Initial Thoughts on OnLive

This morning I found, sitting in my inbox, an invitation to join OnLive, the new video game streaming service that launched at the end of E3 last week.  The basic idea is OnLive runs the games on powerful machines sitting in their datacenters scattered all over the country, and stream the video to you via the OnLive client.  Everything in this system is run on their servers and streamed to your PC, so you don’t need the latest hardware to run the games, or have a massive hard drive to install them all.

Along with my invite, I was sent a promotional code for a free game.  In the interest of giving the service a reasonable test, I leased a copy of Just Cause 2, a pretty action-packed and reflex focused title from Square Enix that came out earlier this year.

After about 30 minutes of gameplay and fiddling with the service, here are my quick impressions:

The Good

  • Easy to Use
    I like the UI for OnLive.  It’s friendly, easy to navigate, clean and clear.  It’s obvious that this is a service working its way towards set-top box status as the interface feels like something you’d see on a console, DVR, or on-demand video service.  Almost every title listed has video playing along side of it, making the entire user experience feel very active and alive.
  • Get into games fast
    From what I could tell, loading a game is as fast, if not faster, than loading them locally on a PC would be.  I imagine this is done with some magical memory caching of game data, or perhaps gnomes… either way, the result is getting into a game is fast, a point where OnLive definitely has an advantage over traditional digital distribution.
  • Watching other games in action
    You can watch what any player on the service is playing live.  Either via the master “Arena” video list, or by visiting the Arena tab on the info page for each individual game.  While watching, you can give a thumbs up/down to the player at any time to cheer or jeer something they’ve done in game.  The person playing is given a small indicator in the corner of the screen that User X is watching their game.  This feature could be handy for those who get stuck on a game and need to watch someone else move through it.

The Bad

  • Visuals not as good as running a game locally
    This is the trade-off in taking live streaming over downloading and playing locally.  Video quality is locked to a certain level that simply is not as good as it can be on the PC.  Just Cause 2 looked nice enough and was definitely playable, but I knew I was playing a game running at a lower resolution that the client stretched to fit my large 1920×1200 display.  If I had to guess, I’d say it’s streaming 720p video, which makes sense considering the service was originally targeted at TVs in the living room.  If you have an old PC with aging hardware, this is a decent option for you, but if you’re a gamer who keeps up on tech, it will be a step back in your gaming experience.
  • You only lease the games, you never own them
    This has been discussed a lot in the gaming media since OnLive announced its pricing and service plans.  OnLive is a subscription-based service (though they’re waiving the fee for 1 year for early adopters) and on top of that subscription, you have to pay for access to any of the games.  Now, there are 3 and 5 day passes for many of the games currently offered, but if you want permanent access to your game, you pay full price.  Unfortunately, you only retain access to the game so long as you’re paying a monthly subscription to OnLive.  On top of that, currently they only guarantee access to the title through June 2013.  My guess is that’s how long their current contracts with the publishers are for, which raises a concern of what happens if a contract is not renewed?  Do you lose access to games you paid for and are still paying a subscription to the service for access to play?

The Ugly

  • Bandwidth usage will become excessive
    This is going to be the make-or-break issue for OnLive.  Streaming live video like this isn’t cheap for Internet Service Providers who, in recent years, have done their best to impose bandwidth limits and institute traffic shaping to fight the rise of video streaming and file sharing.  Most ISPs now impose data limits on their customers (while still advertising “Unlimited” plans) that this service could seriously run afoul of.

Quick back of napkin bandwidth calculations…

When running OnLive, I pull about 6.11 mpbs playing a game, spectating, or even just browsing the menus.  What this means for those of you who have bandwidth limits is this:

Play Time Bandwidth Consumed
1 Minute 45.82 MB
30 Minutes 1374.75 MB (1.3 GB)
1 Hour 2.68 GB
5 Hours 13.42 GB
10 Hours 26.85 GB

My home ISP is Comcast, which provides me with a 6-8mbps and a 250 GB monthly data cap.  What this means is I can theoretically play 93 hours of games on OnLive.  Of course, it assumes I do nothing else with that net connection for the entire month.  And while 93 hours may seem like a lot, it’s only just a bit over 3 hours of play a day.  If video games are a major source of entertainment for you, chances are high you’ll hit your limit and possibly incur some rather unpleasant overage fees.

There’s an additional wrinkle to the bandwidth issue though.  Since the entire service is essentially streaming video to your PC (OnLive’s install footprint is around 5mb total), simply having the client running will continue to use up that bandwidth.  In fact, the only two screens I found the bandwidth usage drop were the dashboard (no video, this is all local data), and the screen you see when the game you’re watching ends and you have to click to go back to the “Arena” to pick another game to watch.  Everything else, even the application’s main menu, is streaming the data to you.  Not only do you need to watch the hours spent playing the games, you need to be very careful about how long you keep the client running.

Overall Thoughts

I think OnLive is an interesting service with technology that works a lot better than I expected it to.  There are obvious issues with its pricing model, and the bandwidth question has not been answered yet, but I think this is a direction the industry will definitely be moving in over the next several years.  The winner will be whoever answers those big questions the fastest and in a way that keeps shareholders, gamers and ISPs happy.

Is it as good as loading the game up locally on your PC?  Not unless you’re on older hardware.  Is it a convenient way to get access to your games?  Absolutely.  Does it work well enough for casual play?  So far it’s been great for me.  Will it be worth the monthly fee?  That I’m not sure on.  Right now there isn’t much extra to the service to justify the cost.

What OnLive is doing is essentially console-izing the PC games space in terms of hardware.  One of the biggest issues developers and publishers have with PC gaming is that there’s no unified hardware/software set to program and test against.  Whereas with the consoles, every generation is largely fixed in terms of equipment and operating system (there are updates, but they’re typically not radical changes in terms of architecture).  The OnLive service can standardize their back-end systems, providing a consistent experience to all of their users.

In the next year, my prediction is we’ll see deals signed between OnLive and various major ISPs, who will probably introduce some sort of “Gamer” package that gets you past the the bandwidth issue.  I also expect to see OnLive becoming a big thing in hotels and resorts once the set-top boxes come out.

First OnLive, and soon Gakai.  We’re seeing the infant steps of the next shift in the gaming marketplace.  This is going to be a shift akin to digital distribution and what it’s doing now to the retail space.  It’s not going to be a fast shift, but I think there’s too much momentum behind all of this for it to stop.