Wait and See: OnLive @ GDC

I waited, and slept on it, and I’m still hesitant about how OnLive is going to turn out. For those of you who haven’t heard of the service, it was recently announced at this year’s GDC event. The basic concept of OnLive is simple: you sign up for an account, and connect to their service either by software on your PC or Mac, or you connect through a small networked box that plugs into your television. From there, you select a game that you want to play from their extensive library, and you choose to rent or buy it.

After that, the software transmits your input to the server-side, and the server sends back the video. Quality is dependant on your bandwidth, giving you 480p with 1.5mbps downstream, and 720p with a 5mbps downstream.

They have a very sizable booth at GDC, with a bunch of setups supposedly interacting over a 5mbps conncetion to their servers in Santa Clara, CA. They were using MacBooks, Dell Laptops, and their “MicroConsole”. People were playing games like Crysis Wars, Burnout Paradise Ultimate, and Mirror’s Edge on what appeared to be very stable, very good looking gameplay.

While the service ultimately leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it has some decent selling points (some of which I am pulling right from the press sheets they were handing out).

For one, this service transforms any mediocre PC into a legitimate gaming system. The majority of the systems they were using to stream their service had integrated video cards, which is pretty incredible, but makes sense given the technology. Since this is streaming, there is relatively no waiting time once you’ve purchased and selected your game; you make your selection, and start playing almost immediately. On top of that, the games that were being played were not altered in any way in order to be playable on the OnLive service, they were simply approved by the developer, and thrown up on the service. OnLive is gearing itself up to be a bit more integrated than that, and is offering a SDK to developers so that you can integrate some community, statistics, and “Brag Clip” features into the game. The “Brag Clip” is interesting, and is something that has begun to catch on already – the developers either allow you to record your playing, or take clips of special types of extraordinary gameplay (such as achieving a hard task/trick), and saving it to your account as a clip to share with your friends. Also, on top of being able to be run on middle-end systems, there are really negligible space requirements for the computer using it. This is huge, especially when you have games like Crysis Warhead requiring a dedicated 15GB for the install. Users are also seamlessly kept up to date with any patches that are released for their games. Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion is that while this service will probably launch with some big name game publishers, I see this as another easy way for indie developers to get their games out to a mass audience, and help push the community forward again.

There are many more reasons why potential investors of this service should be worried however. First and foremost, OnLive cannot promise the pristine connection, and stability of each of their customers internet services. Seeing as how quality of service can change almost from neighborhood to neighborhood with the same provider, this is a huge issue that could be a potential thorn in the side of OnLive. In the case that there is an unruly customer with the service because of their dismal internet connection, it would be easy to see OnLive pass the buck from their tech support and have these customers deal with and complain to their ISP. Secondly, as stories in the past have surfaced from heavy bittorrent users being throttled because of their constant taxing on their communities pipe, could you not see the same response to avid users of the service, playing hours upon hours of games a day, and filling their pipe by streaming the 720p video to their system constantly? They begin to get throttled, OnLive starts to suck, they call OnLive to complain, OnLive sends them to their ISP, rinse and repeat. Now, one of OnLive’s boasted features are: take your games with you wherever you have an internet connection. Okay – so I pay for my games, get them on the service, and then I go on vacation where I don’t have access to the net. Whoops, too bad; no connection to the net, no games. They claim to be the end all solution to the DRM woes the industry is facing nowadays, but I would say Steam (and possibly Stardock Impulse) is doing quite well on that front as well; not only that, but you can play your Steam games offline! Also, since this is PC-only, the majority of your gaming paripherals for your consoles will *not* work with the OnLive system.

Some major issues I have with the service which have not been covered through press material as of yet:

  • Achievement Tracking
  • Voice Communication
  • Ability for individualized, saved DLC
  • Customized/saved game configurations (This has to be in there, just not a major selling point for them right now)

I could go on, and I’m going to stop by the booth again today to ask some questions on the Developer’s end, but I’ll leave you with a few questions that I got the same answer to. (There were more, but I’m drawing a blank right now.)

  • What are the minimum system requirements?
  • How is the pricing model going to work?
  • Will there be a charge for the MicroConsole?
  • Can this stream at 1080p?

The answer? “We can’t comment at this time.”

I’ll come back with some pros and cons that are faced as a developer deploying their games on the service.

As a side note, I would check out Penny Arcade’s blog post and comic about this service as well, pretty funny. :)