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The Old Weird Web: Formative Online Gaming Experiences

From baud to broadband...

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Usually you’d find Week In Tech in this spot, but it’s been a particularly big week in tech already. With the big Microsoft Win10 and Holowhatsit announcements covered here and here and here, for this column I’m proposing to go off the reservation. Let us, each one of us, reminisce and indeed celebrate our earliest experiences of the internet and of course gaming thereon. And then ponder what the future holds for our internet connections and how we game on them.

I’m thinking less social history, more unapologetic geeky nostalgia.

If there’s a price to be paid for nostalgia, it’s surely the full, ghastly revelation of years gone by and never to be recaptured. But there’s no avoiding it. I shall recall my very first experience of what we now recognise as the internet. Goodness knows what if any comprehension I had of it then, but it was a dedicated terminal on the bonds and derivatives trading floor of a French investment bank in London. It was my first job out of uni. It was the 1990s.

Picture a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, public-school-educated young capitalist sauntering across the the set of Wall Street, only with banks of very early (and, I now realise, exotically expensive) flat screens in place of the sea of CRTs, and you’ve got a good enough idea.

Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel: The internet, yesterday

I faintly recall some kind of beige Compaq box running Netscape Navigator, a lot of time spent staring at spinning status icons and researching obscure Eastern European equity exchanges. It was a different life. I probably earned more then than now. Life choices, eh?

As for the connectivity, my nascent web browsing mind had no notions of such things. But even with sufficient resources to make Solomon blush and a shameless attitude to spending, the bank’s early internet box was slow. Something resembling usable internet browsing began for me at my second posting at another money shuffling institution in Vienna, at which point I became an early Hotmail adopter. Or so I thought. Not early enough to snag jeremylaird@hotmail. Doh!

But home internet is inevitably where the internet and gaming first crossed paths for me and here my memories are hazier. Technology had achieved the heights of 56k dial-up before I had internet at home, no doubt qualifying me as a serious Johnny-come-lately in the eyes of the baud-savvy trail blazers of yesteryear.

Overwhelmingly, my memories of this time are dominated by arguments over shared phone lines, dodgy freephone service providers and god-awful triple-digit ping in Counter-Strike. Quite vividly, I remember a friend beating me to the broadband punch (512Kbps!) and regarding his sub-50ms ping with acute jealously as he tore through the hapless high-ping hordes on cs_italy.

Ring any bells?

Such was the conspicuous divide between the low ping haves and the dial-up have nots. The latter didn’t stand a chance. In hindsight, you have to marvel at just how workable it all was in those dial-up days of 150-250ms ping, frequent freezes and total loss of connectivity notwithstanding. Remarkable what you’ll put up with when you don’t know any better.

Whatever, my first broadband connection was still a revelation for online gaming and home networking, to boot. We sailed right to the bleeding edge with a 10Mbps Homelink phoneline network that seems quaint now but was a technology that worked very smoothly at the time. Apart from reliable low-ping online gaming, locally networked and thoroughly epic Age of Empires battles ensued without a direct Ethernet connection. Magic.

Of course, broadband wasn’t entirely the low-latency nirvana I’d been expecting. Suddenly things like fair usage, protocol throttling and ‘bad times of day’ became the battlegrounds. That and fierce arguments over bandwidth whoring and tell-tale spikes in ping. Are you torrenting again?!

As for today, I’ve been on the same 16Mbps LLU service for several years while all around have apparently switched to fibre and much bigger numbers. I’m a little reluctant to risk a swap due to the consistency and quality of my connection. There’s never once been any evidence of throttling or usgae limitations. I know BT and others now advertise absolutely unlimited services, but once burned thrice and many more times shy.

Indeed, I regard my broadband connection as easily the best value product or service for which I currently pay. Just £17 a month. When I think about the ransoms levied for gas, electricity, petrol or even water and then consider the sheer giddy utility I glean from my broadband service, the comparative value is off the scale. With nothing else do I achieve and enjoy so much from so little.

The early internet was a rather baudy affair…

Of course, broadband and home networking hasn’t exactly been the hottest of subjects for gaming for some time now. All but the shonkiest services will suffice. But that could be changing soon, and the reason is game streaming. Device-to-device streaming is predominantly a matter of home networking kit. You’ll want the latest n-spec wireless clobber as a minimum and fallback to wired connectivity may even be desirable for the very best experience.

On the broadband side, the big challenge is game streaming over IP, whether that’s cloud-based streaming services or streaming games from your own gaming box to another remote device over the internet. Suddenly, having a seriously hot internet connection, especially something with a quick upstream link if you’re using your own box as the host device, will become critical.

This all supposes that game streaming will actually become a ‘thing’, which I dare say is hardly a given. But word-count needs must and streaming has got us over the 1,000 word hump. Huzzah.

In all seriousness, shout out below your formative experiences of the internet and gaming, any ongoing connectivity favourites and foibles and what, if any, experiences and expectations you have on the subject of game streaming.

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Jeremy Laird

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