Thursday, 7 July 2011

Interview with OnLive CEO Steve Perlman

In this interview OnLive CEO Steve Perlman talks about many interesting things like the expansion to the UK and mainland Europe, OnLive exclusive games, the possibility of bringing PC mods to OnLive, OnLive's relationship with retail and the consoles, a planed resolution bump to 1080p and 1440p and OnLive's relationship with indie devs.

The interview:

OnLive had a lot of big announcements at E3, how are things ramping up for the UK launch?

There were a lot of big announcements made at E3, and there’s going to be a load more coming in the summer. Then we’re setting up for it launching in the UK. The UK is kind of lucky having the Americans have to go over every obstacle and add every feature.

When we launch in the UK in the Autumn we’re basically going to have every device supported, maybe 125 games, TV’s Blu-rays, the micro console, it will work is Android and iPad tablets, as well as some games specifically designed to work with OnLive, plus lots of new features. We’ll be expanding the voice chat, deeper Facebook integration, and the browser edition, which for example will give you flash on an iPad.

Think of America as the Uk’s beta test. The UK has a far more uniform internet backbone than the United States does. And we’re hooked up directly into it. So we’ll actually be able to achieve much better performance on the whole in the UK than the in the US. Different countries have different infrastructure, particularly if you’re on fibre. It will certainly work fine over DSL cables, but if you’re on fibre its almost like LAN, it’s kind of cool.

How has initial uptake been in the US? Can you give us numbers?

We’re not allowed to announce numbers because we’re fundamentally a distributor of games. I know it doesn’t seem that way. For example the publishers can announce how many games they’ve sold and so forth, but we’re a distributor.

What I can tell you is we’re growing exponentially. I think like anything people were a little bit tentative when they first tried it, and now what we’re seeing is they’re putting in more hours. People are saying ‘hey this works’. We’re accepted now as the fourth platform.

On the whole things are going extremely well for us. The strongest indication of weather or not a platform is for real is when you start to see publishers do custom things for it. For example, the fact that From Dust has touch features that are not applicable to any other platform. Because it’s much too high performance game alone to run on a tablet, so it’s designed specifically for OnLive. And you’ll be seeing more things designed specifically for OnLive.

What’s the latest global launch dates?

For the UK we’ve announced it for this Autumn, everything is on schedule. The exact date is dependent on a lot of different factors. We also have some regulatory things, parental controls and so forth. There are a few things we don’t completely control, but so far everything’s been going fine. The micro console has to be approved for use in the UK, and there’s been no problem there, but its things like that.

We’ve been in trials with BT and people love it. That’s an indication of A it works and B it appeals to that audience. As I don’t see any reason why there would be delays. So as far as what we’re doing with other countries, what we’re doing is going country to country thereafter. Now in other countries it’s a little more difficult because of language issues of course, but OnLive doesn’t have a lot of words in it, it’s mostly the games so its not too difficult to make it work in continental Europe. And the taste in games is very similar throughout Europe as it is in the US. There a few exceptions, for example there isn’t a lot of interest in Major League Baseball in the UK or Europe, but apart form that pretty much all our games translate over.

It works in those countries, we’ve beta tested in those countries. The only thing that holds us up is again the regulatory regimes we have to follow. I’m hoping each month we’ll just add another country as we make it through the autumn to 2012.

So you haven’t come across any problems with implementing OnLive in the UK, its all been pretty smooth?

It is smooth. We will go down to about 2MB/s. Again to show you the benefit you guys will get we launched at 5MB/s when we launched, and now we’re down to 2MB/s. So that shows the improvements we’ve done. With the tablet we’ll be able to go down to about 1MB/S. The reason that the download goes down is the screen size; we don’t have to send as much as many bits down.
If you really want to play a game on a smartphone, then about 500KB/s is fine. But when we get down to the smartphone a lot of these HD games you get to the point where you cant see the maps and other small details. So probably the bottom of the road is going to be 1MB/S for playing the full library of games on a tablet.

So that’s the bottom of the barrel in terms of internet speeds, but how about in terms of PC specs? How old and slow a PC will OnLive run on?

We’ll go back to Windows XP and we work on pretty much every netbook at this point. Every time we find a netbook that doesn’t work we fix it. It’s been months since someone came and said ‘hey here’s something it doesn’t run on’. Again, it’s your own beta test, right? It is possible there is a computer out there that doesn’t run on live, but I don’t know of one. Every Macintosh that is Intel or later works –if you have an old, old power PC Mac then we don’t run on that.

