Subspace exists because the internet still has a lot of bottlenecks. The Los Angeles startup came out of stealth in the past week to fix those bottlenecks, sort of how Waze helps you — or at least once helped you — find your way around car traffic jams.
And nobody needs this kind of traffic unclogging more than multiplayer gamers, as the coronavirus has condemned us to our homes and doomed many of us to entertain ourselves with multiplayer games, such as Call of Duty: Warzone (my particular obsession), League of Legends, or FIFA.
Subspace helps by coming up with a combination of software and hardware that sets up a kind of parallel internet, or one that routes around the problem traffic and creates fast lanes for the game companies that pay Subspace for the speed.
And Subspace has raised $26 million to date from Lux Capital and others, and it has already generated “ten figures” in revenues, said CEO Bayan Towfiq, in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat. Among the customers is Funplus, a big Chinese mobile game company that has popular games like King of Avalon.
Millions of players are playing on Subspace networks today, but they don’t know it. Towfiq said the company has a significant population of players on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, PlayStation, Xbox, and the Switch. Lots of those games are sensitive to latency. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, for instance, five players square off against five others and the winners are those with split-second reflexes.
“We’re working with some of the biggest game companies in the world,” Towfiq said.
This kind of improvement in internet speeds is coming just in time, as the coronavirus is bogging down networks.
Comcast said that overall traffic is up 32% on its networks, but gaming traffic has been up 50% to 80% thanks to games like Warzone. That is happening at the same time where voice queries are topping 50 million a day and video-on-demand traffic is up 25% from a year ago. Video conferences such as Zoom calls are skyrocketing 212% from a year ago as they have become a critical part of doing work. Verizon said gaming was up 75% on its networks. Cisco said that U.S. downstream traffic growth since March 1 is 20.1%, while upstream growth is up 27.7%.
French operators are considering throttling Netflix and YouTube, as well as Facebook. A Fortnite marathon allegedly caused a two-thirds surge in Italian internet traffic. These things can be quite scary unless you’ve built a global weather map for internet traffic.
“Real-time traffic like this multiplayer game traffic is incredibly sensitive to internet weather,” Towfiq said.
Subspace wasn’t planning to come out yet, but the company (named after the fictional medium in which objects/signals travel faster than light) wants to help alleviate the work-from-home challenges.
“With the pandemic lockdowns, as they spread through Europe, we saw this huge increase in usage and games exploding and our customers were coming to us,” said Towfiq. “The Internet has been structurally broken for real-time interactivity, like multiplayer games, but nobody had ever seen anything like this. There were reports starting a couple of weeks ago, out of places like France, where the government was talking about rationing and throttling certain types of content. To me, it seemed like kind of a failed Soviet solution to this problem. The rationing has all kinds of other negative things that come along with it in terms of morale.”
Towfiq didn’t want to see games get blamed for bringing down the networks, as he has an enlightened view of how they can help us during this time.
“There is this feeling still that games aren’t real, and the industry has been kind of plagued for a long time, like it doesn’t exist on the same level as other types of entertainment like film,” Towfiq said. “We didn’t feel that way.”
A seasoned team
Towfiq is a serial entrepreneur who sold his last company, Flowroute, to West/Intrado. He cofounded the company in 2018 with William King, chief technology officer and a real-time communications expert.
Shahin Farshchi, a partner at investor Lux Capital, is on the board. The president of Subspace is Bruno Schirch, former head of global publishing and esports operations at Riot Games. Ron Williams, vice president of operations, is former infrastructure and security vice president at Riot Games. Dan Roelker, vice president of product and engineering, is the former head of software at SpaceX.
Towfiq himself grew up in a family of early internet entrepreneurs. His father built the first cable internet network in 1994: the joint venture between Time Warner and Toshiba. And his uncle built one of the first California data centers.
“I grew up with telecom in my blood, studied computer science and physics and I was was a gamer from a young age, cutting my teeth on Doom and Quake multiplayer,” he said. “I was the low-ping bastard (LPB), because I had a cable modem in 1995 at home.”
Towfiq assembled a team with people like King that also had the internet and games in their blood.
“This was exciting way ahead of the coronavirus that has hit the world, but it is accelerating in importance in the online world that we are all enduring at the moment,” said Mike Gallagher, consultant for Subspace and founder of GetIntrepedity (and former CEO of the Entertainment Software Association). “They brought to my attention the worldwide phenomenon of discrimination against video game traffic. And you can imagine that I bristled at that instantly.”
