Running out of Steam?

How regional variation in download speed affects the user experience of Steam users.

This post was originally created as part of my Interactive Data Visualisation, which got great feedback from my lecturer so reposting it here. You can view the original version here, which as the module suggests includes interactive datavis and a fully responsive layout courtesy of UIKit.

Steam is a popular video game digital distribution service [1] designed to make downloading and installing games easier. Here, I examine what user experience issues can be caused by the limitations within the UK broadband ecosystem, what this means for Steam and what this means for games publishers.

Currently, when a user is downloading a game the Steam UI remains neutral regardless of speed, with minimal messaging. This would not be an issue if Steam worked the same for everyone, however some users will find their wait considerably longer than others based on their connection.

It has been widely reported that there is inequality in the provision of high-speed internet to UK households [2], with the disparity widening in rural areas compared to urban centres. 2019 saw all major political parties pledging to improve broadband availability [2] around the nation. While we patiently await the implementation of gigabit-capable broadband nationwide by 2025 [3], download speeds will continue to be a mitigating factor.

Using data gathered by Ofcom for their Connected Nations report (2019), I started my investigation by looking at average connection speeds at a Local Authority level. Taking a closer look at some of the fastest and slowest areas reveals some interesting outliers. While all of London ranks higher than Steam’s recorded national average 36.7 Mbit/s [4], nowhere within London features in the fastest 20. The City of London is in fact the slowest in the country, but this may be skewed by its low population as a predominantly corporate area. Unexpectedly, Hull outstrips all other areas by a margin of 38 Mbit/s, which is itself faster than the slowest areas. This is down to a major infrastructure upgrade in the city, making it the first full fibre city. [5]

This starts to build an interesting picture of how investing in technology can improve the speed, but to get a more tangible insight into how this affects the user experience, this data needs to be converted to average download time for specific games in each area. I took Grand Theft Auto V (89.7GB) and Among Us (239MB), the largest and smallest filesize games from this week’s Steam’s most played chart [6] to populate the map below click on each area for some real life examples.

(Click through on the map to go to the interactive version)

What does this mean for Steam?

For the full fibre residents of Hull, they can reliably expect to download Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) in just 1.5 hours. That’s not an insignificant delay, although it would be fair to assume their level of frustration would be considerably lower than the average user in the Forest of Dean, with a download time closer to 6.5 hours. Though low speeds aren’t limited to rural areas, they are more pronounced in them.

Could messaging on the interface be tailored so it fits the reality of using the product? A simple “sorry for keeping you waiting” message might retain users on the platform, rather than giving up and heading to a highstreet retailer or switching to Amazon for future purchases. Further research in this area could involve surveying brand attitudes towards services like Steam to see whether there is more negativity from users who have to wait longer.

What does this mean for publishers?

In general, most games publishers won’t view this issue as their issue and large file sizes in gaming aren’t going anywhere, especially as graphics improve. However, publishers should not underestimate how this could be a barrier to entry for a portion of the market.

This year, we saw the meteoric rise of Among Us in the ‘casual games’ market. While many factors go into creating a viral sensation, one thing enabling it is the instancy it can be acquired. With a filesize of just 238mb, download time varies only between 15 and 78 seconds wherever you are in the UK. This allows users to download on impulse, expanding the reach to casual or first time players. Viral hits can’t be predicted, but keeping the download time to an acceptable level might just be the difference.

REFERENCES:

[1] “Steam, The Ultimate Online Game Platform.”

[2] “Covid-19 is increasing digital inequality: We need human connectivity to close the digital divide,” Oxford Law Faculty, Apr. 13, 2020.

[3] G. Hutton, “Full-fibre broadband in the UK,” Oct. 2020

[4] “Steam: Game and Player Statistics.”

[5] “Hull becomes UK’s first city with full fibre broadband coverage,” Metro, Oct. 11, 2019.

[6] “Steam Weekly Global Top Sellers for the Week ending 25 October 2020,” SteamDB