July 4th, 2010

Ghaleon

OnLive First Impressions.

I recently signed up for an invitation to join the OnLive service and had a chance to play around with it. For those who don't know, OnLive is the first of a new breed of "cloud gaming" services that seek to change the way video games are played. OnLive allows you to play current generation computer games from just about any computer, even underpowered machines that normally would not be able to even hope to render the advanced graphics of the latest titles. It accomplishes this impressive feat by rendering the games not on your local machine, but in a farm of remote servers. All of the heavy lifting is done by OnLive servers for you, so you don't have to, and then sends a video feed to your computer allowing you to play seamlessly. Think of it as YouTube for games.

I've been keeping track of this promising technology for a while, and now that I've finally had a chance to test it myself, I'm ready to give my impressions. Before I do that, though, let's quickly run through the potential benefits of this technology.

Cloud gaming services such as OnLive may potentially revolutionize gaming, if successful, by offering the following benefits:

No more shelling out fistfuls of cash on hardware upgrades in order to maintain the ability to play the latest games and get the best out of the experience.

The removal of barriers of entry such as OS and hardware compatibility.

No more updating games, as all update are done by OnLive.

No installations or downloads requires (save for a very small plugin), allowing for instant access while saving hard drive space.

No frustrating bugs, no running to support sites and message boards for help to fix some obscure error that's keeping you from enjoying your game.

Since no hardware updates are required, you will always have the cutting edge games now and a dozen years from now. With cloud gaming, this generation of consoles/hardware is the final generation.

With so many lofty promises you can understand why I am excited. The question is, does OnLive deliver? After playing around with it, my initial impression is "almost, but the potential is definitely there." With a few improvements it can very well be the next big thing, but OnLive and similar upcoming services still have a ways to go. I will explain this in more detail, as well as provide suggestions for what I think will make OnLive and similar services much better.

Now for my impressions in detail.

Service Features

Starting OnLive you are greeted by a very pretty intro screen, then pushed into the main menu. In the background are several windows that show gameplay footage from their library of games. The impressive part is that all of the footage you see are from actual gamers playing their games live. The "Arena" section allows you to view people playing their games as they are playing them. Within the first ten minutes I watched someone engage in a firefight in the arid wastes of Borderlands to watching someone fiddling with the config menus of Batman: Arkham Asylum. For those who would prefer not to have their gameplay broadcast for all to see (like myself) there is an option to keep your gaming sessions private.

The "Brag Clips" section allows you to view small video clips other players have recorded of moments during their gaming sessions that they feel are worthy of note. The "Coming Soon" section displays, you guessed it, video trailers of games that will be making an appearance in OnLive in the future. One particular trailer depicts the possible graphics capabilities of the service, displaying a woman's face that looks eerily realistic. The clip promises that future OnLive games could potentially look like that. If that ever becomes a realty I will probably never leave my computer again.

The Marketplace allows you to shop for games. You can either pay full price for a game and have it in your collection to play permanently or pay a smaller fee to rent the games out for 3 or 5 day increments. Here is where I really have a problem with the service, but I'll go into that later.

A "Friends," "Profile," and "Options" section round out the menu, as well as a "Last Played" section which automatically boots up the very last game that you played.

Graphics and Performance

I was truly impressed by how quickly and seamlessly the games booted up and ran. You merely select a game, wait a few seconds for it to load (entertained by a brief clip from the game while it does so) and the game begins. The games run amazingly well, delivering an experience that is nearly indistinguishable from playing the game locally on your own machine. For a moment I even forgot that I was playing online.

Graphically the games do leave something to be desired. Graphics quality is determined by the speed of your internet connection. You will require at least a 5mbps connection to play in high definition. My 35mbps Fios line had no problem, naturally. I did some comparisons between Onlive's version of Batman: Arkham Asylum and a copy installed on my own machine. When directly compared, Onlive's graphics are a bit washed out and lacking detail. The graphics are certainly presentable and in no way hamper the playing experience, but if you're the type who needs bleeding edge graphics (I am not but there are plenty that are), you'd be better off playing on a souped up gaming rig.

