Tickrate has been a source of contention between gamers since competitive gaming was invented. Games these days have varying tickrates depending on the the type of game you’re playing and the cost to the company (their greed, rather). Before we start, take a look at the tickrates of some games old and new:
What is tickrate?
Tickrate is the frequency with which the game server computes stuff and sends the info to your computer. It’s measured in Hertz, so it happens very fast – many times per second. Games like CS:GO have a tickrate of 64Hz, which means the game server sends packets to your client on what’s happening in the game 64 times per second. These packets contain all the information about what’s happening in the game; player movement, shots fired and flaming in allchat.
If a server is sending you packets 64 times per second, it means you’re only getting information about the game every 1000/64 =15.6 milliseconds. What this means for players is that every action a player takes happens with a maximum delay of 15.6 ms. If you’re familiar with the concept of ping (your system’s latency to the game server), this means that on average every action you take will be delayed by 7.8 ms. A 20 tick server would have a maximum delay of 50ms and an average delay of 25ms. So if your ping in Overwatch is around 25ms, the low tickrate is basically doubling your delay. A difference of 128 and 64 tick won’t be noticeable if your monitor refresh rate is 60Hz or below, as the reduced delay won’t be shown between frames on your screen.
Client-side and server-side tickrate
There’s a distinction to be made between client-server tickrate, which is the frequency with which packets are sent from your computer to the server, and server-client tickrate, which does the opposite. This article deals with server-client tickrate, as usually that’s the one that’s limited by game companies. The reason is costs. Doubling a server’s tickrate pretty much doubles the bandwidth, which increases costs.
Tickrate is super important for any game that becomes an e-sport. When there are players who spend their lives perfecting one skill, playing 10-12 hours a day to practice a game, the top level players expect their in-game actions to match what the server computes. For pros who care about every little bit of latency, who can probably notice a difference between 15 and 30 ping, the added average delay of a low tickrate is noticeable.
CS:GO deals with the issue fairly well in competitive games. 128 tick servers provide an average delay of 3.9 milliseconds, which is reasonably low. The tickrate in the game affects a lot of things that at first seem unintuitive, such as the position of smokes and flashes. A smoke that works in a 128 tick server might be slightly off in a 64 tick server, enough to make it useless. Things like wallbanging, hit detection and movement are all twice less likely to be accurate, leading to some funny situations. It’s completely possible that you duck behind cover just before an enemy shoots at you, but the game doesn’t detect this movement, which can killed even when you shouldn’t. This is rare, but not unheard of. Pro players especially complain about 64 tick in matchmaking servers because it throws off timing, and they can notice the little things that you probably can’t.
In Dota 2 or LoL, tickrate largely doesn’t matter due to the nature of the game. Both these games have a tickrate of around 30, which is enough for an A-RTS because the movements and actions don’t depend on quick timings so much. Just today Arteezy showed off his 9k skills by Manta dodging a Disruptor Glimpse in his game against Digital Chaos. Doing what he did is extremely difficult, and even many pro players would struggle to do it. The timing for disjointing a Glimpse is 0.1 seconds, or 100ms. So Arteezy had to press his legacy keys within that 100ms, with an average delay of 16ms caused due to tickrate. Impressive.
If you do one of those online tests that calculates your reaction time, it’s very difficult to go below 200ms, which is considered a pretty good reaction time. Timing within a 100ms time-span therefore is not so much about reaction time, but about practice and muscle reflex. Most pros in Dota 2 have everything down to a reflex, so they’re rarely ‘reacting’ to stuff in the same way an FPS player would. Arteezy’s probably got the Manta dodge down to a reflex at this point because it’s actually pretty hard to hit the timing otherwise.
Overwatch is what originally re-ignited the tickrate discussion. There are a ton of reasons why their 20.8Hz tickrate isn’t optimal for competitive or even high ranked casual play, but at the end of the day it’s up to Blizzard. Perhaps they were going for a stable launch, but having accomplished that surely it’s time to improve on something that’s obviously hindering gameplay? I’m not going to write too much on Overwatch because there’s a lot of better articles delving deep into the topic, but the game is an example of letting down the competitive aspect of it in favour of costs, maintenance and shiny features.