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Check the Ping
Ping is computer terminology for the time it takes bits information to be “pinged" back and forth from one computer to another. Technically, it is a command used to measure that time, and that time is called latency, but since games usually report the result of the ping test, and don't force people to run the operation themselves, most fraggers use the terms interchangeably. This goes back to when DARPA was first developed and really smart computer guys (nerds, okay?) would send a ping to test to see how long the other computer would take to respond—then the connection sends a “pong" back, and they measure that span of time in fractions of a second. If computers are communicating fast and seamlessly, this gives you a low or good ping. Having “low ping" may sound like a bad thing, but trust me it really isn’t. It measures how long it takes what you are doing to get to the server in milliseconds, so the lower the better. Anything under a hundred is good. (To the right is a list of Internet servers for Halo and their respective pings--the blue arrow is pointing to ping column. Most online FPS video game servers have a similar lobby to browse online matches--COD, Halo, Ghost Recon, etc.)
If you are slightly more advanced or technically inclined you can get in there and check your network settings at the back end with various command prompts or administrative tools. Most games have some sort of diagnostic mode where you can take a look at how fast your connection speed is and what your settings are. Remember, it's all about optimizing your levels to match your hardware, software and ISP resources.
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What Is Bad Ping?
High ping is bad ping. Or in other words if you computer has a high ping, it means you may be slowing the network down and dragging along with your slightly slower Internet connection. It’s probably only a matter of very small increments, but it doesn't take much to throw off a game based on precision reaction time. If your ping is in the hundreds, you are out by tenths of a second, and in addition to your own experience, you may be angering other online players with your slow ping.
It can cause lagging, choppy frame rates, warping and other video game phenomena. (More about this later.) If you are creating lagging, warping, or other slow downs or stoppages by joining the network, it means you might be the slowest link. This is ping-related and it means you might have a slow connection, a slow computer, network congestion problems or possibly a combination of all three. Higher pings are bad. Lower pings are good. A low ping means that less time is taken for information to be beamed back and forth between your computer and the server. Low ping means your computer, Internet Service Provider, and game server are getting along well. Geographical distance between you and the server is also a factor in determining your latency.
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Lagging and Warping
It may not seem fair to exclude anyone, but you want to make sure you have enough bandwidth to handle real time gaming which usually means about 6 mbps, give or take a few megs depending on if the server is designed to handle slower connections or not. Some servers are just better so you have to try them out and judge the quality of the connection. You'll encounter some players who are serious gamers, they might have clans, have tryouts, and regularly train and practice a lot. And if you slow their usually very fast game to a stuttering crawl you’re going to hear about it, usually in the form of some negative feedback in the console like “Who’s causing the lag?" and “Someone has bad ping." (Note: you may encounter stronger language than this, as profanity is quite common in most shooter communities.)
Remember FPS is also called “action" for a reason and people enjoy the action, the faster the better. While they are training, or just picking off noobs, catting and mousing through a dodgy hail of bullets and looking for frags in a virtual battlefield at a very high frame-rate, these elite players don’t want to see the screen-rate stuck, or a repetition-lag-loop of some guy running towards a wall, or some warping of their screen into another part of the map, nor do they want to side-slip into the vortex of the physics engine (this happens sometimes in Halo and Call of Duty.) So check your ping and find a bandwidth-and-skill-level appropriate match. You'll be trying out for an elite clan in no time.
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Low Ping Good, High Ping Bad
You want fast, smooth, seamless action at a high framerate. So remember, low ping is good, and high ping is bad. Low ping is fast, and high ping is slow. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but that’s how it is: remember what it is, the time it takes to do something, and like in a race lower is better. So now you know what bad ping is. Hopefully you have good ping. Unless you need to play on a particular server, to play with your friends for instance, look for a server with a lower ping. Try talking to your ISP about upgrading, but be aware that more bandwidth doesn't necessarily make for lower pings. You might also want to update your hardware to something faster, particularly if your game also slows down in single player. Before you part with any cash though, see the next page for some tweaks that might fix your problem for free.
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Optimize your Settings in the Preference Panel
Here's is what you can do if your computer is performing slowly. Now, the easiest thing you can do is to adjust the settings in your preferences within whatever FPS game you are playing. Most of the time the default will optimize those settings for you, such as DSL or cable modem, or T-3 fiber optic or whatever. It will tell you to pick your current Internet connection speed. The game will adjust frame-rate and resolution (and probably technical network settings at the back-end also) to fit your hardware’s connection speed. Usually as a default it will optimize your settings to match your computer and connection speed, but you might boost performance with a few easy adjustments manually. (Notice: the picture on the right is for Halo.)
