Michael Brown Aug 06, 2010

OnLive On-demand Gaming Service

Do we need another gaming service? If OnLive succeeds the way its developers hope, it could be the only service you’ll ever use again. After sampling OnLive over several weeks, we believe in the technology—but we’re not at all sold on the licensing model.

Instead of downloading entire games— a la Steam—or buying discs from an e-tailer or brick-and-mortar store, OnLive streams games instantly. On the upside, the service boasts astonishingly low client-side hardware requirements, because OnLive’s servers execute the game code and stream 1280x720-resolution video to your PC (or Mac). Your computer sends packets containing your in-game actions back up the pipe to OnLive. All you need is a dual-core CPU. We’re talking any dual-core—even Intel’s Atom 330 will do the trick. You don’t need discrete graphics, either.

OnLive's chances for long-term success are bolstered by strong industry partnerships.

On the downside, you must be connected to the Internet via a fat pipe capable of delivering sustained—not just peak—throughput of at least 5Mb/sec. And your PC must be hard-wired to your router, although the company says it might support Wi-Fi down the road. We tested the service with a 6Mb/sec ADSL connection from home using a wired mouse and keyboard with some games and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows with others. OnLive supports a few other gamepads, too, but the service is finicky about wireless input devices that introduce too much latency. Check OnLive’s FAQ for details.

In practice, OnLive feels almost unbelievable. We swooped down on enemies in Batman: Arkham Asylum and blasted through roadblocks in Just Cause 2. Games loaded immediately, and the controls felt responsive enough to forget that we weren’t playing on a local PC. The graphics looked almost as good as what we’ve come to expect from a local system, although we occasionally saw blocky, compression artifacts while scrutinizing fast-moving action.

Each of these windows is a portal into another player's game. Click on one to become a spectator.

OnLive stuttered on occasions when other computers on our network commandeered some of our Internet bandwidth, so this wouldn’t be a good choice for households with BitTorrent-happy roommates or families with multiple PCs actively using the Internet at the same time—unless you have a very fat pipe (e.g., cable, fiber, or extremely fast DSL).

OnLive’s roster is currently limited to just 21 games, with several play options: You can watch another player’s screen live, you can try out a demo, you can rent a game, or you can purchase it for unlimited play. Unfortunately, not every option is available for every game. During our time on the site, you could play a demo of DiRT 2, but you could not buy the full game. Batman: Arkham Asylum was available only as a several-day rental, but that changed to unlimited use for a $40 purchase price. The demo, rent, purchase variability can most likely be attributed to the service’s start-up status.

A game catalog that jumps from "B" to "F" in just four steps just isn't very deep.

Valve’s Steam service is the 800-pound gorilla in this space, and it kills OnLive in terms of the number of games on offer. But buying a game on Steam entails a several-hour wait for the game to download before you can actually play, where OnLive delivers instant gratification. And your computer must exceed the game’s minimum hardware requirements to deliver a good experience on Steam, where OnLive requires only a dual-core CPU.

Games are priced about the same on the two services (and at retail) right now, but that will change when OnLive initiates its $5 per month membership fee. An undisclosed number of early-birds who sign up by September 6 will be selected for a free one-year membership, but you can play the games you buy on Steam for free.

We’re also a little troubled by the licensing terms attached to some of the games we ostensibly purchased at OnLive: When we bought Lego Harry Potter, for instance, we were informed that the game would be available for us to play until at least June 29, 2013. What happens after that? Did we really buy the game, or did we simply sign a contract for a 36-month lease?

OnLive has the amazing potential to end the hideous cycle of upgrading yearly and buying a whole new gaming rig every three years to stay ahead of the curve. But we don’t like the idea of paying a monthly fee for the privilege of playing games we’ve already purchased. And if OnLive fails to convince enough subscribers to join and winds up folding its tent, you might never get to play the games you thought you’d purchased.


OnLive On-demand Gaming Service

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