Up close and personal with OnLive

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Most of you probably have a good idea of what OnLive is. For those of you who don’t; this is cloud gaming. The games you play aren’t stored on discs, nor are they installed on your hard drive. They are hosted by – and streamed to your device from – OnLive.

This is done either via an undemanding (and free) download from the website for PC, Mac and certain tablet devices, or on an HDTV via OnLive’s proprietary ‘microconsole’ (£69.99). As interesting as the basic concept is, it was the intricacies of the service that fascinated me when I explored them at the Eurogamer Expo.

These are all live games going on right now.” explains James Beaven of Indigo Pearl (who are handling OnLive’s PR in the UK). “In essence, this is almost the world’s biggest shopping window.”

We are in a (relatively) quiet, walled-off area of the expo. OnLive is running on an HDTV via a microconsole. The screen before us is made up of dozens of smaller screens, each one of which shows somebody somewhere playing a game through OnLive in real time. It looks like something a Bond villain might glare at while cackling manically (if the idea of strangers watching you play unnerves you, you can prevent this in the privacy settings). This is the ‘arena’. Beaven picks a screen at random; within just a second or two, the image has filled the entire TV and we see everything that the player sees.

We can bring up the player’s profile, in a similar manner to Xbox Live. As well as viewing his friends we can see when he first joined OnLive, and how many games he owns through the service. Again, if the privacy settings allow, you can talk to the player while you’re spectating by sending a message – or via voice chat with a bluetooth headset.

I am then introduced to the ‘cheers and jeers’ system. This is an informal way of players to approve or disapprove of – generally – one another’s skills while spectating. To illustrate this, Beaven clicks a button to ‘cheer’ the player when he fires a cannon and hits his target. The number next to the ‘thumbs up’ icon in the corner of the screen changes from 0 to 1, and the person we’re watching instantly knows that we’ve ‘cheered’ them. I like to believe that people who camp in multiplayer FPS games will pick up a hefty pile of ‘jeers’.

Spectating opens up several other possibilities when playing with friends. “Say you’re playing co-op. You can actually spectate your mate. Maybe you’re doing a pincer attack; you can see exactly where he is, co-ordinate the attack using your bluetooth headsets. Once you can see you’re both in the perfect position, ‘OK, go, now!’ Or you can create multiple player tags if you want to, use one for constant spectating on one device while you’re playing on another.

It’s also quite useful if you’re stuck on a level. Call up your mate on your headset, tell him you’re stuck. Then he can spectate you while you’re playing; ‘Okay I see you on the viewer; go left, left, shoot him, down there, you’re done’.” Then, I am shown the OnLive Marketplace.

There is no compulsory subscription involved with OnLive. “The only subscription aspect, if you want it, is the PlayPack; currently over a hundred games in there [instant and unlimited access] for £6.99 a month.”

As Beaven scrolls through the games in the PlayPack, I am reminded of something that occurred to me when I caught a glimpse of some older games briefly mentioned as a footnote in the trailer, which is running on a loop on a gigantic screen in the main area of the expo. Though not something mentioned in the OnLive promotional push (so far as I am aware), the service opens up a whole new back catalogue of classic titles to console gamers (such as myself). The original Deus Ex and Alien vs Predator games are available to play, two fantastic titles previously unavailable to those who prefer to sit in front of the TV with a joypad in their hands. Incidentally, the microconsole supports other controllers apart from the included OnLive one – such as a wired Xbox 360 joypad and, yes, mouse and keyboard.

PlayPack subscribers also enjoy a 30% discount on anything not included that they want to buy, and you can play each and every game for half an hour for free; whether you’re a PlayPack subscriber or not. All OnLive users – as well as developers and publishers – enjoy more general benefits. The cloud hosting means that all updates and patches are automatically applied, with no need to wait for installations. It’s easy to see the appeal from the industry’s point of view. As well as the obvious lack of costs involved in manufacturing discs, packaging and manuals, I’m told that the cloud hosting means that piracy will never be an issue.

Interestingly, every game in the marketplace carries its Metacritic score. When I point out that perhaps some within the industry won’t be best pleased about this, Beaven points out that it means the users are “empowered with information”. Bottom line there is that OnLive are helping gamers, which can only be a good thing, Not everybody likes Metacritic, and an average user rating is also displayed; but nonetheless, this level of openness is something Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store would benefit from.

The OnLive controller is comfortable to hold and easy to use.

As well as the scores and the aforementioned half hour trial, trailers for each game are also available to stream instantly; and you can even pay to rent most games for three or five days. It’s hard to think of how ‘try before you buy’ could be stretched any further here. When I ask about the possibility of cross-platform play with other formats, it’s not such good news.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible. All this takes place within the OnLive cloud. But what it does give you on the flipside is multiplatform play in that somebody on a PC could be playing against somebody on a microconsole, or a Mac against an iPad, and so on.” And now, I get to play myself; the OnLive joypad is handed to me, and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is launched.