Some reviews I've seen have pointed out a tiny bit of latency between you pressing a button and the action occurring on the screen. I have no doubt that this latency does exist, but I myself have not been able to notice it so far. Perhaps I simply haven't been looking hard enough.

I demoed several games, including Just Cause 2, which I had previously not been able to play on my PC due to the completely arbitrary decision to make the game Direct X 10 only, meaning that my Windows XP machine is incompatible. It is exactly the removal of issues such as these that make me excited for services such as OnLive. Every game I tried ran admirably. I've yet to spend an extended amount of time playing any one game, so I will have to reserve judgment on this part until I've had the opportunity to do so.

Pricing Model

Here is where I have a big problem with OnLive. As I mentioned before, you can either pay full price to buy an unlimited license for a game or pay a lesser price to rent it for a few days. This is on top of a monthly charge of $14.99 just to use their service. I joined OnLive under their founding members program, which means AT&T is footing the bill for my first year of service, but once that program is no longer available new members will be looking at quite an expensive service.

I'll be blunt. I will NEVER buy a game from OnLive. I may rent, but I will never buy. Why? Because you are not buying the games themselves, merely the permission to play them on OnLive. My copy of Just Cause 2 would belong to OnLive, not me, and if OnLive ever stopped supporting the game I would lose it forever regardless of the money I paid for it. Does that sound like a fair deal to you?

If OnLive ever got into a dispute with a publisher and was forced to remove a game, you lose it either forever or until the dispute is settled. If Onlive ever goes belly-up, you lose all of your games forever. If you ever cancel your subscription to OnLive, you lose your games either forever or until you subscribe again. The way I see it, paying full price for a game and not even owning it is a waste of money. Needless to say, OnLive needs a better business model, Either the prices need to come down significantly or actual game ownership needs to come with the full price purchases.

OnLive Shortcomings and Suggestions

No wireless compatibility. Part of the appeal of OnLive is the idea of being able to access your games wherever there is internet, whether you're at home or on the road. This capability is severely limited by the exclusion of Wi-Fi support, necessitating a wired connection to the internet in order to operate. To be fair, this seems like a temporary limitation. OnLive has stated that they may enable Wi-Fi once they're better established.

Limited Resolutions and Aspect ratios. This is likely due to a throughput limitation, but gaming resolution is capped at 720p, considerably below what PC gamers are used to. Also, there is no support for a 16:10 aspect ratio, only 16:9, meaning that people with 16:10 monitors will be looking at black bars. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the graphics lack detail even in comparison to locally run games playing at 720p. I don't hold that against them particularly, as I find it damn impressive that they got the games to look as pretty as they do considering the delivery method. Still, I will eagerly anticipate them eventually implementing higher resolutions and better graphics.

OnLive supports the Xbox 360 controller, which is good. It does not support rumble, which is bad.

As I previously noted, you do not really own the games you buy from OnLive. I would like to see the option of downloadable games implemented. The ability to download games purchased at full price for local running and archival purposes would transfer actual ownership of the games to the buyer and allow them to be used independently from OnLive. That or lower prices are the only things I can think of that would convince me to purchase games at full price from the service.

Conclusion

On the whole I am very excited for this new technology. I find it very amazing and believe that it may very well revolutionize gaming with some polish and improvements. It's not there yet, but the potential is definitely there. As it stands now I would only recommend OnLive to people who either cannot afford gaming rigs or simply don't want to deal with the hassles associated with PC gaming, and to most of those people I would sooner recommend buying an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3.

That opinion may very well change in the future, once cloud gaming comes into its own and service such as OnLive are able to offer a higher level of quality. Even so, I suggest at least checking it out. The technology itself is a marvel that should be experienced. Is it the future of gaming? Who knows? It is certainly interesting, I'll give it that.
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