Kevin Wollenweber, vice president of product manager in the service provider network systems business at Cisco, told me in an interview that the network has handled bandwidth problems pretty well, as it is built to handle surges like when Warzone gets released for everybody to download. More content has been pushed out to the CDN-style structures, where the content is closer to the customers, so the customer experience is better.
“If you have major issues in interactivity, or latency, that’s where you see issues,” Wollenweber said.
And that’s where Subspace steps in.
“When it comes to defeating latency, it really is transformational for the frustrations we have when using the internet,” Gallagher added. “The moment was brought to them. They chose the video game space to launch their service because it’s so perfect for them. But they can help with the broader problems of latency-sensitive applications. It’s pretty exciting to be around them with their meetings with the game companies.”
The team knows that solving interactivity is the challenge.
“Once you have the game downloaded, you’re not using bandwidth,” Towfiq said. “It’s just small packets that are very lightweight on it.”
Building the internet for this moment
The internet has gone through major shifts over the last 25 years. In the mid-1990s, eBay and Amazon wanted to sell things online, but the internet was too slow to even load images.
And so content delivery networks (CDNs) like Akamai built storage in hundreds of cities around the world, avoiding network caching content, and solving that speed problem. The biggest impact wasn’t on ecommerce though. It was streaming iTunes, YouTube, and Netflix. These came ten years after the CDNs.
All the internet companies learned how important it was for pages to load fast, and how it directly impacted revenue. By 2005, Amazon had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in data centers around the world, trying to solve the rest of this problem. It was democratizing compute on the internet after storage had been democratized. And they saw an opportunity to help other internet companies that were scaling, namely Netflix and Salesforce, and launched Amazon Web Services.
The biggest impact of that was to help tens of thousands of software service companies launch without having to invest in data centers. Over the last 15 years, the internet has been built, upgraded and optimized for Netflix, YouTube, and volumetric applications. And so internet service providers talk about how they can support volumetric traffic, but real-time interactivity is just as crucial for things like games. The difference in games: Volumetric traffic is generated by things like downloading a big game, whereas interactivity is critical if you want to shoot a player in Warzone before they shoot you.
You can think of Subspace as a new kind of CDN for games. It deals with problems about why the internet, which was originally designed for redundancy in the case of a nuclear war, is screwed up. Internet packets have to hop from one kind of infrastructure, owned by one company, to another, owned by another company. Those handoffs take time, and routing isn’t as efficient as it is supposed to be.
“We’re building more capacity, doing these things to make sure that we can handle the load,” said Towfiq.
Software alone can’t solve the problem. Part of the solution is lighting up dark fiber, or unused fiber-optic networks, and Subspace has spent part of its money doing that in hundreds of cities around the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in submarine cable systems and terrestrial fiber networks. But companies by and large don’t have control over global network infrastructure.
“In other words, all the storage and compute on the internet have been democratized. Network assets haven’t,” Towfiq said. “And what suffers is the less than 1% of internet traffic that’s more valuable than the other 99% combined. Real-time interactivity. And that’s really multiplayer games, sports betting, certain types of video, real-time video, and military applications.”
Subspace builds a map of the internet, finds the paths that are fast, and routes the traffic. It’s like taking the playbook of high-frequency traders and rebuilding it for games.
“Of those, the most prevalent, the most valuable, the most wide reaching is multiplayer gaming,” Towfiq said. “We are deploying infrastructure, physical infrastructure that we’re palletizing shipping, installing in hundreds of cities around the world right now. From these locations, we build a weather map of the global internet, using tech to find the paths that are fast and clean, kind of like Waze, but for internet traffic.”
Many infrastructure companies like Comcast say they don’t need the help. But Towfiq believes that in places like Western Europe, the networks of carriers like Vodaphone and CenturyLink are overloaded.
If Subspace can solve these problems for game companies, it could also solve problems like your iPad freezing during a meeting, or your Zoom conference bogging down when multiple people try to speak. The company still has to raise tens of millions more to fulfill its mission. But it’s got revenue coming in.
Over the long term, Towfiq would like to enable new kinds of applications, like telerobotics.
“We are lighting up dark fiber with our own lasers,” Towfiq said. “We are using our own wavelengths on existing fiber optic systems. So, really, the way to think of it is we’re taking a page out of the playbook of high frequency traders, and applying it to the global internet for games. This kind of parallel internet, or private network, is completely transparent to the gamers and the game companies. But we have zero packet loss.”