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Adjust Screen Resolution and Frame-Rate for Faster Gameplay
Another thing you can do is scale down the resolution which will reduce the amount of data your computer has to generate for every frame (and 60 frames per second is optimal). The other thing you can do is turn off some of those 3-D detail settings like smoke trails, bulletholes, character and vehicle details, all of which will cut down your rendering sizes and speeds to something more fast and playable. The only drawback to this faster play is that your playing screen’s field of vision may not be as sharp and fast as that guy with a $250 graphics card beaming through his T1 fiber optic line in spectacular HD.
So you will sacrifice screen sharpness in exchange for smoother, faster game play, and there’s a fine balance between the two. Also you might be fighting a losing battle that has to do more with hardware and speed than actual gaming skill. For instance, you may have perfect eyesight (fighter pilot vision perhaps) but on a video game screen you may not see your target so clearly. This has more to due with your resolution and modeling detail preferences panel settings than eyesight. So remember to open up that Preferences menu next time you experience lag or poor video performance, because it might have something to do with frame-rate and screen resolution.
Also, downloading stuff whilst playing or running a virus scan in the background will slow things down.
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What Is a Server?
That's the guy or gal that brings food to you at a restaurant, right? No, in computer terms a server serves up bits, bytes, kilobytes, and gigabytes of information. You might hear some chatter about "server-side" and that is usually the player with the best hardware, software and ISP package and fastest connection (T1, T3, University or paid business level) to host all the other players. They often have the advantage, slightly quicker response in their gameplay, as well as the choice of settings such as size of match, size of maps, and many other game settings. It is the hardware and software that hosts the online side of the game, while your computer runs something called a client. The server hosts matches for players around the world, combining the data from everyone's client (where everyone is standing and which way they are looking and shooting) and supplying the clients with data from the rest of the game world (what you can see and if you shot someone or vice versa). People who operate servers own or rent the hardware and purchase bandwidth from ISPs. They can be funded by donations or generous (usually tech savy) individuals, as well as servers run by commercial ventures for marketing purposes. What better way for a hosting provider to prove they can run an awesome, high performance server than making one freely available for a popular game?
It could be one computer or it could be space on a host's network (sometimes called server farms). They set the game-type (FFA, CTF, Deathmatch, which we explained in the previous article) and other preferences that they sometimes modify. Many things can be modified to change the look, feel and style of game play, from walking or running speed of the characters, to whether names float above heads, allowed weapons, maps, vehicles, and any number of variables. They set the number of players (the more the merrier usually, within the limits of budget and hardware) and everything else from server-side.
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Admins and Bans
The previous two articles mentioned behavior, like cheating or killing teammates, that interfere with other gamers enjoyment. While automatic software like PunkBuster goes a long way to control some of these problems, the boots on the ground when it comes to enforcing server policy are the Administrators or Admins, for short. Depending on the particular server and admin, different rules will be enforced with a varying level of diligence. Eventually, people will get kicked from the server for varying periods of time, or for larger or repeated offences, be banned from the server.
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Server Side Performance Boosters
An example of a server side performance boost is: a very well-funded and richly-resourced (read: well-heeled gamer or ISP) server may make up for laggy computers and slow DSL lines and what have you. This means the hardware and routers and the amount of broadband is ample enough to make up for the deficit in speed and power of its players' slower or more out-dated equipment and connection speeds, and in some cases, seamlessly integrate their video game playing in realtime with very little lag, warp or other network problems, which is really an amazing feat of technology. When you think about it, a chain should be as strong as its weakest link, and getting the server to make up for lousy clients, even a little bit, is impressive.
As far as the technical side of this, you may want to talk with a computer scientist or network specialist who will be able to explain this. How a very high-speed and blazingly fast broadband server in any particular part of the world can synchronize with, link and provide hours of live video game fun! And often to a wide range of different computers and connections. It really is an amazing achievement of technology, and you might want to talk with that computer science guy over at the university for the more detailed and articulate answer. Maybe you'll learn so much that you'll major in computer science and start modding levels for fun. Though you don't need a degree for that, just try it. (Check out monoman and punisher's maps and mods for Ghost Recon and many other games.)