Following this year’s Game Developer Conference, a lot of people asked me what I thought of OnLive.
Unfortunately, I didn’t yet have much of an opinion, even after watching the entire press conference. Sure, I was blown away by the potential, but I still had a lot of questions on my mind. And the way I see it, OnLive could become the future of video games … or one of the industries biggest disappointements.
For those not “in the know,” OnLive takes the idea of cloud computing and puts it to use for games. Rather than running your video games on a console or powerful PC, the games would instead be running off a server farm of supercomputers located elsewhere (hopefully close to your location, to avoid as much latency as possible).
A low latency video feed of the gameplay is then streamed to your location – not unlike watching a streaming video online, only much much faster – while your inputs to the keyboard/mouse/controller are similarly uploaded to the off-site computer. According to the OnLive guys, the algorithms and video compression software they’ve created to do all the calculations at an extremely fast speed, meaning that the ‘lag’ you would experience is practically unseen.
So, say you want to play Crysis – a pretty graphics-intensive PC game – but only have a crappy laptop that you bought for school. Maybe it’s even one of those small $300 machines. Well, assuming OnLive works and you’re subscribed to the service, you could download a very small plugin (I believe they’re saying less than a megabite?) and play Crysis even on a crappy computer. Your computer isn’t the one running the game, after all. You’re essentially only running a video of the action, even as you play it.
You can also play games on your TV via a “MicroConsole,” which they say is so small and cheap that they might be able to simply include it for free with OnLive subscriptions.
Sounds great so far, right? Even though I haven’t listed all the promises and features of the service, it should be sounding pretty darn sweet.
But a number of questions come up:
Cost: Here’s the thing: Even when you’re subscribed to the service, you have to pay to either buy or rent games (which, of course, will be stored on the OnLive service rather than your own hardware). This makes complete and total sense, but it raises a very important question. How much will the subscription itself cost? The OnLive folks have said it will be “comparable to Xbox Live,” which you can get for about $50 a year. That actually doesn’t sound too bad, all things considered.
Latency: You can tell me about compression and algorithms all you want, but I’ve been gaming since age 6. I tend to notice if things are even a little off. Sure, in some games it will barely matter and in others it won’t matter at all… But what about Street Fighter IV? Every frame counts in that game, especially if you’re playing against a human opponent. What about high speed racing games like Burnout? Will your reaction times be quick enough to avoid a fiery crash?
And the further you get from an OnLive server farm, the worse the latency is going to be. Will you be able to play games from Abilene if the closest OnLive location is Lubbock? What if they never reach places like Lubbock at all, and are only in really big cities? Is there still a use for the service in that case?
Low-Speed Areas: Back home at my parents’ place, we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s a nice house we built in the country, but the only broadband service available out there is a wireless solution, which is NOT acceptable for something like this. Despite more and more homes having high-speed connections, is there enough of a market?
Offline Play: Say your internet is down but you really want to play Dawn of War 2. What are you going to do? Apparently, the answer is nothing. You can’t play without an internet connection.
Bandwith: A lot of broadband companies currently have bandwith caps. The numbers are something like 50GB a month usually (if I’m not mistaken… Which I might be), but if you’re gaming all the time, especially in HD… Those gigs will ramp up quick.
I think OnLive still has a ways to go before convincing me that this is a must-have for the hardcore gamer (though it sounds good for more casual players), but the potential is certainly there for something great.