How much strain does online gaming put on the Internet?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

If you were one of people eagerly logging onto in time to play Diablo III when it first came out, you probably got booted off the service more than once. The same goes for SimCity players and, more recently, beleaguered Battlefield 4 fans.

Given the regular outages and connectivity problems that everything from Twitter to the U.S. government’s healthcare exchange website has suffered from, it’s clear that this isn’t an issue unique to videogames. But to the less tech-savvy among us, playing a high-end modern videogame online just feels like it’s a more resource-intensive task than “liking” something on Facebook or binge-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix. The audience for Netflix or may be much larger than that of Battlefield 4, but neither of those services need to provide picture-perfect virtual renditions of battlefields that allow 64 players to duke it out in real time against one another. And though they may be smaller in number, the Battlefield 4 community is doing a hell of a lot more than just idly scrolling through menus or photo albums: the players are commandeering tanks, flying jets, and sniping at each other across massive distances.

And the audience behind a hit game is still impressive in its own right. EA hasn’t revealed how many people purchased Battlefield 4 yet, but Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia estimated last summer that it would sell some 14 million copies. Whatever the exact number is, the game’s inauspicious debut shows that there was too much of something for EA and DICE to handle. But if companies this experienced have such significant problems launching a game, perhaps just supporting any online game is far too herculean a task at this point. Tech journalists love to write stories about how a service like Netflix is basically breaking the Internet, leading wounded Battlefield and Diablo fans to wonder: What’s the so-called “footprint” of online gaming? How heavy of a load does gaming put on the Internet compared to other popular types of online activity like video streaming, social networking, or starting at dancing cat GIFs all day?

“The short answer is not that much,” Andrew Phelps, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a director of the school’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC), told me when I first emailed him this question. “The amount of traffic flowing around for a game is a lot less than most services once the core of the game is downloaded—especially if they aren’t real-time.”

“The gaming audience is huge, but the entertainment one is even bigger.” 

It works out this way for a few different reasons. First of all, the market for videogames might be large and ever-increasing, but it still pales in comparison to the number of people who watch television. A Nielsen study published in September, for instance, found that 38 percent of Americans now use Netflix. It’s hard to imagine that many people jacking into FarmVille or Candy Crush, let alone a phenomenally successful console title like Grand Theft Auto Online or Call of Duty.

“The gaming audience is huge, but the entertainment one is even bigger,” Dan Deeth, a spokesperson for the telecommunications firm Sandvine, told me. According to the most recent version of his company’s biannual “Global Internet Phenomena Report,” gaming occupied just 3.4 percent of peak period online traffic in North America. That was still enough to place it in the top five, but still placed it below other kinds of online activity like filesharing (8.93 percent) and web browsing (10.4 percent). “Real-time entertainment,” the term they used for video or audio streaming, meanwhile, took up a mammoth 61.45 percent.

That only speaks to Internet usage on a sort of aggregate scale, however. When it comes to playing a specific game online, both Deeth and Phelps told me that gaming is still a much less demanding task than other kinds of entertainment because of how the resources are allocated. 

“When it comes to gaming there’s two ways to talk about resource intensity,” Deeth said. The first is the bulk download that a player has to go through when he or she first gets a game. In this case, a huge amount of information has to be transmitted from a company’s servers to an individual piece of hardware, which might help explain why online games are so often shaky during launch time (when hundreds of thousands of people are potentially trying to access material at the same time) and why Sony finally resolved to allow PlayStation owners to conduct downloads in the background with the PlayStation 4.

The second kind of “resource intensity” that Deeth identified, however, is much more basic. This is just basically whatever happens during an actual multiplayer gameplay session. And while the action unfolding onscreen might appear to be overwhelming, all that’s being sent between the different machines involved is an unfolding series of geographic coordinates to tell where all the different player characters and other moving parts are.

The heavy lifting, in other words, is all being done by your computer or console. So while Netflix has to store its entire library remotely to provide the kind of service it’s promised its customers, a company like Activision still puts the vast majority of its information for Ghosts on a disc, or at least requires that you own a device powerful enough to store most of that information locally.

Of course, all of that may change eventually with the movement towards cloud-based gaming. But there’s a reason that many of the startups that have promised to disrupt the existing game industry haven’t actually done so yet. Videogame players, for better or worse, have shown themselves to be the kinds of consumers that are willing to spend an incredible amount of money both for specialized hardware and for platform-specific content that can only be used on that very hardware. Shifting things to the cloud might reduce some of the costs required to buy a new PlayStation or Xbox, but in the process it would “dramatically shift the entire business model of the game industry,” Phelps told me.

“The notion right now is: ‘I need a really powerful box to play games,'” he added. And despite whatever fatigue some might feel over the console wars, how many people would really have it any other way?