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What exactly is ping, and what affects it?

Believe it or not, connection speed and ping don’t always walk hand-in-hand. 

As important as connection speed and bandwidth are in terms of smooth online experiences for browsing, downloading and streaming, it can sometimes become a secondary concern for online gaming when it comes to dealing with noticeable delays during in-game actions.

Let’s take a closer look at how ping and connection can be different things.

A short history of ping

In the movie adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) orders his crew to send a single ‘ping’ as a covert way of communicating with CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin).

In submarining terms, ‘ping’ is used to describe a pulse of sound that’s transmitted from a submarine as part of its active sonar system.

The pulse then reflects off an object and is received back aboard the pinging submarine.

This process is used to determine the distance between the submarine and objects by equating the time it takes for the pulse to be sent and its reflection heard.

This is similar to how ping works in terms of online connections.

Ping or latency?  

Ping is a networking utility used to determine the reachability of an online server.

Ping sends an echo request via Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) and measures the echo reply. This measurement is known as the 'latency', usually presented in milliseconds (ms).

Despite ping being the overall test and latency being the measurement, in the gaming world players and even developers still use ‘ping’ as alternative shorthand for ‘latency’.

They’re not technically the same thing, but they’re often used interchangeably in terms of online gaming.

How latency (or ping) impacts the online experience 

There are several factors that can impact latency – internet connection speed is only one of them.

Latency can also be impacted by the network protocols you’re interacting with (such as the online component of a video game’s engine, often called “netcode”), the setup of your local internet connection, and other factors such as software or hardware firewalls.

One of the biggest impacts on latency, though, is geographical location.

For example, if you’re in Australia, but playing on an American server, your latency will be higher because the geographical distance creates a delay between information being sent from an Australian client-side (player’s) connection before it’s received and relayed from the American server.

Latency is a big concern in online gaming, as it can have a severe impact on gameplay.

It is also often visually represented, providing a constant reminder to the player, either numerically (in milliseconds) or by wi-fi-like bar graph signal-strength indicators, which may or may not be colour coded in ranges from green (low latency) to red (high latency).

Dedicated servers versus peer-to-peer servers 

Games with an online component either use dedicated servers or peer-to-peer connections.

First-person shooters (FPSs) such as Battlefield 1 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive use dedicated servers to host matches.

This means there is a computer somewhere that is devoted to the single task of hosting matches for a specific game.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare uses a combination of dedicated servers and peer-to-peer (P2P) connections.

P2P servers can be problematic because they designate the person with the ‘best’ connection as the host.

Unlike a dedicated server, the host plays in the game, and enjoys zero latency because of their host designation.

Because of their zero-latency state, hosts have a noticeable advantage over other players, particularly those with higher latency.

The players connecting to the host are also at the mercy of the host player’s internet connection, most notably their upload bandwidth.

That said, if the players all have high-speed broadband connections and are connecting from the same (or even nearby) countries, lag shouldn’t be too much of an issue in P2P matches, assuming the host player’s total bandwidth isn’t being consumed by online activities outside of the game they’re hosting and their upload capabilities are up to the task.

Problems with P2P matches come about when a game determines someone with limited or congested upload bandwidth should be the host, either at the start of the game, or when the original host drops out and the hosting role migrates to a new player.

Outcomes of high latency 

A game’s netcode will ultimately determine how a lagging connection with high latency will translate in game.

Sometimes a high-latency player will appear to teleport instead of moving in a uniform and predictable way.

Other times a high-latency player might attack a low-latency player, and that low-latency player’s in-game avatar will receive the hit when they appear to be behind cover.

The netcode of certain games will provide lag compensation for players as high as (or sometimes beyond) 1,000ms latency, while others cut it off at a lower point to improve the gameplay experience for low-latency players.

In practical terms, you can have a fast broadband connection and still experience latency issues, but that would be due to external or manageable factors.

It could be you’re connecting to a server that’s geographically too far away to facilitate low latency, or it could something to do with a game’s netcode.

Alternatively, it could be local considerations, such as how much bandwidth is being used, or potential interference on a wi-fi network.

If your connection speed and latency seem fine, but you still appear to be experiencing lag, you might want to read about how online choke could potentially affect your gameplay.

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