Review: OnLive, the on-demand video gaming service

OnLive-Controller

OnLive, the Spotify of gaming, has been around for a while with its quiet promises of revolutionising home entertainment. If you’ve not yet read the pamphlet (or Jack’s in-depth article on the service here), OnLive are hoping to move the gaming industry into the future, enabling users to stream the latest games into their houses via relatively small and inexpensive software. The OnLive Micro-Console isn’t much larger than a portable USB hard drive and in theory could easily be built into the next generation of Smart TVs.

But what’s it like to use?

Well BT is offering its broadband subscribers an exclusive opportunity to get the OnLive PlayPack Bundle free for three months when they sign-up before January 31 2012. As part of this promotion they sent me an OnLive Micro-Console to test.

As far as setting up goes, it’s a relatively simple beast, with ports for power and ethernet on the back and USB ports to charge the controllers on the front. You can buy a wireless adaptor but unless you have a rock solid connection that you trust whole heartedly I wouldn’t recommend it. It merely took minutes to get going and creating an account is also child’s play. I have a modest 8 Mbps connection at home with Be Broadband (a far cry from the “up to 24 Mbps” advertised but that’s a grumble for a different day) so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first plugged the Micro-Console in.

Actual use was an interesting experience. The quality of graphics is surprisingly high but you can definitely tell you are streaming. The occasional artefacts will appear on-screen in a cut sequence. I popped on Arkham City as a free trial and was able to be up and running in mere minutes – far superior to the current “download and wait for endless updates” system on conventional consoles. Street Fighter IV played back flawlessly, with no discernible albeit with image quality not quite up to playback from a physical disk. Batman Arkham City suffered from a tiny bit of lag on some of the fight sequences, but not enough to be off-putting.

If you are an avid gamer and rip through the latest titles (and then sell them) week after week, it’s pretty easy to recommend giving the OnLive system a go – provided you have the bandwidth to handle it.

As I mentioned at the start of the article, BT is offering its broadband subscribers an exclusive opportunity to get the OnLive PlayPack Bundle free for three months when they sign-up before January 31 2012. This means people will be able to play over 100 top video games on their TV, laptop or tablet, such as Fear 3 and Batman: Arkham Asylum, at any time without the need for software. Plus you get access to the latest games such as Saints Row: The Third and Batman Arkham City for an additional fee.

For more information head to BT

Highlights from the Game Developer’s Conference 2010

The 2010 Game Developer’s Conference in sunny San Francisco has just finished, with a record-breaking 18,250 attendees from the gaming industry. GDC isn’t the place you tend to see big new games announced, but sometimes you do get a glimpse into the technology of titles yet to be revealed.

Too much goes on at a conference of this size to recap it all, and a lot of it is pretty special interest, so we’ve picked out a few of the most interesting tidbits that emerged from the developer hive mind.

Sony’s Playstation Move

Sony finally announced the name of its motion controller as ‘Playstation Move’ at GDC, and showed off some of the games in develop. We’ve got a full article about Move here, so mosey over for more details.

Cloud gaming

OnLive and Gaikai both want to power gaming on their end and then deliver it you live over the internet. All you need is a computer/set-top box capable of showing some video. Whether these services really will be able to deliver a good gaming experience with barely any hardware use on your end remains to be seen, but the fact they’re both planned for launch this year and turned up to GDC bodes well.

Unreal Engine

Epic Games still hasn’t announced a new Gears of War game, but as the GDC crowd was shown a jungle scene with a Brumak stomping through it to show off new features of the Unreal Engine, it’s probably fair to say GoW3 is coming. Also, Epic was very pleased to show Unreal Engine 3 running on the iPhone 3GS. It wasn’t quite comparable to PC versions, but opens up possibilities for more accomplished graphics on the iPhone and iPad. Oh, and there’s a 3D version of UE3 coming too.

Virtusphere

Yes, this really is a virtual reality sphere. Virtusphere makes them for the military, but there’s obvious gaming uses here, hence the appearance at GDC. Strap on the virtual reality helmet and just walk forward to walk forward. Turn quickly to turn. Interact thanks to special equipment. Okay, this would take up a whole room of your house, and would get pretty expensive for multiplayer, but if this isn’t the ultimate gaming experience then I’ll eat my virtual reality visor. Just as long as I don’t get out of it after four years and discover that my real name is Dwayne Dibley.