So any PC that’s released in the last seven years or so is pretty safe?

Yes. So on tablets we have iPad, IPad 2. And the Samsung Galaxy Tabs an example came out Friday in the States, and we had OnLive running on it in about 20 minutes. And of course we have a relationship with HTC, and they’re building us into their tablets and it works great on their stuff. And we’ve showed it running on the Xoom.

We have other ones in the works. We have other really cool tablets that are coming out later this summer. Rest assured, we’ll be on all the major tablets.

So your basically going for every smart phone and tablet you can.

Absolutely. You have Love Film and its not quite as widely used yet as I expect it will be as Netflix is here. But here every Blu-Ray played, every set top box you can buy, every PC, Mac, and tablet everything works with Netflix. The same thing is going to be true with OnLive. If it is a connected device, it will run OnLive. It’s that simple.

With the graphical flair you’d be bringing there, you’d be presumably putting a lot of games on the App Store and other portals to shame, can you come to a position where your dominating gaming in these areas?

I think we’ve got a long road ahead of us. It takes time for people to change their way of doing things. If you’re on Xbox live you might have your achievements and other things that you might not want to walk away from. So rather, we’ve taken an approach of trying to work together with these other platforms. We’re very careful to never say ‘forget your Xbox’.

That’s not our view of the world. There are some people that use OnLive just for demos. And that’s perfectly fine. Think about it if you’re about to make a bit investment in a game wouldn’t you like to try it out before to buy it? It’s a $50 billion worldwide market for games, we’re a 200-person start up. We don’t need to dominate the world in order to ok.

In time as the years go by, we’re looking at 2005 architecture for Xbox 360 and PS3. They’re getting a bit long in the tooth. And I think what you’ll see are people saying ’you know I really want to play this very high performance game that just cant be played on a console.’ And I guess at that point we become sort of competitive, but if it was us or someone else there’s a natural movement from old game platforms to the next generation.

Could you get exclusives for OnLive?

We have ‘kind of’ exclusives. We have the exclusive PC demo for Red Faction Armageddon. That was opportunistic in the sense that it was easier for us to get that out there. The PC market of course is getting smaller over time. And it’s a whole development effort to do a specific demo. With OnLive we just give them the first 30 minutes. If they like it they can continue on. Or they can then download it from Steam or whatever. I guess we have the exclusive on Macintosh for most of these games, sort of by default, the same for tablets.

The first real exclusive in the sense that they actually have capability that does not exist anywhere else would be From Dust. It’s a game that if it just could have been made to work with an iPad would have been fabulous for it, but there’s just not nearly enough computing power for it. We bridge that gap. So the touch version of From Dust will be exclusive to OnLive. And you’ll be seeing other games this fall that we want to announce, but the publishers want to wait.

If OnLive takes off, presumably they'll be less need for high-spec gaming PCs? Could this mean consumers won't have to buy spend money buying upgrades, new machines, etc. in order to play the latest games?

I definitely think that there is kind of PC gamer who will look at OnLive and say 'well I don't have to upgrade my rig in order to play the latest games'. For those sorts of gamers, if the game runs fine on the rig they have, they might see OnLive as an adjunct, they might see some new games and say 'I don't feel like upgrading I'm just going to use OnLive.'

But there's a whole new kind of PC gamer who look at the world a lot differently. They enjoy going and upgrading their rig and they enjoy tweaking things, making mods, and stuff like that. And we plan to work with those guys too.

There are some fantastic modded versions of games, we're going to take them and put them up on the service. So if there’s an auto-aim mod for a first person shooter, they can play it that way. But what we're not going to allow people to do is allow auto-aim guys to jump in and play with non-auto-aim guys. So they'll be multiple versions.

In this way we'll be working with PC gamers, those who are really into it and want to upgrade. They don't see it as a burden, they see it as a hobby. And we're all for that.

Many games retailers would say if OnLive got big, it would simply kill games retail. Do you think that's true?

I don't think its true, and I hope that we can work with all of them. Here's my thinking on that; people are going to go to these games retailers, Game Group as well as the smaller guys, and ask for advice and to talk about games. For something like that there's nothing like being on the ground.

