The Importance of Using a CDN for Gaming

By Cody Arsenault
Updated on February 5, 2018
The Importance of Using a CDN for Gaming

Anyone who has ever worked on an online game knows how challenging it is to consistently deliver content and patches to players across the globe. Whether it's a simple puzzle app or an MMORPG, games tend to require a lot of resources and maintenance.

While technologies like 4K and ultra HD are facilitating exciting innovations in gaming, download sizes keep increasing exponentially, which has created many new challenges on the backend. Consequently, content delivery networks that specialize in gaming have arisen to address these obstacles to customer satisfaction. Keep reading to find out how CDNs are making gaming more enjoyable for players and developers alike.

What is a CDN for gaming?

A CDN utilizes a global network of servers to streamline the delivery of downloads, by caching content nearest to your visitor. Doing so helps not only improve performance but also reduces the risk of failures and server crashes by offloading bandwidth from the origin.

In addition to improving performance, certain CDNs offer what's called Push Zones which allow developers to host their entire game on the CDNs storage cluster thus ridding the need for an origin server entirely.

Hardcore gamers are used to waiting hours for game content to download, but such inconveniences can deter casual players and present an obstacle for reaching a wider audience. Of course, catering to an increasingly global gaming market also increases a game's risk of crashing or becoming infected with malware that can affect all players, so gaming CDNs must also be prepared to handle such challenges.

How does a CDN for gaming work?

Just like traditional content delivery networks, CDNs for gaming expand server capacity by providing points of presence, or POPs, in locations across the globe. These POPs speed up download times for all players as follows:

Let's say a gamer in Munich wants to download a game that is originally hosted in Los Angeles.

  1. When the player makes the initial request, a CDN server in Germany could pull content from the origin server in Los Angeles, cache it and then deliver it to the player.
  2. The next time someone from Munich downloads the game, they will have access to the cached content on the German server, so the process will run much faster for them.
  3. From then on, German gamers can keep downloading the game even if server goes down and the CDN server's cache hasn't expired. In addition to decreasing download times, having multiple servers also prevents overloads, which are common when companies release new content or patches.

The benefits of a CDN for gaming

Below are ways that leveraging a CDN for gaming can benefit both developers and players.

Improving the pregame experience

Games are getting better, but without the proper infrastructure in place, the pregaming experience suffers. In the past, the pregame experience just entailed inserting a disc or a cartridge. Today, it means waiting for a download to finish.

Even many console games that are primarily played offline require pregame and post-installation downloads. "Day one patches" are becoming commonplace and even expected. For example, in 2015 Polygon report that Star Citizen's client was expected to be a 100 GB download. There are many other examples of this where games require large pre and post-game downloads and although the downloading of content is inevitable, it can cause customers to lose patience. However, developers can make the process less painful for players by leveraging CDNs.

Consistent speed and performance

Compared to other apps, online games require a lot of player input, and a mere millisecond of lag can completely ruin the user experience. Therefore, choosing a CDN that specializes in high performance ensures that your players aren't turned off before they get started.

Delivering massive files as fast as possible is just the first step to ensuring player satisfaction. As games grow in popularity, traffic spikes can slow things down for everyone. Developers have limited control over individual players' connection speeds, but utilizing a CDN ensures that each gamer gets started as quickly as their connection will allow.

Some geographic areas are more prone to connectivity problems than others, but a good gaming CDN knows how to deliver content most effectively to players in all regions. Having servers distributed across the globe also helps with load balancing so that your game's performance doesn't suffer as it gains popularity.

Superior server placement

The deployment and management of servers come with immense costs. On top of the hardware investment, finding professionals to build and manage a global infrastructure is a challenge even if you have plenty of cash to spend. Allocating all of those resources often requires a lot of guesswork, which can lead to wasted time and money.

For example, game developers catering to a global audience can't always predict where their game will be most popular, so figuring out where to place servers can be a haphazard process. If your game catches on in India, yet new players start experiencing lag in that region, then you have to decide if investing in another server is worth the potential increase in revenue.

Using a CDN for gaming removes all of the guesswork. Content delivery networks have servers all around the world, so they can take care of such scaling issues instantly. Therefore, the only cost-benefit analysis you have to perform is deciding if the time and money a CDN saves you is worth the cost of the CDN service.

Scalability and flexible pricing

Speaking of which, a good CDN for gaming must be ready to handle large request surges at all times. So be sure to choose a CDN that has a proven track record of being scalable and is transparent whenever maintenance must be performed.

Given that games can rack up in size very quickly, it's important to choose a CDN that offers flexible pricing. Monthly commitments aren't always the best option for game developers as surges in traffic and bandwidth use can spike at any time, forcing you to move into the next highest monthly plan. Pay as you go options allow developers to pay for only what they use allowing them to easily scale their CDN requirements as their game grows.

Defending against attacks

According to Akamai, the gaming industry was the most frequently targeted industry in 2015 to DDoS attacks.

Source: Dazeinfo

The more popular a game becomes, the more likely it is to be targeted. Such events can be ruinous for a company's reputation, which is why multi-layer protection is so important. A CDN that's optimized for gaming can save you from bad reviews that may deter new players. Gamers are quick to voice their displeasure online, so addressing problems as quickly as possible is imperative to staying relevant in an increasingly competitive market.

How to choose a CDN for gaming

Using any CDN is better than doing it yourself, but not all CDNs are created equally. When choosing a CDN for gaming, do plenty of research to make sure that you find the company that can meet the needs of your players for the best price.

Speed and reliability are obviously the most important factors when choosing a CDN for gaming, but figuring out "where" a CDN is fast is extremely important. Of course, you should also know where the majority of your players live. Some of the best CDNs in North America just don't deliver in other parts of the world. Some CDNs cater to specific regions while others claim to offer global game server hosting; regardless, you should investigate the actual locations of servers before you invest such services.

Otherwise, you could end up paying a lot of money while your abandonment rates continue to rise. Different CDNs may be better suited for different projects, but choosing a CDN that allows you to scale up is typically the most cost-effective solution.

Some companies promise global delivery, yet virtually all of their servers are in either North America or Europe. The physical distance between players and the closest edge server can greatly affect user experience, especially for games that require large downloads. In an ideal world, players should never be more than one network hop away from a CDN edge server. This isn't always possible in remote regions, but having servers spread across the globe improves your chances of reaching new players.

The future of content delivery networks for gaming

For decades now, developers have prioritized making games with better graphics. Now that we're at a point where it's hard to imagine games looking much better, developers should shift their focus to making other types of technical improvements. In the near future, games may not be judged for their polygons and pixels, but rather how quickly you can actually start playing them. Therefore, content delivery networks will continue to play an increasingly vital role in the success of online games. However, developers shouldn't settle on just any CDN; finding the right fit for your project will require some research and thorough analysis of your potential customers.

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