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 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.