Crispy Gamer

OnLive: Hoping to be Fashionably Early to the Remote Play Party

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Even though the Game Developers Conference is supposed to be about, y'know, game development, it was actually a game distribution system called OnLive that quickly became the talk of the show. It's not hard to see why: the service promises to revolutionize gaming by running high-end games on remote servers, taking in player input over the Internet and sending the experience back as a simple video stream that can be run on any low-end computer or a low-cost set-top box. If it works, OnLive could make the cycle of buying expensive video game consoles and top-of-the-line computers utterly obsolete.

Of course, the "if it works" part of that sentence is the key. The company showed a demo of the technology at GDC, and while my experience playing Crysis from a remote server hundreds of miles away was passable, it was far from perfect. The video quality was inconsistent, ranging from ultra-grainy, YouTube-style compression to a sort of muddy high definition that didn't look quite as crisp as I'd have expected from a high-end local PC. The bigger problem, though, was the slight-but-noticeable lag between my tapping a key and seeing the resulting action appear on screen. This kind of delay is near meaningless for some games -- puzzles and MMOs, for example -- but in the FPS and RTS-filled world of computer gaming, this is a potentially fatal flaw. And remember, this was under close-to-ideal demo conditions at a trade show. Will OnLive really be able to maintain even this low level of performance when thousands or even millions of users are logging in at once?

Here's the thing: It might not matter. Sure the experience might be imperfect right now, but it won't always be this way. Assuming Moore's Law keeps up at its current rate, processing and streaming high-definition game video in real time with near-zero latency will eventually be as trivial as transmitting an instant message is today. It may take a decade (or even more) but it seems inevitable that, one day, gaming over a remote server will be nearly indistinguishable from gaming on a local console or computer.

That day obviously isn't here yet, but again, it might not matter. If OnLive can attract enough interest in its current, imperfect form, it could manage to hang on as a company until that day when seamless remote play is a reality. When that day comes, OnLive would be the established, well-known brand in the space, ready to accept the flood of mass market users that will come rushing to enjoy seamless, high-end gaming without the need to buy high-end hardware.

That's what I imagine OnLive's plan is, anyway. They're hoping to be early enough to the remote gaming party to introduce themselves to those first few stragglers walking in the door. Then, when the party really gets going, all the latecomers will see OnLive as the life of the party, not as the awkward earlybird hanging out by the bowl of dip. It's a risky strategy, but one that has a bigger potential upside than showing up to the party near the end, when all the cool people have left and the beer keg is down to just foam and the tortilla chips are starting to get stale.

OK, I promise the analogy is over now. But the point stands!