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Games Get an Express Lane

A St. Louis startup is ready to launch an Internet bypass network to speed up performance for hardcore online gamers in North America.

GameRail has been amassing service-provider partners for the past several months, hoping to collect enough beta testers to see how the network operates under pressure.

"We need much larger numbers to really stress-test it, because we built everything really large. Just 100 or 200 people don't give you the spikes that we're looking for," says John Alden, GameRail's vice president of business development. "If we get 2,000 coming in on the beta and playing on different servers, that would be great."

We're not talking about poker or chess here. Rather, these are the games with real-time battles where reflexes matter: shoot-'em-ups like Halo or Counterstrike, or quest games like World of Warcraft.

GameRail -- technically named Progression Networks LLC, but what fun is that? -- connects from the service provider's network directly into the game server. This avoids the routing jumps of the greater Internet, supposedly creating a more reliable connection for the player. It's a bypass network built on a backbone of fiber leased from Broadwing Communications LLC . (See Broadwing Powers GameRail.)

GameRail can't do anything about the connection between a player's PC and his/her Internet service provider. But that first mile isn't where the problems crop up, Alden says.

"Within the broadband provider's network, they usually are not adding latency," Alden says. "Typically things start to fall apart once they leave the provider's network."

That's especially true in a market like St. Louis that doesn't host a lot of game servers itself. It's not unusual for Internet traffic to "go to Chicago or Dallas, then come back down to St. Louis, even if you're playing the guy down the street," Alden says. "We're able to bypass those hops."

Still, access providers are throwing raw speed at the problem, thanks to the advent of 50-Mbit/s DSL. A recent release from California provider SureWest Communications (Nasdaq: SURW) championed the guy who supposedly has the "fastest" access speed in the country, at 50 Mbit/s upstream and downstream.

Likewise, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) has begun touting its potential for gaming and hasn't yet seen a need for a bypass network. "With the FiOS service, what we found is, we have such incredibly high upload speeds and download speeds -- particularly the upload speeds -- there's very little lag to speak of anyway," a Verizon spokeswoman says.

GameRail is the brainchild of CTO Darrell Gentry, a gamer himself who was working for service provider River City Internet Group (RCIG) . The idea came together quickly after Gentry first proposed it to his employer in May.

The startup is staffed by a handful of River City employees and has just more than $1 million in funding, Alden says.

The one major partnership GameRail can talk about is a peering deal with BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE). Beyond that, it's talking to several Tier 1 providers interested in trying the service on their St. Louis customers as a first taste, Alden says.

Among smaller providers, GameRail has signed up deals in Alaska and Montana, "areas where no matter how good you are at online games, you're hosed," Alden says. And of course, the company is talking with the companies that actually host the game servers, outfits like Server Beach, owned by Peer 1 Network Inc. (TSX-V: PIX).

GameRail intends to make its money, not from partners, but from subscription fees from gamers themselves. Pricing hasn't been set in stone yet but could run as low as $10 a month. "For a super competitive guy, that's nothing," Alden says, noting that obsessive gamers swap out their PC graphics cards every few months.

— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading

somedumbPM 12/5/2012 | 3:10:42 PM
re: Games Get an Express Lane in this case. The traffic for these games is small - if it was not the 8+million peeps that play WoW alone could cause issues.

Low latency is what required of anything fast-reflex based. The fact that is not mentioned/acknowledged by a service provider will make any gamer just roll there eyes.

My click vs your click - which one gets to the game servers first? How much bandwidth is in a click? - very little.

chechaco 12/5/2012 | 3:10:40 PM
re: Games Get an Express Lane I wonder if, from gamer's perspective, a provider should somewhat hide network latency and jitter and create more or less equal competition ground for players. So that personal reaction contributes more to the experience than latency and jitter in the network. As result a group of players will have service of the lowest reasonable denominatior among current players.
jepovic 12/5/2012 | 3:10:39 PM
re: Games Get an Express Lane Online chess can be very delay sensitive! Games are often played with 5 or even 1 min total time, and similar speeds can be reached in more normal games at the end.
Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 3:10:21 PM
re: Games Get an Express Lane jepovic -- Excellent point. I forgot about competitive chess and especially speed chess; you're on a time limit, so it's delay-sensitive in an even more literal sense than battle games.

It's true games like WoW are built to not require huge bandwidth, so 50 Mbit/s does you no good if you run into latency. That's how GameRail got involved with one of the cyberathelete leagues ... the preliminary rounds are held remotely, and they need everyone to be on a level playing field.
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