Bonus rumor! Nintendo DS2?

Rpad.tv were determined to dig up info on a new Nintendo handheld at GDC so they set about doing just that. They discovered that it would have two screens again, but with barely any separation, so they could act as one if the developer was so inclined. It would have roughly the power of a GameCube thanks, possibly, to Nvidia’s Tegra chip. It will have an accelerometer, bringing it into line with the Wii and the iPhone. It might be due late this year, with an unveiling at E3 in June. Or maybe random devs told the Rpad guys this stuff just to get rid of them. Who knows?

UPDATED:
Nintendo has announced the successor to the DS will be the 3DS. Details are scarce, but it’ll have 3D screens without the need for glasses and will be backwards compatible. We’ll have more information at E3 in June.

OnLive “Console Killer” gaming platform

Dubbed a “console-killer” by the media, OnLive, a new on-demand gaming platform launching June 17th, looks sets to slay the need for gaming-specific hardware and knock the wind out of Sony and Microsoft’s sales.

Modestly refereed to as “the future of video games” by its founder, Steve Perlman, OnLive works in a completely different way to any gaming service gone before – one in which you don’t have to own any major hardware to play computer games – or rather, you don’t have to pay for computer/console upgrades every few years.
OnLive-gaming

OnLive-gaming

OnLive makes this possible by outsourcing all of the computer-intensive aspects of the video games from the home computer (or console) to OnLive’s servers, while the user sits at home streaming a video of the action, interacting with the game using their normal keyboard or a special OnLive controlpad.

Essentially, the service is like owning an extremely powerful computer outside of the house with a really long cable into your home. Unfortunately, if you are more than 1,000 miles away from the data server, the communications delay between your home and OnLive will be too long for you to play successfully – not really a problem in the UK, unless the data server is located in Aberdeen and you are playing in Cornwall.

Two of the major benefits over traditional computing, aside from the low start-up cost, will be the ability to instantly play a demo of a high-end computer game as easily as clicking a link (rather than the current policy of downloading a large file first). The other major benefit is that the service encourages games rental, hopefully preventing the hordes of ill-thought-out game purchases that plague any users collection. The service will also offer the users other unique experiences, such as the ability to record video clips of your achievements to share with other users.

Any added benefits are important, as the service’s monthly fee is $14.95. Reasonable enough, but when compared with the average lifespan of a next-gen console (six years), OnLive works out at a cost of $1076.40, whereas a launch-day PS3 would have set you back a meagre $599. It is definitely bad PR when anything makes a just-released PS3 look like a bargain.

The service will come in two varieties, either as an application for your home computer (PC or Mac) or as a “MicroConsole”, which connects directly to your television and makes it possible to use the service without owning a computer at all. OnLive has also suggested that the MicroConsole technology is simple enough to be built in to set-top boxes and other consumer electronics suggesting future applications, should the service take off.

However, many industry insides are questioning whether such a service is possible at all. While Perlman states that a 1.5Mbps broadband connection will be needed for standard-definition, and 4-5 Mbps for HDTV, Eurogamer has correctly questioned just how much computing power, and bandwidth, the OnLive data centres will require:

Not only will these datacenters be handling the gameplay, they will also be encoding the video output of the machines in real time and piping it down over IP to you at 1.5MBps (for SD) and 5MBps (for HD). OnLive says you will be getting 60fps gameplay. First of all, bear in mind that YouTube’s encoding farms take a long, long time to produce their current, offline 2MBps 30fps HD video. OnLive is going to be doing it all in real-time via a PC plug-in card, at 5MBps, and with surround sound too.

It sounds brilliant, but there’s one rather annoying fact to consider: the nature of video compression is such that the longer the CPU has to encode the video, the better the job it will do. Conversely, it’s a matter of fact that the lower the latency, the less efficient it can be.

Although the service may not boast Eurogamer’s support, some arguably more important names have rallied behind the service: Electronic Arts, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Epic Games, Atari, Codemassters, THQ, Warner Bros., 2D Boy and Eidos Interactive have all signed their games up for the service.