OnLive promises to revolutionize gaming.
OnLive is a new online gaming distribution platform. Unlike existing other online game deliver services (such as Steam and Impulse), where you purchase and download games, OnLive skips the download process by streaming the games directly to you. When this was first announced, I knew it was the start of something big. Well, over a year later, it’s finally out to the public and you can put your name into the hat for the early subscriber program. They seem to be controlling the addition of new users to keep the system from getting overloaded, but the wait time for me was less than a day.
Though, I wondered. I know that this method of distribution will be big, maybe OnLive couldn’t pull it off. Maybe they’re ahead of their time. Friends much more knowledgeable than me about network data structures were extremely skeptical. If they were right, that was only a problem for today. In the next 5 or 10 years, internet speeds would be up to a manageable place. OnLive promised they could, but a lot of companies make promises abut goals they can’t hit.
To give you an idea of the technological hurdles, OnLive requires about an 80 millisecond latency between you, the user, and their server, which could be hundreds of miles away. Most internet usage, from email to streaming videos and FarmVille don’t have any latency requirements. Games that do, like online racing, shooter, and roleplaying games usually can function just fine in the 200 millisecond range, although often these games have local servers where you can find a very low latency. OnLive doesn’t have the advantage of letting users set up thousands of local servers spread around the world, so a target of 80 is an ambitious one.
The reason 80 is important is because they figure it to be the total milliseconds your brain will forgive. Much longer than that and it will become more noticeable that the response time is off. From a click on your keyboard or control, to the time it takes to get to their servers, processed by the game on their computer, then the display gets compressed and sent back to you, a lot of milliseconds are eaten up by all of that. There is not much room for a power outage in Nebraska or your neighbor to download the entire run of Hill Street Blues to get in the way of your game data.
I’ve been playing for a couple of days now. So, how is it?
The High Points
Well, I think they live up to their promises. I spent a lot of time in a shooter and a top down tower defense game. The speed and performance was nice. Although I’m only about 50 miles away from one of their server farms, still its nice to see that it works out of more controlled conditions. I noticed a bit of mouse lag in the tower defense game, but it was mainly when in the menu using the curse like a mouse. I suspect I’m a bit more sensitive to mouse hand-eye coordination, though. It never seemed a detriment to playing the game.
The interface is slick. Lots of video streaming and swooshing around. I really like their “background” interface which is a huge globe of streaming screens of individual play sessions.
And viewing those other players is much more compelling than I thought it would be. Jump into someone’s game and see what they’re up to. You might see some cool stuff. There’s also Brag clips, which are short videos you can make of your gameplay. You see some recent ones in any game’s menu, or browse them in general. It’s a cool way to show off accomplishments.
The potential for graphics is amazing. Because the software is not limited by your hardware, there’s the promise and possibility of future games that are developed with OnLive in mind. This means developers could take the graphics they display to a much higher level. Although something like this is a ways off. After OnLive becomes big and popular enough to influence the industry, then you’d need the development time, which would be at least one or two years. But still, it’s a cool prospect.
Multiplayer games hold a lot of promise too. First, if everyone is running their games at the same server farm, then there’s no worry about all that transmission to the player. Since all that’s coming back is video information, you could play games with a huge number of players. And future games would be able to take advantage of this in other ways, such as more complex interactions or detailed physics effects.
The Low Points
The video compression isn’t the greatest. The experience is like watching a YouTube video full screen. Sometimes the quality is really good, sometimes it’s not. At one point, the artifacting left shadows of the video, completely blurring what was going on in part of the screen for several seconds. I was looking for a way to increase the resolution. It’s not intolerable, but it takes the oomph out of the potential for the graphics. Of course, I’m comparing to my beefy PC which was built with games in mind. You can get the same results on a super cheap laptop, and that’s pretty impressive.
The price is the only other negative comment, but it’s a pretty big one. The current offer going on is the first year is free, so there is that to consider. The rate after that is $5 per month for the special Founder’s program they are running. I haven’t seen a price listed for what it will be after the program, so I wonder if the offer is going to continue for an indefinite period of time (despite claims that it ends on July 15th). On top of that, in order to play any game, you need to buy or rent it. Rentals run about $4 to $7 for a 3 or 5 day rental, and most game prices seem to be $20 to $30 (although some are as low as $5). The combination of these two systems is baffling. And worse, a deal breaker. I’m happy to play the game demos that I can, but dropping money into a subscription system seems odd. It’s like paying for cable and discovering all your channels are Pay-per-View or Premium. Or going to a video rental store (remember those?) and finding out there is a cover charge.
Online is going to have to change one of those two factors. I’d be happy to pay a higher subscription rate for unlimited access to the games within. That sounds like a great plan. The other option is to not have any subscription rate. That’s fine too, but they would need to get the game prices lowered. If I get a game on a service like Steam, there’s no guarantee that Steam will be around forever, but if they do go away, I’ll still have that digital download. Apple going out of business doesn’t clear out your iTunes library. So, it’s a big psychological hurdle to overcome. Digital downloads are already avoided by some, but when you don’t even possess the data that you’re purchasing, it’s yet another step away. I’m not sure what I’m comfortable spending, but I know it’s not $30.
The End Points
It’s really great to see this service out. I’m glad to see the technology prove itself. But, their pricing system just might do them in. Hopefully they have enough invested to course correct if necessary. I had wondered what they would do, and my worst fears were correct. I worried they’d try to go both ways, but I figured the CEO’s vacillating answers were ambivalence, not an actual plan to take the worst of both options. Although I imagine that much of it is not in their control. Hopefully some publishers will get it and not price their games so high in this new system. OnLive would do well to try and force this, or better yet, get a couple of high profile, do whatever it takes to put them up for free, and really drive the numbers of people aware of the system and lining up to play.
Which is another point, I’m on their mailing list as well as following their twitter and I had no idea that the service had launched. They seem to be taking soft launch to a whole new level.