In a world full of alternative business models for game distribution, OnLive has taken what could be considered an obvious idea, and applied a high level of ingenuity to produce something quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.
The system, in theory, is quite simple: a local data center, in our case located in Santa Clara, houses a system which has 23 launch titles loaded into it. The games are played on this system, which is supposedly powerful enough to maintain 60 frames per second on all titles. The player connects to a game via subscription, a 5+ mbps internet connection, and after installing a small plug-in, remotely controls the game from his controller of choice at home, while the video output of the game is streamed back to his television or monitor.
Technical explanation aside, the service basically puts any included game into the hands of a player who has an internet connection, circumventing entirely the need for powerful computer hardware. It should be noted that a dual-core system is at least recommended for proper functionality, which means you may not be able to use OnLive with that Atom-powered netbook. However, you can access your OnLive account from any computer with internet service, which means you could easily play games from your work computer on the drop of a dime. Will this lead to a drop in productivity that destroys America’s economic infrastructure? I guess we’ll find out.
Currently the game list is limited to some of the most popular current-generation titles, but more are slated to roll out after OnLive is released. Among the current titles is Assassin’s Creed 2, which I got a chance to play. The graphics quality seemed to be equivalent to that of its console counterparts, and the controller latency is what we are already accustomed to.
Of particular interest is the user interface that OnLive provides. The menu options appear as a grid, including Arena, Profile, Marketplace, Coming Soon, My Games, Last Played, Brag Clips, Friends, and a settings option as well. This seems like a reasonable improvement upon the menu revealed in the past, among other things replacing the vague “Showcase” with a more standard “Marketplace” option.
My Games is what you’d expect. You can browse your purchased or rented games and begin to play from here. The Marketplace allows you to put down plastic for new games. You can rent for approximately $5, or buy an “Unlimited Playpass” for $30 and up (they claim their prices are not set in stone, but will be competitive or better than retail outlets). The Profile section allows you to customize your online identity. In place of caricatured avatars, in takes the rather novel approach of allowing users to represent themselves with one of many unique and quirky video clips that play continuously. These clips range from a stroll through a zombie-infested graveyard to the silhouette of a 1970’s blaxploitation heroine aiming a gun from side to side.
Brag Clips is a neat feature which allows players to record 10-second clips of a memorable game moment, and then save them for any other OnLive user to view. It’s as easy as going to the Brag Clips section on the main menu. The screen fills with a grid of clips, and you can play any clip with no load time simply by selecting it with the controller.
The Arena option is also very unique to the OnLive experience. Similarly to Brag Clips, if this option is selected, a grid of games pops up on the screen. However, these are actually streaming videos of games being played live by other OnLive users. You can easily parse through the grid, which scrolls in every direction, revealing what appears to be an endless supply of viewing options. This makes sense, as you can watch the games of every other OnLive user currently online. Friends’ games are clustered in the middle for quick viewing access. You can watch multiple games simultaneously, or enlarge a game to fullscreen. In fullscreen mode, you can get involved in the action by “cheering” and “jeering”, a way of expressing approval or disdain at what you’re seeing.
I got the opportunity to interview the User Experience Product Manager for OnLive, Joshua Vincent. Since the advantages of the system are quite apparent, I made a point to discuss what could be potential pitfalls of the design. One of my biggest questions concerned the fact that there are no actual native systems being used. There is no XBox, PS3, Windows PC or Mac computer being run in the OnLive Data Center. Rather, all the technology is proprietary, which means a gamer using a mouse and keyboard at home could very well be playing someone using a console controller. This struck me as a significant flaw in design, as one should be able to choose to only play against gamers with an equivalent control scheme. Vincent agreed on this point, and stated that after OnLive is released, he would look into building that functionality.
Another issue I raised is that the Arena, Friends, and My Games sections are completely disconnected. You can view the game of a friend in just a few seconds by entering the Arena, and yet to join their game, you have to access the main menu, go to My Games, load up a game, and then find the friend through the in-game menus. This system is surprisingly obtuse for an otherwise quick and easy service, and Vincent expressed his desire to fix it in the near future. Luckily, it doesn’t make games any harder to play; rather, it just doesn’t seem to take advantage of OnLive’s clever design.
Since OnLive is “cloud gaming”, which means all the data is located on a server rather than at the player’s home, saved games, and even saved states of games can be accessed literally from any location. A 5 mbps connection is required, but 7 mbps is recommended for no-lag connectivity. Games always stream at 720p, which means that if the connection drops to a point where this video stream can no longer be maintained, it will begin to lag, and then the service will drop you until your connection returns. Another perk of OnLive is that it automatically patches and updates games on the server-side, which means as a player you will never have to. There are also no load times for the service itself; the games themselves will still take their normal time to load.
An important fact to keep in mind is that the game developers are responsible for building an OnLive version of their game. While Vincent claims this is not a difficult process, it is still a potential roadblock for getting the most amount of games possible on the service. As of right now, Activision has decided not to support OnLive with their games, which is a significant loss. Hopefully in the near future Activision will deem the service worthy of their games.
OnLive is being released today for PC and Mac, with 23 titles available at launch, and a total of 50 expected soon after. A MicroConsole TV adapter is also in the works, which circumvents the need for a computer entirely and sends the OnLive stream directly to your HDTV. It will feature upscaling, as well as ports for console controllers and mouse and keyboard setup. The standard OnLive service will be $4.95 per month, which includes features and game demos, and is required to rent and purchase games. Currently, AT&T is sponsoring a free year subscription to OnLive, regardless of your respective service provider. However, it is “first come first serve,” and I was not told how many such free subscriptions are available. So, if you’re planning on trying out OnLive, I would suggest doing it sooner than later to take advantage of this promotion.
OnLive was described to me by the PR reps as “like Google Docs, but with explosions.” If it can maintain its promise of “no latency, no lag” as the player base builds, then I predict OnLive will begin a huge movement towards “cloud gaming” that will fundamentally change the way the business of video game distribution is handled. We all saw it coming, most just didn’t think OnLive was going to cut it. After seeing it firsthand, I can say, I think it just might.