Subspace is launching its parallel and real-time internet service for gaming and the metaverse on November 18. And I talked about it today with Ron Williams, chief operating officer at the company at our GamesBeat Summit Next online event.
In the past couple of years, Subspace has built out its parallel network using its own networks and hardware as well as partnerships with providers of dark fiber, or some of the excess capacity for the internet. And now it is rolling out its self-serve network-as-a-service. The network lets developers — such as the makers of real-time games — deliver real-time connectivity for their users.
Founder Bayan Towfiq started working on this problem because the public internet is failing key applications that need real-time communication, such as games. The internet was never built for real-time interaction, and it is beset with problems such as latency, jitter, and packet loss that ultimately hurt engagement.
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“Subspace is really working hard to bring what we call private-network internet quality to everybody around the world,” Williams said. “It’s a type of internet service that has really only been available to companies that pay many thousands of dollars a month, sometimes tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands a month to interconnect their offices or key employee centers with each other to ensure they have amazing high-quality and secure internet.”
Williams said Subspace’s founders came up with an elegant set of solutions that now allows the company to deliver this premium internet quality to everybody in the world across any piece of client software device.
“It’s pretty game changing. And I’m super excited to dive in,” Williams said. “The history of the internet has really been struggles with mostly either connecting more and more people and different types of devices across the world.”
Subspace has deployed a global private network, including a dedicated fiber-optic backbone, patented internet weather mapping, and custom hardware in hundreds of cities. This network pulls gaming traffic off the internet close to users and ensures the fastest and most stable path.
Subspace, for the first time, lets existing games and internet applications bring private networking to every internet-connected device without changes to code, VPN clients, or on-premise hardware, the company said.
How it works
Bandwidth delivers more throughput, like adding more lanes on a highway to push more data through the internet. Latency is the time it takes a data signal to travel from one point on the internet to another point and then come back. This is measured in milliseconds (a thousandth of a second). If the lag is bad, then fast-action games don’t work well. Your frame rate can slow down to a crawl, or you can try to shoot someone and miss because, by the time you aim at a spot, the person is no longer there. Subspace believes it can generate 80% lower latency for players across 60 countries.
Applications that need two-way internet service with low latency include games and real-time communication. Games are getting more complicated as developers put 100 or more players in a battle royale game, and they will attempt in the future to put more than 1,000 players in such games.
“Nobody wants to get in a fight and have the other guy shoot first because they have better latency,” Williams said.
You can think of what Subspace is building as a ghost internet, or a network of private servers that can be used by multiplayer gamers to bypass the bottlenecks on the internet. Subspace fixes those bottlenecks, sort of how Waze helps you — or at least once helped you — find your way around car traffic jams. The company raised $26 million in April 2020 for this purpose. It’s kind of like a content delivery network (CDN) for games.
It deals with problems about why the internet, which was originally designed for redundancy in the case of a nuclear war, is screwed up. Internet packets have to hop from one kind of infrastructure, owned by one company, to another, owned by another company. Those handoffs take time, and routing isn’t as efficient as it is supposed to be.
The people who need this kind of traffic unclogging the most are multiplayer gamers, as the coronavirus has condemned us to our homes and doomed many of us to entertain ourselves with multiplayer games, such as Call of Duty: Warzone (my particular obsession), League of Legends, or FIFA. Subspace had to come up with a combination of software and hardware that sets up a kind of parallel internet, or one that routes around the problem traffic and creates fast lanes for the game companies that pay Subspace for the speed.
Subspace’s network platform deploys, operates, and AI optimizes and scales the highest performing proxy services for a real-time application. And it requires no end-user hardware or configuration changes, as it is implemented via a simple configuration to proxy game traffic to Subspace. And it provides always-on protection against hacker attacks, known as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
In the short term, Subspace increases the number of players with playable ping, which increases the total addressable market and player engagement.
If Subspace can make the satisfaction of a playing an online game get better, then it could increase the amount of time that people will spend in a game. A 2020 report said that gamers average 6.3 hours of play per week globally, with players ages 18 to 45 averaging over seven hours. This doesn’t count the additional 3.5 and 4.6 hours weekly that women and men, respectively, spend watching other people play video games, with younger groups investing more hours.
Companies like Epic Games and Roblox are adding concerts, and by adding a new form of entertainment to a game, they give people more reasons to come back and spend more time in their worlds. That’s how the metaverse eventually happens, when we get enough reasons to spend all day in it.
It so happens that making the internet good for gaming also makes it good for the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
Matthew Ball, a metaverse futurist and CEO of Epyllion, has invested in Subspace. In a think piece on the metaverse, Ball wrote, “The human threshold for latency is incredibly low in video gaming, especially versus other mediums. Consider, for example, traditional video versus video games.”
He said the average person doesn’t even notice if audio is out-of-sync with video unless it arrives more than 45ms too early or more than 125ms late (170ms total). Acceptability thresholds are even wider, at 90ms early and 185ms late (275ms). With digital buttons, such as a YouTube pause button, we only think our clicks have failed if we don’t see a response after 200–250ms.
