To Cloud or Not to Cloud: Measuring the Performance of Mobile Gaming

Chun-Ying Huang, Yu-Ling Huang, Yu-Hsuan Chi, Kuan-Ta Chen, and Cheng-Hsin Hsu

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Mobile cloud gaming allows gamers to play games on resource-constrained mobile devices, and a measurement study to quantity the client performance and energy consumption is crucial to attract and retain gamers. In this paper, we adopt an open source cloud gaming platform, GamingAnywhere, to conduct extensive experiments on real mobile devices. Our experiment results show several insights that are of interests to researchers, developers, and gamers. First, compared to native games, mobile cloud games save energy by up to 30%. Second, the hardware video coders achieve higher frame rates but suffer from a small unnecessary buffering delay, and thus is less ideal for fast-paced games. Third, the frame rate, bit rate, and resolution all affect the decoders' resource consumption, while frame rate imposes the highest impact. Last, cellular networks incur 30%-45% more energy consumption than WiFi networks, and the event processing of touch screens is also energy-hungry. These findings shed some light on further enhancements of the emerging mobile cloud gaming platforms.

1  Introduction

Cloud gaming service providers offer on-demand cloud games to users. These games normally run on powerful cloud servers, and the game scenes are captured, encoded, and streamed to thin clients running on desktops, laptops, and TV set-top boxes. In contrast to the aforementioned devices, mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, have limited computation power and are battery-powered. Therefore, running cloud gaming clients on these resource-constrained devices may lead to inferior performance and high energy consumption. For example, the gaming frame rate may become too low for smooth game play due to insufficient CPU power for video decoding operations. This results in degraded gaming quality and may drive gamers away. On the other hand, when gamers play cloud games, the communication, computing, and display components on mobile devices all consume nontrivial energy, which may quickly drain the battery and prevent gamers from using their mobile devices for other purposes, including making phone calls. Hence, we believe that carefully measuring the performance and energy consumption of mobile clients would be critical to the success of the mobile cloud gaming ecosystem.
In this paper1, we adopt an open source cloud gaming platform, GamingAnywhere (GA) [9,10], to setup a real mobile cloud gaming testbed. We conduct extensive experiments on the testbed to answer the following questions: Our extensive experiments and in-depth analysis reveal several insights that lead to design recommendations for future developments of mobile cloud gaming platforms. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first of its kind in the literature.

2  Related Work

Various optimization approaches have been proposed for mobile cloud gaming platforms, which can be classified into: specialized video codecs [6,16,3] and system adaptations [1,17,14], Specialized video codecs leverage the properties of computer rendered graphics to reduce the downlink bandwidth consumption of mobile cloud games. In particular, Hemmati et al. [6] selectively encode game objects to save network bandwidth and rendering power while maintaining gaming quality. Shu et al. [16] adopt 3D warping for light-weight post-rendering manipulation on mobile clients, in order to reduce the network bandwidth and cope with network delay. Chuah and Cheung [3] render low-quality game scenes on mobile devices while streaming the difference between low- and full-quality game scenes from cloud servers, so as to trade client computation complexity for communication complexity. System adaptations dynamically adjust the system resources across multiple distributed servers for better overall performance. Cai et al. [1] divide computer games into small components, and dynamically move these components across multiple distributed servers to meet the demands from mobile gamers. Wang and Dey [17] adjust the visual effect levels of computer games to trade off the server computation load and user-perceived quality. Liu et al. [14] present a subjective model to approximate the user experience under diverse video contents, coding parameters, and network conditions, in order to guide their adaptive rendering component for better gaming quality. These optimization techniques [6,16,3,1,17,14] are complementary to the measurement studies presented in this paper.
Both objective measurement studies [15,2] and subjective user studies [12,11] on cloud gaming using desktops have been done in the literature. We focus on mobile cloud gaming, which has only been recently considered [13,10,5]. Lampe et al. [13] adopt three performance metrics: latency, energy, and cost, trying to demonstrate the feasibility of mobile cloud gaming. In our earlier work [10], we conduct a user study to quantify the impact of different configurations on mobile gamer satisfaction. In contrast, the current paper concentrates on the objective measurements on mobile devices. Hans et al. [5] measure the energy consumption of Android smartphones running a cloud gaming client, and is probably the closest work to ours. While their findings on energy consumption are in-line with ours, Hans et al. [5] is different from the current paper for two main reasons: (i) we measure both client performance and energy consumption, while they focus on energy, and (ii) we deploy several actual games in our cloud gaming platform, while their CPU/GPU workloads are emulated.
The current paper is built upon our earlier work on developing GamingAnywhere, an open source cloud gaming platform [9,7], and porting the cloud gaming client to mobile devices [10]. The proposed mobile cloud gaming platform is transparent to existing PC games, and is of interest to researchers and developers for experiments and further enhancements.
Figure 1: The GA experiment testbed used throughout this paper.

