GDC 09: OnLive Introduces The Future of Gaming

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March 23, 2009 – Before I dive into what OnLive is and how it works, let me start by saying that you should read every word of this article as this service has the potential to completely change the way games are played. If it works and gets proper support from both publishers and gamers, you may never need a high-end PC to play the latest games, or perhaps even ever buy a console again. That is not an exaggeration.

Just announced at this year’s GDC, OnLive is an on-demand gaming service. It’s essentially the gaming version of cloud computing – everything is computed, rendered and housed online. In its simplest description, your controller inputs are uploaded, a high-end server takes your inputs and plays the game, and then a video stream of the output is sent back to your computer. Think of it as something like Youtube or Hulu for games.

The service works with pretty much any Windows or Mac machine as a small browser plug-in. Optionally, you will also be able to purchase a small device, called the MicroConsole, that you can hook directly into your TV via HDMI, though if your computer supports video output to your TV, you can just do it that way instead. Of course, you can also just play on your computer’s display if you don’t want to pipe it out to your living room set.

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Next-generation “cloud” technology could change videogames forever.

When you load up the service and choose a game to play (I’ll come back to the service’s out-of-games features in a bit), it starts immediately. The game is housed and played on one of OnLive’s servers, so there’s never anything to download. Using an appropriate input device, be it a controller or mouse and keyboard, you’ll then play the game as you would if it were installed on your local machine. Your inputs are read by the plugin (or the standalone device if you choose to go that route) and uploaded to the server. The server then plays the game just like it would if you were sitting at the machine, except that instead of outputting the video to a display, it gets compressed and streamed to your computer where you can see the action. Rinse and repeat 60 times per second.

To make this happen, OnLive has worked diligently to overcome lag issues. The first step in this was creating a video compression algorithm that was as quick as possible. The current solution only introduces one millisecond of lag to encode the video, which alone is completely unnoticeable to you. Obviously, a fast internet connection is required on your end to stream the gameplay video. A 1.5 mbps connection (which is usually what base-level DSL is rated at) is required for standard-definition video (480p), while a 5.0 mbps connection is required for HD (720p). The actual necessary speed is a tad less than advertised, so as long as your provider says you have these speeds, you should be OK.

The cool thing here is that your only requirement is a capable internet connection and some sort of computer. In theory, you should be able to play Crysis on a netbook. A handful of us have played the game, at its highest settings, on a MacBook Air with the service. Not only is the game not normally available on the Mac (outside of running Boot Camp), but the MacBook Air is hardly a gaming device, and yet we were able to hop in and play it as smoothly as a nicely-specced machine. We also played Burnout Paradise on a similarly-equipped PC laptop, and despite how quick that game is, it ran and played fine as well.

Do the games run at 60fps? Technically, yes, but the video stream makes it feel less so. They’re still smooth, but Burnout wasn’t as brisk as it is on a PS3, for instance. But make no mistake – everything we tried was completely playable (and most importantly, quite responsive), and being that you’re able to play these games without any dedicated hardware, that’s a huge, huge thing.

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The MicroConsole is small, but thanks to the servers, ultimately powerful.

As for the MicroConsole itself (which, again, is optional), the device is give or take about the size of a PSP game box and maybe twice the height. In other words, it’s pretty tiny for a gaming “console”. It features two USB inputs (you can use a hub if you need more), a mini-USB port for power, optical audio output and HDMI video output. There’s also Bluetooth support for voice or wireless joysticks, keyboards and mice. Obviously, if you want to use this thing with an older TV, you’ll need to pony up for some conversion hardware, but OnLive stresses that the MicroConsole itself will be fairly cheap. We’d expect it to be no more than $100, and a $50 price tag is certainly not out of the question.

With regards to the service itself, OnLive will work as a paid subscription service, similar to Xbox Live. OnLive isn’t talking about pricing yet, which probably isn’t even finalized internally yet, so we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. Once you’re online, you’ll have access to a Friends list, an online profile where other people can see what you’re up to, your tied account stuff (which houses your save games and things like that), and Brag Clips. Brag Clips are 10-second videos of your favorite gaming moments, and the system works sort of like an instant replay on a DVR. Regardless of what game you’re playing, you can hit the Brag Clip shortcut and OnLive will then save the last 10 seconds of your action for viewing and sharing later. Other folks can view your clips, and you can send them out to your friends to, well, brag.

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As for the games themselves, while it will vary by title and publisher, you’ll have a number of ways in which to purchase them. You can outright pay for a game and own it indefinitely, or you could opt to rent a title for a specified amount of time. This last bit is especially cool for PC titles as that sort of market simply doesn’t exist as piracy would run rampant. But since everything is housed online, OnLive won’t be subject to piracy, so game rentals can easily take place. Again, that’ll be up to publishers on a per-title basic, but the possibility is certainly cool.

And of course, most games will have a demo available for play, which like everything else, launches instantly with zero downloading. OnLive is hoping that even if hardcore gamers stick with buying games as per usual and playing content locally on their own high-end rigs that its service will be a great place for trying out demos as you won’t have to take time to download anything.

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A number of publishers have already signed on to have their games launch on the service, including EA, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Epic, Atari, Codemasters, Warner Bros. and Eidos. While we were able to play Crysis and Burnout Paradise and noted games like Grand Theft Auto IV on the intro screen, these titles may only be demo software for the time being as OnLive plans to launch with newly-released software when it goes live. We’re hoping Crysis sticks around as some of us will finally be able to play it.

As for the launch timeframe, OnLive is going to have an open (though invitational) beta sometime during the summer, and plans to fully launch the system late this year (technically winter 2009).

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