little more than a gimmick, but one that can contribute significantly to battery drain, which in turn reduces practical play time. 5G will help fix both of those problems, enhancing the overall experience and, if developers also tap into the benefits of edge computing, potentially improving battery life and overall performance too.
“A lot of people turn off AR functionality because either it consumes a lot of battery, or it doesn’t contribute all that much to the experience. 5G could address both those major issues,” says Alvin Jude, from Ericsson Research. “We can help with the battery issue by doing a lot more of the processing centrally. [Rather than] a lot of people huddled together in a park playing together and all of their devices doing essentially the same processing, you can do this once on edge, and then stream it down to players over 5G.”
The high speed and low latency of 5G means that in future, games can do the grunt work of processing on the cloud and, Jude says, “people won’t even realise that it’s being done elsewhere. It’s not going to consume all your battery, and the AR experience would be more accurate. We would have much better experiences.”
5G may also be the tool AR needs to make the transition to wearable devices – dedicated headsets or glasses, rather than just apps on phones. The trick will be in the underlying technology powering them, which will share similar architecture to mobile phones and be able to benefit from the same network speeds and cloud computing to deliver better utility to users. Like all the best technology, its impact will be all but invisible, though.
“When it comes to successful headsets, they’re going to be built on mobile technology,” says Palm, “but a consumer is never going to know that unless they’re very interested in what is powering them. We’ve released two proper games on the Magic Leap, which is an AR headset. Both that, and Oculus Quest for VR, are actually running kind of mobile phone technology in the background, and they’re building on that type of hardware. It’s very similarly performing devices, whether it’s a mobile phone or if it’s a next generation headset.”
Ericsson’s recent partnership with a leading football team gave a powerful example of what the future of mobile gaming, powered by 5G and AR, could look like – players taking to the pitch for a kick-around wearing a next-gen visor, playing against virtual recreations of real sports stars, all reacting in real-time to their actions. In time, this could evolve to include haptic feedback via synced wearables, delivering the same physical rush as kicking an actual ball into the goal. Such mixed reality experiences could be used for training the next generation of soccer stars, as much as entertainment.
“It doesn’t have to be 100 per cent analogous to the real world,” says Jude. “You already see benefits from, for example, people learning to ski in VR. It’s not necessarily exactly how it is in real life, but you do the actions like you are – and that’s perfectly fine. What that means is that we’re changing the game, just a little bit. We’re moving a little bit towards reality, but we also have to acknowledge that it’s not exactly as in reality, so the gameplay has to change somewhat.”
Jude calls it “breaking the mould”, which is what 5G promises to do for mobile gaming, whether on your phone or in a new generation of portable devices. To fully realise the potential though, developers will have to think bigger than ever. Or as Jude puts it, “you have to break it even further – you have to shatter it completely.”
–For more information, visit ericsson.com/5g