Remember Infinium Labs' Phantom? The promise of downloading and playing PC titles on your television with an ultra-slick lapboard was the Phantom’s main concept. The company handed out t-shirts during E3 that said “Believe” on them. Yes, and we know how well the Phantom turned out. The Phantom was a gigantic turd that never saw the light of day. That was exactly what I thought OnLive would be when I first heard rumblings about it. However, after getting an early presentation of the new OnLive micro-console and service, I believe that there are a number of things that could really make it a viable platform.
Our demo was driven by OnLive’s Steve Perlman (he worked on the team that invented Quicktime, as well as with the X-band service and WebTV) and Mike McGarvey (former CEO of Eidos). In its simplest form, OnLive is a new games on-demand platform that’s been in uber-secret development for over seven years. This service will allow users to stream the latest high-end titles over a high-speed Internet connection to either play OnLive’s new micro console, or any PC or Mac that's online.
By using OnLive’s proprietary compression technology, gameplay is streamed directly from the server, with very little latency issues. All of the processing of gameplay is done server side, and has little to do with the actual platform that users play the games on. While the beta version we played took some time to stream actually play a game, Perlman promises that when the games are properly adapted for the OnLive service, choosing and launching a game will be almost instantaneous. Server hosting will be launched on both the east and west coast to provide optimal streaming nationwide.
The OnLive micro console is ridiculously small by current console standards -- about the size of a Nintendo DS. There is really very little to the console, because all of the processing of the games is done server side. Connections on the micro console include an Ethernet port, HDMI, optical audio, a button to sync up to four Bluetooth headsets (for voice chat), and two USB ports on the front. For users with legacy audio/video needs, there will be an adaptor. And for games that allow for four-player gameplay, you can use a USB hub. If you want to use the micro console wirelessly, you can hook up an Ethernet wireless adaptor. However, be aware that using an Ethernet wireless adaptor could dampen your connection speed.
Any USB controller will work with the micro console, including an Xbox 360 controller. However, for wireless controllers, OnLive will be offering a proprietary wireless controller sold separately. While we did not get to use the OnLive wireless controller, we know it will have multimedia buttons on it to control some of the features of the service.
However, for those who do not want to purchase a micro console, you can also use a PC or Mac to use the OnLive service by downloading a small application. What makes this really promising is that since the service does all the work server side, you could theoretically use a PC that is several years old to play the latest games. Bust out that old Dell or MacBook and play Crysis? Yes, it is possible. You do not have a high-end graphics card? There is no need to worry…
Any console’s importance relies on the games and OnLive has quite a few heavy hitting publishers waiting in the wings, including Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take 2, THQ, Epic, Eidos, Codemasters, Atari, and Warner Bros. Perlman promises that there will also be indie and casual games available as well, such as 2D Boy’s World of Goo. Titles we witnessed in action in our demo included Crysis, H.A.W.X., Burnout, and GRID. While Perlman would not comment on it, it is also possible that the OnLive service could extend further than just games and into the movie and television world. Considering Microsoft and Sony are seeing considerable downloads of entertainment through its services, it is possible that OnLive would move in that direction, as well.
Unfortunately, pricing specifics were not revealed for the micro-console or the actual service. That being said, since there really is not much to the actual micro console as far as technology, I expect that it will either be really cheap or given away for free with the purchase of a year or two of service. OnLive plans on a subscription-based model such as Xbox Live, and games can either be purchased outright, or users will be able to rent games for a specific period of time. Parents can also go into the account setup and give their children an allowance to be spent on games. Pretty nifty.
Surprisingly, games will play ridiculously well, but the whole Onlive service is completely dependent on your Internet connection. Since you do not actually download the games, if your Internet is down, you cannot play. Users will have to have high-speed Internet connection capable of at least a 1.5 Mbps connection for the service to work. However, for the optimal HD experience -- 720p/60hz – you will need a 5 Mbps connection. If you drop below that connection speed, the service will auto scale the fidelity. OnLive will be constantly upgrading their server-side hardware every six months to the latest and greatest nVidia and ATI chips, so everything sent over from the service will always be top of the line, and your micro console and/or PC will never require an upgrade.
Since the processing is done server side, it allows for some interesting things. While the OnLive service will support demos, achievements, friends, clans, leader boards, ladders, tournaments, and matchmaking -- much like the Xbox 360 and PS3 -- there are certain things the service can do that current consoles cannot. When the system boots up, you will see a flyover of thousands of video screens which is all the OnLive users actual live gameplay. Want to see what your friends are playing? Instead of just seeing the title of the game, you can see exactly what they are playing in real time. If a user sets their permissions to allow anyone to watch what they are playing, thousands of OnLive users can watch one user playing a particular game with no interruption. This could be highly interesting for a gamer who is really good at Crysis multiplayer, and that badass player, for example, could set up a training session for people that want to learn expert tactics. Users can also record 10 seconds of video of any game that they are playing -- as Perlman dubbed a “brag clip” -- and upload it to their profile. While I believe that 10 seconds is actually too short, it is a cool way for players to share their greatest gaming achievements.
For developers, the OnLive service is quite appealing for a number of reasons. There is little to no opportunity cost since the system uses existing PC titles. Used game sales are impossible and there is no chance of piracy, as well. Even better, if a game crashes at all, developers will be able to watch the 30 seconds of gameplay that actually led to the crash, which should allow for them to assess the situation. If OnLive is successful, not only do I believe this would be a viable service for major publishers, but it could be a low-cost solution for many small indie developers to get their games into the hands of millions of gamers.
OnLive will be debuting the service tonight at the Game Developers Conference, and have over 16 titles available to play on the show floor. Attendees can try out the micro console, as well as play games on a PC and Mac, play multiplayer matches, watch, and record brag clips.
Currently OnLive is in an internal beta and will go into an open beta this summer. Users interested in signing up for the beta can go to the OnLive website at http://www.onlive.com/ tonight at 7:15pm PST to get in line. OnLive plans to launch in North America this winter. No release information is available for territories outside of the US, but Perlman says they’re working on it.
Overall, while I was actually quite skeptical of this service prior to getting the full pitch and playing games on OnLive, I found OnLive’s plans to be interesting. For gamers who have an older PC or Mac, and do not want to drop hundreds of dollars to upgrade, it is a low cost solution to play the latest games. Or for users who do not want all the clutter and cost of getting a current console, and only want to play the titles available on the service, it is a viable option. But for those gamers who want to play either Microsoft’s, Nintendo’s, or Sony’s exclusives, you can bet those titles will not be heading to the OnLive service any time soon.
Personally, I have a PC that can handle today’s hardware demanding games, so on that side, OnLive is not something I would need. Also, I am actually a big fan of rolling into a game store, looking at the releases, and having hard copies of games in my hand. While I am an advocate of services such as Steam, or downloading games via the Xbox Live Marketplace or the PlayStation Store, I would rather have games in my possession. Considering my Internet provider in Los Angeles is quite flakey, if I got home after a long day at work and wanted to play games, and the Internet was down, I would be rather pissed off. So overall, as a hardcore gamer, this is not something I would particularly need.
We’ll have much more on this exciting new service as it develops.
So what about you? Is OnLive something that interests you? Would you forgo an Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii in favor of OnLive? Hit up the comments section and let me know.