Have you heard of Fortnite? If not, whip out your mobile device and look it up. Yes, now. Back? Good. If industry prognosticators are correct, Fortnite is the next generational wave in home entertainment. With 200 million subscribers and an estimated $2B in revenue, the social gaming juggernaut even has Netflix thinking about the future of movie and TV streaming.
I’m not a proponent of the “ostrich” strategy when it comes to business; I try to be forward-thinking and look for the potential benefit to our business from every new trend that comes down the pike. Fortnite represents a new “social” gaming trend, and while it may seem that a tectonic shift to social gaming is bad for home theater, I prefer to look for ways we can adapt our skills to meet the changing needs of our clients. Let’s take a look.
First, some clarification about two types of social gamers. Type one is the content consumer — someone who plays games, watches/chats in Twitch streams and professional leagues, and takes in community-created content. Type two is the content creator, or someone who is more or less a professional (i.e., they get money from it). This includes Twitch/YouTube streamers with monetized channels, community content creators, and professional gamers. Type one is by far the largest, but type two is growing.
Local Network and Internet
If there’s one thing guaranteed to be important to social gaming, it’s the good ole internet. We’re at the point now where you have to have an IT specialist on staff (or at least a reliable contractor) — and IT is only going to become more central to our business. Social gaming is mobile and interactive, tasking different devices to complete the experience. Your job is to make sure they integrate seamlessly, with low latency for a good gaming experience and sufficient speed to support live video and audio streaming alongside the game data.
How do you accomplish this? Well, a mesh WiFi network is a good starting point. You also need a good QoS/system for prioritizing video, audio, and game data. If your clients are professionals, keep in mind that their interaction with (sometimes) tens of thousands of fans depends on seeing and hearing them in chat. This can’t be buggy! Finally, do not underestimate the importance of UPS with large batteries and even a backup generator (!) and backup ISP to ensure your client can always reach those thousands of fans. At the professional level, loss of power or internet can lead to forfeited matches and lost income!
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Video Display and Streaming Quality
Here is where the skills you have developed in home theater can really start to make a difference. The video display is vital to gaming. It needs to have low input lag — which most gamers recognize — but proper calibration is a vastly underutilized tool. Accurate calibration and gamma tracking is important to being able to see your opponent. Game developers keep a close eye on this, and use it as a tool to balance their games.
Many gamers I see fail to understand or properly use something as simple as using the PLUGE/white clipping patterns provided by the game during initial setup. Now, the more professional-minded social gamers are going to want a desktop multi-monitor setup with extremely low latency (under 20 ms) and variable refresh rate. That’s something you can provide, if needed, but there is also an opportunity to upsell them to a projection rig. Where this hits home is in the social aspect. Instead of multiple monitors for the game and streaming PC, for example, you can create a customizable video mix on the big screen that features the game in a large center window with chat running in another, the streaming PC in another, and perhaps another for other Twitch streamers or a professional league cast. (Keep in mind that video mixing and projector latency of 60-80 ms can be completely unacceptable for gamers at more competitive levels.)
Finally, for clients who stream, the image quality of the game play can be a big problem. Even at the professional league level, there are inconsistencies in gamma and color. Provide a means to balance the video feed and check in on your clients’ streams to make sure they are up to broadcast quality.
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Sound System and Audio Quality
The de-facto standard for sound in games is the stereo headset with microphone. This provides clarity and generally well-balanced frequency response with good ambient noise rejection for an affordable price. At the higher levels of LAN tournaments, professionals will typically use in-ear transducers for game audio and comms, with the headset providing a mic and noise rejection from the crowd. This is not inherently compatible with home theater-type audio; however, that doesn’t mean that outside of professional competition a good immersive audio system doesn’t kick the tail of headsets.
For example, imaging and placement of sounds is key to finding your opponent first and staying alive. Headphones are very poor when it comes to placing sound directly in front of or behind you. I contend that most gamers don’t consider the performance enhancements of a good Dolby Atmos immersive sound system because they’ve never experienced it!
Here’s where you come in. Have a demo rig set up in your shop. Whether it’s a desktop setup with small monitors/subwoofers positioned strategically around the chair, or a desk at the back of your screening room tied into the main sound system there, break your gaming-centric clients out of their headset shell. Dolby Atmos may not be widely available in games as such, but Dolby Surround processing with a 5.1 or 7.1 game mix can be a revelatory experience. But, just as with video displays, watch out for latency. Some of the best surround processors, with all their audio DSP engaged, top out at 70-90 ms of delay!
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Environment and Layout
There are so many aspects to creating the perfect environment for social gaming that I can’t possibly cover everything here. Here are a few things to consider.
- Comfort and range of motion provided by desk/chair setup for day-long sessions. Adjustable height and customizable setups keep your client comfortable and reduce long-term health risks.
- Camera quality, lighting, and green screen for the video stream. Make your clients look their best for their fans. Keep non-task-specific lighting under control, but at sufficient levels to avoid eye strain from prolonged viewing.
- Microphone selection, location, EQ, and acoustical treatment — because, after all, a streaming setup is more or less a broadcast suite. Keep the room quiet and distraction-free. No noise from equipment or activity in the rest of the house.
- And, of course, the hardware for the actual playing and streaming of the game, which is a discussion better left to the PC build guys.
“Wow, Anthony,” you’re saying, “my clients aren’t anywhere near this advanced!” I know they probably aren’t…yet! Social gamers are just a bit young to be showing up in your world. But they will. Some of them are in fact kids of your clients, and have the resources to do some of what’s in here. My job is to make sure that it doesn’t catch you off guard! I know I certainly wouldn’t have thought people paid to sit around watching other people play video games while chatting with friends, but now my eyes are open and I’m paying attention. If Netflix is talking about it, we can’t afford not to.
Anthony Grimani ([email protected]) is president of Grimani Systems, PMI Engineering, and MSR Acoustics, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Paris.
Chase Walton ([email protected]) contributed to this article.