Do you have any idea how much internet data you use a month? I found this surprisingly hard to find. In a subsection of my TalkTalk account I found a graph charting the last seven days of my internet use, and it told me I used approximately 109GB of data. That seems neither high nor low to me as someone who writes about games and works from home. I could easily increase it.
It’s pretty uncommon to boot up a console and see a list of pending downloads for games you’ve already loaded. Today, that happened to me. Several games needed to be updated, which meant downloading hundreds of gigabytes of data. This didn’t worry me in the least. My internet connection is unrestricted and relatively fast. My main concerns were how long it would take and how much space it would take up on my hard disc. It never occurred to me what impact all that data going over the network would have. Because I couldn’t see it, I didn’t think about it.
When I turned my PlayStation 5 on recently, I was prompted to download a 60GB Ghost of Tsushima patch, a 55GB Cyberpunk 2077 patch, and a few smaller others. Letting those run would have doubled my use. Or I could have simply downloaded Call of Duty: Warzone, like millions of other people, which is 103GB on its own (not to mention the chunky updates it periodically rolls out), and doubled it that way. The point being: it’s not hard to gobble up lots of data playing games in 2021.
Everything is growing. Look at one of the world’s most popular game series, Call of Duty, as an example. IGN charted the rising game-sizes of the series on PC a couple of years ago. This jumps from 8GB in 2007 for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, to ten times that a decade later. It balloons even higher with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019, to over 200GB, though this is distorted somewhat by Warzone – a whole other game – being included with it. Consider Warzone passed the 100 million-player mark earlier this year, though, and that’s a lot of COD-related data travelling around. (Modern Warfare/Warzone’s file size would eventually be reduced in a patch, interestingly, as would Fortnite’s.)
As display resolutions increase, so do game sizes, and we’re now firmly in the realm of 4K and even 8K games with PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series of consoles. On top of that, the concept of games as a service, as things that live on through multiple seasons of play, adding considerable new content during their lifetimes, has bedded in to become the norm. Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime ago that PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 made patching commonplace?
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that when audiences of that size clamour for files of that size, simultaneously, it has a noticeable impact on internet use on a national scale. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns exacerbated this. UK broadband network operator Openreach – used by BT, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and Zen customers – reported a 40 percent rise in broadband use in 2020, and cited “large updates to PlayStation and Xbox games consoles, including popular gaming titles such as Call of Duty” as one of the reasons why. These updates became such a concern, in fact, that communications regulator Ofcom created a liaison between gaming companies and internet service providers to keep each other updated about incoming game patches and releases.
UK games industry trade body UKIE even wrote an open letter advising gaming companies on best practices for releasing downloads during the pandemic, suggesting scheduling downloads for after midnight and avoiding peak times of between 5pm and 11pm. The goal of all this was to keep things spaced out and avoid a network pile-up.
“What we were concerned about,” Ofcom’s Huw Saunders tells Eurogamer, “was to actually ensure that the network operators were firstly aware of what was going to happen in advance, so if they had a specific problem about the day of the week, or the time of day a release was due, they could least talk to the publishers and say, ‘Could you change it by a day or so?’ Or, ‘Could you actually change the time in the day?’ To prevent it coinciding with their anticipated peak period.”
Had Activision Blizzard decided to release Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War a day later, on 14th November 2020, the same day Amazon live-streamed two Autumn Nations Cup rugby matches – which was largely responsible for the second biggest day of Openreach traffic in 2020 – we could in theory have had a significant network issue. That liaison between games companies and ISPs is still in place, though. “The publishers do tell the access providers when they’re actually dropping a patch for a new release, and in general terms, there is a process to enable the network operators to push back if they know there’s going to be coincident patches, or whatever, or if there are other issues, and I think that’s broadly working okay.”