3  Methodology

3.1  Environment Setup

Figure 1 shows the testbed used in our experiments. The testbed consists of a server and a mobile client connected via a wireless access (a campus WiFi or a 3G cellular network). We install five games of different genres on the GamingAnywhere (GA) server: Super Smash Bros, Limbo, Batman, Mario Kart, and Zelda. Super Smash Bros is a fighting game, Limbo is a 2D scrolled adventure game, Batman is a 3D adventure game, Mario Kart is a 3D racing game, and Zelda is an role-playing game. We study the GA mobile client's performance and energy consumption using these five games, and report the sample results from Super Smash Bros if not otherwise specified. To compare cloud and native games, we adopt a cross-platform OpenGL game: GLTron, which runs on both the server and Android devices. GLTron is a 3D snake-like game.
The server has an Intel Q6600 2.4 Ghz quad-core CPU and runs Windows 7. We consider two mobile devices: an ASUS Nexus 7 tablet and a Sony Xperia Z smartphone. The tablet has a Nvidia Tegra 3 1.2 quad-core process with 1 GB ram, and the smartphone has a Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ8064 1.5 GHz quad-core processor wth 2 GB ram. Both mobile devices run Android 4.4.2. We adopt two tools, UseMon and Current Widget, to collect measured CPU utilization and power consumption of a mobile device, respectively. During the experiments, we set the screen brightness to medium, and always keep the battery level above 70% to avoid noises due to battery's nonlinear discharging characteristics (details are given in Section 3.3).

3.2  Controlled Parameters

Table 1 lists the controlled parameters during the experiments. First our mobile client supports both software and hardware video decoders. The software decoder is provided by the ffmpeg project, and the hardware decoder is accessed via Android's MediaCodec framework. We use the popular H.264 coding standard, which is supported by all the chosen implementations. Second, we selectively disable and enable the controller on mobile devices, which is a transparent overlay over the video surface. When the controller is disabled, we play the games on the server. This is to isolate the additional energy consumption due to: (i) activating touch screens and (ii) handling the user input events. The remaining three parameters, resolution, bitrate, and frame rate, are for video codecs. In each experiment, we fix two video codec parameters, and vary the other one. We let 640x480, 30 fps (frame per second), and 3 Mbps be the default settings, if not otherwise specified. The goal is to quantify the impacts of different parameters on client performance and energy consumptions.
Table 1: Controlled parameters
Parameter Value
Decoder hardware, software
Controller disabled, enabled
Video codec parameter
    Resolution 640x480, 960x720, 1280x720
    Bitrate 1 Mbps, 3 Mbps, 5 Mbps
    Frame rate 10 fps, 30 fps, 50 fps
Default values are highlighted in boldface.

3.3  Baseline Energy Measurement

We measure the baseline energy consumptions before conducting the experiments. We close all irrelevant applications and services, turn on the display, and set brightness to medium. We find that the CPU utilization is close to zero. We measure the current and voltage for each mobile device, sampled at 1 Hz. The results are shown in Figure 2. On both devices, we observe that when the battery level reduces, the voltage gets lower and the current gets higher. When the battery level is lower than 60%, the current exceeds the average. For fair comparisons, we only conduct experiments when battery level is higher than 70%. Based on the measurements, the baseline power consumption for Nexus 7 and Xperia Z are 1.7 W and 1.1 W, respectively.
Figure 2: The voltage and current levels measured under the baseline configuration.

