OnLive: Gaming in the cloud?

So over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of prophesising, criticism and acclaim over the unveiling of OnLive at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference. Before I give my personal take on it, it’s probably worth noting that this service is still in development. You won’t be seeing this on store shelves during the next few weeks and only the creators know if it will stand up to millions of people logging in at once.

OnLive is an on-demand, internet gaming service. Using the cloud strategy that has become increasingly popular with Google’s mail service, the basic idea is that everything you play will be processed online through a separate server. When you play a title, everything you input into the controller will be uploaded and then played out far away through OnLive’s internal hardware. The result is then streamed through the internet and back to your screen so that you can see the results. Imagine an interactive version of Megavideo or Vimeo for gamers and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what is trying to be achieved.

Mirror's Edge being showcased on the system

Mirror's Edge being showcased on the system

The idea of having your video game played somewhere else sounds very detached to me. To combat this OnLive are boasting lag so minimal, you won’t even realise the online server is doing all the work. Every game should feel like it’s running on your own system. Rather than having to keep a hefty console by your side, the application will run on both Windows and Mac operating systems as a browser plug-in. Unlike current alternatives such as Steam, you won’t need to download anything to your hard drive. If you prefer to do home gaming through your TV set, you’ll be able to buy an OnLive ‘MicroConsole’. This is a tiny little box that hooks up using a HDMI cable and supposedly will cost less than any console currently on the market.

Intrigued? I was by this point. If OnLive can interpret, process and stream a title as fast as they claim, the only requirement for gaming will be an internet connection. Technically, you should even be able to use this cloud technology on your tiny Netbook. As long as your ISP is fast enough, titles such as Crysis and Bioshock will finally be available at their highest performance specs. For the Apple Mac users out there that have struggled to build a game library, this could be the much needed solution.

The MicroConsole will be used as an adaptor for TV sets

The MicroConsole will be used as an adaptor for TV sets

The service of OnLive is likely to be paid through a cheaper, but similar system to Microsoft’s ‘Xbox Live’. However, publishers and developers will be able to give you different ways to buy their games. You can pay just one instalment to keep the game forever, or a smaller price to rent it for a week. Currently, renting PC titles is pretty rare because pirating is relatively easy. OnLive should be able to stop this trend by holding your titles online. Once you’re logged into OnLive you’ll be able to see all of your friends, what they’re currently playing and snippets known as ‘brag clips’. Similar to trophies and achievements, at any time you can hold a key and record a ten second clip of the game you’re playing. It automatically uploads to your profile and is then published for the world to envy.

OnLive sounds almost too perfect, but there are a lot of potential snags. Although the majority of home owners have the internet, not everyone is using broadband or wireless. That means a lot of consoles are played permanently offline, and without the necessary connection speed it rules out OnLive completely. The developers argue that lag won’t be an issue, but play testing has currently only been done with about 50 machines in the room. Who knows how well the servers will handle taking on millions of users at a time. Likewise, if half of us are logged on with dial-up connections there might be a few problems.

How it all works

How it all works

The success of Steam has unfortunately attracted the eyes of hackers. One of the major concerns I have with holding everything online is that there is always a danger your account can be lost. Once someone else gains access to your profile (which has happened on Steam and Xbox Live already) it can be banned and time consuming to recover. Purchased games have to be bought again and friend lists need to be recreated. With a physical disc, at least the title and receipt are kept firmly with the user.

I’m also a big fan of second hand games. As positively as OnLive would promote renting, the concept of buying games second hand or sharing with friends would be completely lost. In our economic climate, I believe it’s also important to try and keep our video game shops alive. Buying directly through OnLive could be better for individual publishers, but it cuts out any healthy competition between stores.

A wall of brag clips?

A wall of brag clips?

OnLive could be revolutionary, but it relies on a number of factors being perfect. Nearly every publisher needs to be on board and the servers are going to need outstanding reliability. If all of this comes together though, we may just be seeing the next step in gaming. The invitational Beta service will be available this summer, with a final release date being set for later in 2009.

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