It’s not long before the game is running. It does, as Beaven says, take less time than it would take to get off the sofa, find and insert the game disc, and wait for it to load in a standard console. Though I didn’t find Space Marine to be the best example, it’s true that OnLive games are graphically comparable to a high-spec PC. This was more immediately obvious when watching people play various other games, such as Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands and Deus Ex: Human Revolution on the show floor.

This was the first chance I got to play on an OnLive console, and such was the lack of input lag that I actually forgot there might be any. It was genuinely no different in that respect to playing on my PS3 or 360.

When the expo had quietened down later, I got a chance to sit down with one of the public units. I spent a while playing DiRT 3 and Super Street Fighter IV, two games where any input lag would be obvious and game-breaking. Again, I was impressed by the responsiveness of the controls which was still no different to that of other formats.

While playing Space Marine in the private session, I am introduced to the concept of ‘brag clips’. The underside of the OnLive controller has play, rewind, fast forward and record buttons. Hitting the record button creates a ‘brag clip’, which is basically your last ten seconds of play recorded and put up for your friends and the OnLive community to see. There’s no way to edit these ten seconds sadly, but the fact that you can record in any game at any time offsets that (for me at least) somewhat.

The microconsole really is tiny, fiiting easily into the palm of one hand.

The basic idea of course is to share something really cool you’ve done in-game, or perhaps to show off something so embarrassingly bad you can’t keep it to yourself. Personally, I can see this getting a lot of use to record amusing glitches. There are various filters to use to search for these clips, which can then be rated. As with seemingly everything nowadays, you can post your clips to Facebook should you so wish.

Arguably the most important issue is that of download speeds. What sort of connection do you need to actually use OnLive? “It depends on the size of your screen. On an HD screen this size -” he indicates the TV which, from memory, I would hazard a guess at being 42” “it’s running at 720p. Most games do 1080p, but 720p is reducing bandwidth. On a screen like this, you need 5-6mb. On a PC screen, 15”, 3-4mb; all the way down to tablets, then it’s 1mb. There are hundreds of compression algorithms checking your line speed, the game you’re playing, all those sorts of things; and it’ll actually compensate for the best possible experience.”

So what happens for people playing on a TV, who are perhaps struggling to meet the required download speed? Is that where lag comes in?

It’s not lag.” Beaven affirms. “It will compress the graphics. Fundamentally the less bandwidth you’ve got, the more it will compress the graphics. There are so many benefits though, I don’t think anyone’s really going to pay attention to that.”

The average connection speed is actually better here than it is in the states.” I’m told, when I ask if the UK is ready for the OnLive service. “The last OfCom report was that 92.5% of high speed broadband connections in the UK are 6mb and above.”

But not everybody in the UK has a high speed connection…

There are going to be people out in the country, too far from the exchange, that it’s really not going to work for.” Beaven concedes, before adding “That’s going to change over time. The infrastructure’s increasing, getting better, getting faster.”

When I bring up the issue of existing gaming formats, it seems that OnLive have no interest in getting confrontational. “What it boils down to is choice. We’ve said very openly we get PS3 and Xbox 360 owners coming on, trying the demo, then going off and buying the game for their PS3 or 360. It really doesn’t matter. What we’re saying is if you want the choice, if you want the flexibility of being able to play wherever you want, then OnLive is a great option. Just come on and try it!”

As for security the bigger OnLive gets, the bigger a target it will become for hackers. Are they prepared for that? “There is a degree of inevitability there, in that the bigger you get the more you attract attention. All I can say is that OnLive is set up to be as secure as possible, without giving too many details away. You don’t advertise your security plans! Just on the simple basis that you can’t pirate software, it is in essence a very secure system.”

The private session ends with something to hammer home the fact that OnLive offers the latest graphical technology without requiring the user to own powerful hardware – technology from Mova, also owned by OnLive CEO Steve Perlman. A completely computer generated, and almost perfectly photorealistic, female human head talks and smiles. It really is ahead of anything in any game currently on the market. “Developers can design for the highest spec; they don’t have to worry about compatibility issues, All the user needs is the video feed.”. The idea is that one day, these could be in-game graphics.

But have there been solid talks about OnLive exclusives? “That I don’t know. All I know is conversations are going on all the time.

With an extensive and solid streaming infrastructure, are OnLive looking at moving into music and movies? “Not now. There are other services out there that are doing really well; what we see is a great opportunity for streaming games, and that’s what OnLive will be known for.”

In theory, OnLive is little short of incredible. There’s already an extensive games library including some of the biggest titles, and that doesn’t seem set to change; Arkham City, Borderlands 2, and Saints Row the Third featured prominently in the looping trailer. Search social networks and you’ll find legions of people singing the service’s praises; but it’s not difficult to find people complaining either, with the main problem seemingly being an inability to connect to the service. OnLive has been running in the UK for less than a week at time of writing, so personally I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt – for now.

Will download limits, customer demand and broadband speeds suckerpunch OnLive in the UK in the long term? Only time will tell. One thing’s for sure; if it does work, OnLive really could revolutionise the way we buy, play, and enjoy videogames.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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