4  Measurement Results

4.1  Software vs. Hardware Video Decoders

Table 2 shows the frame rates achieved by the software decoders. This table reveals that while software decoders work well when the resolution, frame rate, and bitrate are low, they fail to achieve the configured frame rate when these video codec parameters are high. This can be attributed to the limited CPU resources on the mobile devices. We then switch to the hardware decoders, which run faster but do not report the achieved frame rate. We observe fairly constant frame rate under different video codec parameters. We make an interesting observation: the hardware decoders on both mobile devices buffer 1 or 2 decoded frames, which lead to unnecessary delay. Such limitation renders the hardware decoders less suitable to mobile cloud gaming platforms with longer network latency and fast-pace games.
Next, we zoom into two video codec configurations: (i) light, with 640x480, 10 fps, and 3 Mbps and (ii) heavy, with 1280x720, 30 fps, and 3 Mbps. We run each experiment for 15 minutes, and plot the cumulative distribution function (CDF) curves of per-core CPU utilization in Figure 3, where N7 and XZ represent the tablet and smartphone respectively. We first observe that, for each mobile device, the two curves (light and heavy) of the hardware codecs are very close. This validates the aforementioned observation: the hardware decoders achieve the same frame rate under different video codec parameters. In contrast, for each mobile device, the gap between two curves of the software codec is much larger. Last, our measurements on the power consumption leads to similar observation (figure not shown due to the space limitations). The hardware decoders consume power levels that are about two times of the baseline, which is independent to video codec parameters. In contrast, the software decoders are sensitive to video codec parameters, and draw power consumptions that are between two and three times of the baseline.
Table 2: Achieved decoder frame rate (in fps)
Nexus 7 Xperia Z
Configured 10 30 50 10 30 50
1280x720, 5 Mbps 10 13 13 10 14 13
1280x720, 3 Mbps 10 14 13 10 14 13
1280x720, 1 Mbps 10 27 19 10 17 13
960x720, 5 Mbps 10 13 13 10 14 13
960x720, 3 Mbps 10 18 15 10 16 13
960x720, 1 Mbps 10 30 24 10 24 14
640x480, 5 Mbps 10 30 30 10 30 22
640x480, 3 Mbps 10 30 46 10 30 27
640x480, 1 Mbps 10 30 45 10 30 45
Figure 3: Comparison of CPU utilization with the hardware and software decoders under different workloads.

4.2  Video Codec Parameters

eps-bitrate-cpu-n7.png eps-bitrate-cpu-xz.png eps-bitrate-curr-n7.png eps-bitrate-curr-xz.png
eps-res-cpu-n7.png eps-res-cpu-xz.png eps-res-curr-n7.png eps-res-curr-xz.png
eps-fps-cpu-n7.png eps-fps-cpu-xz.png eps-fps-curr-n7.png eps-fps-curr-xz.png
Figure 4: Measured CPU utilization and power consumption under various codec parameters.
We next present the CPU utilization and power consumption under different video codec parameters. We repeat the 3-minute experiment by 5 times, collect samples at 1 Hz, and depict the average results with minimum and maximum in Figure 4. This figure reports average CPU utilization, i.e., 25% CPU utilization is equivalent to a fully-loaded CPU core. We make two observations: (i) higher bitrates, frame rates, and resolutions consume more resources and (ii) the software decoders consume more resources. Next, we take a closer look at how each codec parameter affects the performance of the hardware decoders. We do not consider the software decoders, because neither of the considered mobile devices can keep up with the high frame rate. We define the parameter impact factor as follows. Given a parameter p and a function fp that quantifies the load of p based on its parameters. Suppose p is altered from ci to cj, we write the increased load Lp as Lp = [(fp(cj)−fp(ci))/(fp(ci))]. We also measure the battery level differences mi and mj for ci and cj, respectively. The increased overhead Op for p is defined as Op = [(mj−mi)/(mi)]. Last, the impact factor for parameter p is written as [(Op)/(Lp)]. Note that we measure the battery level difference to define the parameter impact factor because CPU utilization does not fully reflect system loads, as some workload is offloaded to the hardware decoders. Table 3 lists the impact factors of the parameters in hardware decoders. This table shows that the frame rate has the highest impact, and the resolution has the lowest.
Table 3: The impact factors of hardware decoder parameters
Nexus 7 Xperia Z
Param. Change a→b b→c a→c a→b b→c a→c
Bitrate +0.14 +0.02 +0.13 +0.07 +0.03 +0.07
Frame rate +0.06 +0.10 +0.10 +0.11 +0.09 +0.14
Resolution +0.07 -0.17 -0.01 +0.01 -0.03 -0.01
a, b, and c are the minimal, median, and maximal values of each parameter.

