Game on ! – Call of Duty 4, multi player games and the arrival of LTE in Uganda

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Along with video, the next wave of uses in Africa will be network gaming. Except for South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa has not really had this kind of competitive gaming culture. But as the bandwidth increases and its price drops, it has begun to arrive and it seems to have started in Uganda. Russell Southwood talks to inveterate gamer Kyle Spencer about what’s happening.

Kyle Spencer works for a local health services company but but outside of his day job he enjoys multi-player computer games competitively against other players. It has taken him a while but the self-organising enthusiasm of these kinds of gamers has now begun to kick in. A crucial step was finding some spare capacity on a server on which the games could be run.

The two most popular games are Call of Duty 4 and Minecraft, with the former the most popular of the two. Call of Duty was developed in 2007 by Infinity Ward and published by Activision. It takes place in the year 2011, where a radical leader has executed the president of an unnamed country in the Middle East, and an ultranationalist movement starts a civil war in Russia. The conflicts are seen from the perspectives of a U.S. Force Reconnaissance Marine and a British SAS commando, and are set in various locations, such as the United Kingdom, the Middle East, Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. The multiplayer portion of the game features various game modes, and contains a leveling system that allows the player to unlock additional weapons, weapon attachments, and camouflage schemes as they advance.

By contrast, Minecraft is according to its publishers:”a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things. It can also be about adventuring with friends or watching the sun rise over a blocky ocean. It’s pretty. Brave players battle terrible things in The Nether, which is more scary than pretty. You can also visit a land of mushrooms if it sounds more like your cup of tea”.

According to Spencer, there’s been 600 players since the end of August but this overstates the number as players change names so it’s more likely to be between 250-300 people. They have spent in total 100 days playing and have had 130,000 kills.

They have a closed group on Facebook to exchange information but they’re moving to promote themselves outside this small group by doing things like putting up posters at the University.

So who are these people? “We’ve had a couple of physical meet-ups, in particular an event sponsored by Smile Telecom, who have introduced 4G. 40-50 people played for an hour straight.” The event lasted for over 8 hours and the entire audience stayed for the entire time. They are 99% Ugandans with 2-3 foreigners like Kyle Spencer and mostly males. But at the Smile Telecom event there were a few women. It’s also strange but because the server is listed as providing the games, it’s had players from as far afield as Libya and Costa Rica.

The arrival of multi-player gaming puts the spotlight back on the continuing shortcomings of the network. A group from Rwanda wanted to take on the Ugandan players in a competitive event but although they did it, there were obstacles:”It’s not got a huge requirement for bandwidth. It only requires around 64 kbps per player. The biggest issue is latency. This is OK if the players connections go via the local IX (internet exchange point).”

The Rwandans didn’t have their own server so they were accommodated on the Ugandan one. However, most of the connections then go via London and you get 400-500 milliseconds latency:”We need a regional link if we’re going to have these kinds of competitions.”

What was the Smile LTE bandwidth service like?:”The connection is really quite good. The trouble is that the upper limit (10 GB) with their largest package is something you can use up in less than an hour. For the test, they gave “all-you-can-eat” but they’ve introduced these limits and as a result, the user has dropped off quite sharply. It’s the right service but the wrong pricing. They have to go much larger (in bandwidth terms) and cheaper.”

Outside of these two countries, there’s a Land Party short for Local Area Network (the name given to a multi-player gaming event) taking place at Nairobi’s iHub in the near future. Also South Africa has a gaming group that has sponsored events where people win prizes:”We approached a local mobile company for sponsorship but they couldn’t grasp the concept. They kept asking where was mobile involved? We need to represent a community large enough so that they can’t say no.” There’s been a couple of sponsored console game events, one by Mountain Dew and another company sponsored one based on FIFA.

Spencer’s keen to see whether they can do a localization for Call of Duty 4, providing local maps and terrain, in other words 3D representations of Kampala. It sounds a bit brutal but in the week the French have gone into Northern Mali, gaming perhaps captures a part of this new reality.

So what’s the next game they’ll be playing after Call of Duty 4? “It’s difficult because you need something with a large user base. So far nothing’s really jumped out as the next step. There's high-end games like Crysis 2 but they require expensive high-end hardware."

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