“In triple-A games, avid gamers are frustrated at 50ms and even non-gamers feel impeded at 110ms,” Ball wrote. “Games are unplayable at 150ms. Subspace finds that on average, a 10ms increase or decrease in latency reduces or increases weekly playtime by 6%. That’s an extraordinary exposure — and one no other business faces.”
Subspace finds that roughly three-quarters of all internet connections in the Middle East are outside playable latency levels for dynamic multiplayer games, while in the United States and Europe, a quarter are bad. This mostly reflects the limitations of broadband infrastructure, not server placement, Ball wrote.
Subspace, for example, deploys hardware across hundreds of cities in order to develop ‘weather maps’ for low latency network pathfinding, operates a networking stack that then coordinates the needs of a low latency application with the many third-parties that make up this path, and has even built an optical network that splices across various fiber networks to further shorten the distance between servers and minimize the use of non-fiber cabling, wrote Ball.
Features of the dedicated network used by the enterprise companies are now accessible, via self-service, by any internet application. While game companies create massively multiplayer online experiences — like Amazon’s New World — they don’t think so much about the interconnected services that are usually carried about by other companies that run the backbone of the internet. That’s why the game companies had to turn to Subspace.
Brendan Greene, creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), has proposed creating a planet-sized world called Artemis that will require real-time access to an extremely detailed world. He realizes that he needs the latest in multiplayer gaming technology to pull off the huge world in the next five years or so. It’s such ambitions of game companies that will lead to the creation of the metaverse, Towfiq said.
In the long term, with the improved end-user experience, more consumers experience the persistent, synchronous quality of the metaverse, and it becomes accessible to a limitless number of concurrent users, Subspace said. But today’s internet is holding back the vision of the metaverse, as it will require 100% uptime and ultra-low latency, like the kind we saw in the Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One.
Yet we regularly see the impact of network latency on real-time interaction, exacerbated by pandemic and increasingly demands of the internet – remote work. If your Zoom call drops in the middle of a critical meeting, you don’t care whose fault it is. You want it fixed. That’s where Subspace comes in, Towfiq said. When the applications are no longer constrained by the network, then the metaverse is possible.
Subspace’s plan is to reduce latency and lag in games on a massive scale. It will use its infrastructure to help massively multiplayer, online game experiences thrive, and it will build more infrastructure to address more real-time applications, to deliver real-time connectivity from anywhere to anywhere. Towfiq’s goal, in the long run, is to get the entire world online.
A capital problem?
Williams said the problem has become urgent because it has been growing over the past decade. And with COVID-19, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire of demand for internet traffic.
“We have all seen the need for real time communications and real time interactions, and all new applications that will probably come forward in the next five or 10 years, like telemedicine,” Williams said.
Capital spending isn’t really the answer for this problem.
“At the end of the day, it would be great if we could go around the world and lay millions of miles of new fiber optic cable and spend billions and billions of dollars on equipment. No one’s going to do that,” Williams said. “And so Subspace uses technologies that overlay and intersect with all the key points of the internet to allow us to properly grab traffic where it actually needs to be picked up closest to the consumer. Then we route that traffic as soon as possible.”
Still, Subspace has made considerable investments on its own. The company has deployed its equipment in more than 100 cities around the world today.
“We recently passed Netflix became the 10th best peer network in the world,” Williams said. “Amazon is just right above us. And that where we sit. We’re building this massive hyperscale network that reaches very deep into consumer ISPs and business ISPs. We can fully control from the end user all the way back to a cloud server or a private data center.”
Subspace has had to raise a lot of money, though it hasn’t said how much, Williams said. More may be needed. But Subspace is trying to do it more efficient so it doesn’t have to build the entire internet over again.
The company has about 90 people. It has been working with some of the biggest games in the world in the past couple of years. And now it has made it easier for smaller companies to implement it themselves.
“Subspace is working very hard to make it easy for any kind of developer to access our network,” he said.
The metaverse could be the ultimate challenge. Many big games are creating standalone metaverses that people hope will be interoperable. Players want to be able to see each other quickly and teleport around to find interesting things that interact with.
“Gaming is the biggest challenge we’re trying to solve,” Williams said. “In a competitive esports tournament, millions of dollars can be won or lost. By solving for gaming, we set up ourselves to solve for all.”
Big tech companies have built very large private networks. But Subspace can make the real-time internet possible for more companies that couldn’t otherwise afford to do it.
The metaverse will require new security models and the need to authenticate users and traffic across multiple companies. Instead of having a Google password, you may need some kind of federated metaverse password, and companies will need some way to talk with each other. That means companies will have to work together instead of compete on this level.
“I’ve been in internet infrastructure pretty much my whole career,” Williams said. “I was an early pioneer in bringing internet to local dial up so people didn’t have to pay long distance fees back in early 1990s.”
He worked for Earthlink and Sun Microsystems and eventually landed at Riot Games where he ran infrastructure and security for nearly six years. After working at a couple of cybersecurity unicorns, Williams joined Los Angeles-based Subspace.
“I personally believe the metaverse is going to be just one big company,” Williams said. “We saw the big walled garden approach in the early 1980s with AOL and CompuServe. They were super limiting. With them, the internet would never be what we have today.”
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