Computer games have been an important part of my life since as long as I can remember. I’m still young, but I caught the tail end of Kali and saw Mplayer rise and fall, and Gamespy never quite thrilled me like All Seeing Eye. Things have changed a lot over the last decade, but one important tool has remained the same. I discovered this tool during the beginning of my birth into the FPS clan community. The reason people were so darn good was because of they had the one advantage the noobs didn’t — communication. I honestly can’t think of anything more important in online gaming than your access to voice communication. Not only does it make the experience more enjoyable, but also helps to create friendship on a whole new level.
The difference between now and ten years ago is that we’ve finally brought in choice. Out goes relics like Roger Wilco and in comes some real competitors. As we all know, competition fuels advancement. Many gamers these days are constantly bickering over which tool is better – Ventrilo or Teamspeak. Others who like to keep their VOIP sessions a bit smaller and more personal tend to utilize Skype. However, a few are catching on to this new kid on the block known as Mumble. As primarily a Teamspeak user, I have been itching to test and see what solution is truly the most superior. When it comes to FPS games you need every tweak possible to keep up with the rest and VOIP is definitely on that list. I had some free time and access to all the required software, so testing is what I did.
Before I begin I’d like to quickly touch on the advent of in-game VOIP technologies. I think it’s wonderful and a great asset to multiplayer online games. It sure makes things enjoyable when you have a good team of random people communicating and working together online. I like that the volume can automatically lower for the VOIP transmission which is a feature unique to this integration. However, there is a drawback to this — you can’t easily contact other people you know who are playing other games. It’s just not a solution a clan or squad who play multiple games regularly can rely on. Furthermore, you have to remember that the server is doing this work and heavy VOIP can cause a game server to lag as it takes up quite a bit of bandwidth and some CPU time. Consequently the audio quality can be poor as I have seen in a few games. When it comes down to it, this is not something I’d rely on in the competitive gaming community.
I’d also like to give you some background on the setup so we don’t get a thrall of flames and accusations. I’m a Unix/Linux sysadmin with a networking degree. I do have half a clue regarding networking, but if you see a blatant mistake please, beat me senseless. I only have control over my network during the tests, so I can’t vouch for others, but there is no interference on my end. I tested with no traffic (web, torrent, etc), and if you’re wondering I have QoS setup for all these applications at the same (highest) priority. A friend of mine runs my clan’s Teamspeak server on FreeBSD 6.2. He also put Murmur on that same server. Ventrilo is on a separate server, and Skype is . . . well, Skype is Skype. I’m watching the Stanley Cup Finals as I write this and making this a bracket competition kind of makes more sense because of the visual representation and it fits my testing process. Behold, the competitors.
The first on my list was Skype (3.8 win32) vs Mumble (1.1.4 win32). While speaking to the Timedoctor himself I compared Skype and Mumble’s performance by speaking and listening over both connections at the same time. On my end the Mumble server was reporting 45-60ms. I found the voice quality to be pretty close. Mumble uses Speex for voice activation detection, background noise filtering, and compression. Skype utilizes a proprietary protocol of which the details are scarce. I have always enjoyed the voice quality of Skype, and Mumble has that and more. My experience showed that the background noise filtering was superb and pushed Mumble to the top in this category. Skype also happens to use a more P2P type of communication instead of client/server, but don’t let that scare you. I’m not going to discuss bandwidth or resource usage because that’s not the point of this article — we want the best tool for you no matter the cost. However, latency is certainly important. It was quite close actually, but Mumble was slightly faster than Skype. Skype was the echo in this test, and I’d have to say it was something on the order of 250ms — definitely noticable. Mumble wins this one.
Teamspeak (126.96.36.199 win32) and Ventrilo (3.01 win32) were the next up to the chopping block.. Teamspeak has Speex for its high end audio codec as does Ventrilo. Teamspeak’s audio is not exactly something to write home about. It has a bit more liberal licesing and that’s probably why it has a pretty good foothold in the hosting market. Ventrilo, however, makes you sound human wheras Teamspeak’s audio quality can’t really be explained adequately. Even at the highest settings Teamspeak seems to make you sound like you’re in a wind tunnel or a tin can without a very high end mic. Don’t critique me on this, I’ve had dozens of mics and they all end up with the same results. Latency was extremely noticable. The Vent server was measuring 22ms and the Teamspeak was measuring 45-60ms. No wonder you Vent fans fap furiously to the egotistic Vent developer (singular). We’re looking at nearly a 1.25 second difference here in audio! This was just mind blowing. In an FPS game this can be the difference between (virtual) life and (virtual) death! On a side note, Teamspeak has one feature I want to see more often though: you can amplify the audio to make it louder than other applications. It’s nice to make the VOIP louder than the rest of the system so you don’t have to lower your game’s volume. This is probably less of an issue than I’m making it out to be, but I really do enjoy this feature and can’t quite locate this in Ventrilo. If it’s there, sue me. Either way, this Bud’s for you Vent, you earned it.
Okay, we’ve weeded out Skype and Teamspeak. The final showdown needs a bit of an introduction. From my machine I have the following measurements: Mumble showing 45-60ms as stated earlier, and Vent claiming 22ms. Let’s get straight to the point. Latency for Ventrilo was comparable with Skype. Mumble has the advantage here. It’s slight, but every bit is critical. In the audio quality realm it’s very close, too, but Mumble has actively working background noise filtration that can be the difference between hearing your teammate the first time and losing critical time asking “WTF?”.
The conclusion is pretty simple. If you want the best you can get right now for VOIP you better look at Mumble. Not many hosting companies offer it yet, but if you can get a VPS or a dedicated server go out and install it immediately! There’s not much more to ask for — you get great audio quality and latency, in game overlay is a part of Mumble, directional audio can hook into games, nested channels, awesome multiplatform support, and probably others I can’t think to mention. The only negative is that although user and group control is great once you get the users created . . . creating them is not exactly straightforward. There is a perl cgi web interface for it, but it’s really basic. I expect this to be taken care of soon, but it is something you should know about. Get past this hurdle and you won’t look back. Either way, do these Mumble devs a favor and get them laid as a THANK YOU for such an amazingly well performing app. Just don’t get them into a relationship or we might not see version 2.0. P.S. Teamspeak 3 is vaporware. Don’t get your hopes up.