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Tick rate: What is it and how can it affect your gaming experience?

In terms of online gaming, ‘tick rate’ is a behind-the-scenes networking term that impacts the overall feeling of playing online. Here’s how.

There are several factors that come into play when it comes to the all-important ‘feel’ of online gaming.

At home, achieving smooth online gameplay might be as simple as gaming on an Ethernet connection rather than using wi-fi.

Then there are potential latency hurdles and ‘micro-lag’ considerations to take into account.

While certain connection issues can be managed locally, others, like tick rate, are mostly outside of your control.

Game developers can have a large effect on the smoothness of your online gaming experience, based on how a game’s ‘netcode’ is handled – a blanket term for an online game’s networking systems, which includes a game server’s tick rate (also known as a ‘client update rate’). 

How online gaming works 

To understand tick rate, it’s important to first explain the relationship between ‘client’ (each individual online player) and server.

All player input – running, jumping, shooting, etc. – is sent to the server and compared against what it has accepted as ‘true’ in comparison to intersection points with other players.

What the server accepts as true is transmitted back to the connected players.

Essentially, each player is receiving a slightly delayed mirror reflection of what’s happening on the server. 

What is tick rate? 

Tick rate is relevant to this client-server relationship because it covers the frequency at which a server processes updates, which is measured in hertz (Hz).

The higher the tick rate value, the faster a player receives input updates from the server which, in turn, makes an online game feel more responsive and truer to the player-side experience. 

The importance of tick rate 

There are at least three factors that are relevant to every player connected to an online game server.

1. Each individual player

Outside of latency issues, an online game is designed to feel like it’s playing out in real time, but it’s actually the very recent past because every player connects through the second factor: the server.

2. The game server

The server accepts input data from an individual player and transmits it back as either true or false both to each individual player.

3. Other players

The nature of online multiplayer gaming means players are constantly interacting with each other, using a variety of input commands.

Sometimes these input commands clash, such as when a player fires a weapon at another player who, on the fired-upon player’s screen, is already around the corner.

The server handles all this input data on a first-come, first-served basis, so a faster (higher) tick rate brings the feel of online gaming closer to what each individual player is experiencing.

The feel of higher tick rates

Let’s look at an example.

At launch, popular first-person shooter Overwatch had a 21Hz tick rate on its servers across gaming platforms.

Games that use a 21Hz tick rate send server updates 21 times per second to connected players.

Some time after launch, developer Blizzard Entertainment upgraded the Overwatch servers for PC players to a 63Hz tick rate, which means the servers now send updates 63 times per second.

The faster players receive updates, the more accurate the online simulation is in terms of their input.

Blizzard named this upgrade the ‘High Bandwidth Update’, and it intuitively switches players with limited broadband to the slower-updating 21Hz tick rate.

As a result, players with access to a fast broadband connection not only have a chance of receiving a better ping, but also a higher tick-rate, adding an additional advantage.

Other popular shooters such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive offer servers with 128Hz tick rates.

Gears of War 4 reportedly goes as high as 250Hz on a Windows 10 PC, but such tick rate experiences may offer diminishing returns in terms of their responsiveness, as humans can only perceive so much.

Tick rate exceptions 

Online gaming servers, particularly those associated with first-person shooters, still use predictive client-side systems to ensure a smooth gameplay experience.

These predictive systems account for the delay (albeit small) between when input data is sent from a player to a server, and then returned as true or false.

If this predictive feature wasn’t part of online games, players would appear to teleport between every ‘tick’ instead of moving smoothly.

High latency can result in inaccurate predictions being rejected by the server, which also impacts the online experience for other players interacting with high-latency players, even if they’re on high-speed connections with low latencies.

Additionally, if a player reacts between a server’s update window (tick rate), predictive systems will likely reject slower input from other players. 

Frame and refresh rates vs tick rate 

Tick rate is also linked to the refresh rate (also measured in hertz) of your display and, in turn, the maximum frame rate of an online game.

In short, if the gaming platform on which you’re playing online can’t consistently hit a frame rate that’s identical (or faster) to the tick rate, you’re not likely to see the impact of (particularly faster) tick rates.

For consoles, games don’t currently extend past 60 frames per second (fps).

PC games, though, with unlocked frame rates (no limit), coupled with high-end hardware, can technically reach frame rates beyond a monitor’s maximum refresh rate, which is often around 240Hz.

Exceptions aside, a higher tick rate makes online games feel like they’re more responsive and closer to what you’d experience in terms of playing a game offline. 

Did you know there are factors beyond ping that can affect your gameplay? Take some time to learn about online choke, and how it can impact your online experience.

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