4.3  Game Genres

We report the CPU utilization and energy consumption of different game genres in Figure 5. All the games are configured to stream game scenes at 1280x720, although only Windows games (Limbo, Batman, and GLTron) support 1280x720: the game scenes captured from N64 emulator (Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart, and Zelda) have to be up-sampled to 1280x720 before being streamed. Therefore, the game scenes from the N64 emulated games contain less details, which in turn consume less resources. The power consumption fluctuations caused by all game genres are within ±5%. If we separate the Windows and N64 games, the fluctuations are about ±2%. We conclude that game genre has very little impact on cloud gaming CPU utilization and power consumption.
Figure 5: CPU utilization and power consumption for different game genres.

4.4  Cloud versus Native Games

Next, we play Super Smash Bros and GLTron as cloud games and GLTron as a native game. Cloud games are configured to stream at 1280x720 resolution. The results are shown in Figure 6. In the figure, "Cloud#1" and "Cloud#2" correspond to Super Smash Bros and GLTron, respectively. "Native" is the Android version of GLTron. It is clear that the native game consumes much more resources than cloud games: the CPU consumption is doubled and the power consumption is also increased by more than 30%. We emphasize that GLTron is not very visually-rich, but running it natively incurs nontrivial resource consumption. The resource consumption gap between the cloud and native games will be even larger for modern 3D games. Last, we make another observation: enabling the controller results in additional resource consumption. We take a deeper look at this observation below.
Figure 6: CPU utilization and power consumption for cloud and native games.

4.5  Other Components

We study the impact of other components on resource consumption, including the wireless access links and touch screens. Figure 7 shows the resource consumptions by using different wireless access links. We only report results from Xperia Z because Nexus 7 does not have a 3G module. We work with the default codec configuration (640x480, 30 fps, 3 Mbps). Both the software and hardware decoders can decode at the configured frame rate. The measurements also show that the 3G module consumes additional 30%-45% of power.
To measure the impact of touch screens, we develop an Android application that does nothing but accepting gestures from a user. The accepted events are dropped immediately. We run this gesture application on both mobile devices for 3 minutes and collect the CPU utilization and power consumption. We continuously slide the touch screens during the second minute, and leave the mobile devices idle in the first and last minutes. To isolate the resource consumption due to touch screens and event processing, we also write a replayer tool that injects the touch screen events to the gesture application. We run the gesture application and log all the timestamped events. We then inject the events to the gesture application using replayer, and compare the two measurement results. Figure 8 gives the CPU utilization and power consumption over time. This figure shows that the touch screen (including event processing) and event processing (only) consume similar amount of resources. This indicates that the event processing is energy-hungry, while the touch screen consumes negligible amount of additional resources. That is, touch screen and event processing is not free (in terms of energy consumption), though it is usually overlooked. Our measurements show that event processing consumes additional 6%-10% power. More in-depth analysis along this line is among our future tasks.
Figure 7: CPU utilization and power consumption for different wireless access links.
Figure 8: CPU utilization and power consumption for handling control events.

5  Conclusion

In this paper, we implement a testbed based on a real mobile cloud gaming platform GamingAnywhere [9,10]. We conduct extensive experiments to measure the client performance and energy consumption. Our measurement results lead to the following main findings. We believe that such findings point out helpful design recommendations for future researchers and developers of the emerging mobile cloud gaming platforms.


This work was supported in part by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan under the grants MOST 103-2221-E-019-033-MY2 and MOST 103-2221-E-001-023-MY2. We would also like to thank the reviewers for their insightful comments.


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1. This paper is an extended version of a workshop short paper that appeared as [8].

Sheng-Wei Chen (also known as Kuan-Ta Chen) 
Last Update September 19, 2017