I don't think the iPad or the iPhone killed off retail. Quite the contrary. Retail changed around it. And that's what we want to do. We've been working with retailers and you'll be seeing some results of that. Basically they'll be value cards, they can have a kiosk set up in the store where people can demo any game.

Consoles aren’t going to go away tomorrow, it’s going to take a while. And we very much want to work as an adjunct. And even on the day when consoles have become more or less obsolete, its still the case, Your going to want to go place to talk to people and so on. But retail will change. It had to change to accommodate consoles at some point, right?

And I do think that there's enormous value for the people that are on the ground. Cash payments for example. Online payments are difficult for people with limited means, who don't have credit cards. Trade in as well.

So there's a ton of ways that retail can get involved. The last thing we'd like to happen is for there to be nothing other than a virtual presence for gaming.

So will consoles be obsolete in the near future?

They are not going to be obsolete for some time, I mean they still make PS2 games. When PS3 was introduced, PS2 was younger than the PS3 is now. I think over the next couple of years you'll see a beginning of a wind down. Because there's just not enough horsepower in these existing platforms.
And the games publishers feel very, very constrained with what they can do given the limitations of the platforms. They want to show off they're new stuff, plus they're creative people who love their work, and they want to do even greater stuff. And the PC market is declining so its harder and harder to find a place for them to show off what they're doing.

Many platforms will fund development of titles – is that something you could do in the future?

We are at a point now where we have convinced the publishers and gamers that we are for real. A year ago publishers were just sticking their tow in the water, but we're clearly past that. We have the ability to do some extraordinary things.

Think about what you can do with one high performance computer with one high performance GPU card, and then just think what you can do with ten of them that are all working together to create incredibly realistic worlds. Nobody is going to do that in their home, and even if a few did the market would never be large enough to justify making a game for that. But now, with worldwide reach and a very large subscriber base, well now it’s starting to make sense.

Now a game like this is probably not going to sell for the same price as a regular game. It will be a special game. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a couple of games like that?

So what I can say Is that such games will be coming into existence. And the other thing I can say is that if you want to have an idea of what a game like that looks like, you can see a test that we did with Warner Brothers called Batman Arkham City Trailer. Take a look at that and imagine if the gameplay was that real. The facial capture for that was done by OnLive, that's how we achieved the realism. It’s a test for the future of gaming.

So would the next generation of consoles look a little bit more like an online system?

Well, we know about the Wii U. They've got a two screen experience, they've got a touch pad, but you've got to wonder how many people are going to want a standalone touch screen that doesn’t work when you leave the living room. As opposed to a more flexible iPad or Android tablet, which could work just as well and play the same games – which is what we'll be doing. I'm not so sure, I think there are certain people that just love Nintendo first party titles, but I think outside that audience, they're going to have a little bit of a challenge.

As far as Sony and Microsoft, I don't know. We heard hints about Wii U before it came, but none of the publishers have said anything about something from Sony or Microsoft. Certainly there’s the portable Sony, but that's not even a platform really.

I don't know how anyone is going to be able top build a console that can compete with high-performance servers and the cloud. Consoles are going to be even more expensive than they are today, and our Micro Console is less expensive than them now. And on TVs the incremental cost will be zero. It already is zero to play games on a tablet.

There are some arguments that the image quality isn’t so good because we're using compressed video and so forth, but more and more people are getting the demos of OnLive ruining at 1080p, and even at 1440p – and it doesn’t take a genius to work out no matter how bad the internet is its only going to get better. Its one of those things that’s sort of inevitable.

If you add it all together if your running high resolution on a TV, and I’m running on a performance server in the back end, then even if it’s a little compressed its still higher resolution that what you can do with your local console. I think that people are wrapping their heads around that and saying ‘how can we work on this’.

We’re a start-up, we do not have any goals to take over the world. We have our arms open to anyone that wants to work with us. Sony, Nintendo, Steam – any of those guys. We would love to find a way to have our technology work in concert with whatever they’re doing. We have no agenda to ‘displace them’.

In terms of new development talent, micro-studios etc, do you think OnLive could become an avenue for them? Perhaps there are some development teams that have felt blocked off with the current set.

I certainly hope so, it was one of the core motivations for founding the company. In the States we have a lot of the indie games on OnLive, and we will be carrying almost all of them over to the UK. And possibly hope to pick up some indie developers there as well. The indie guys have a tough time because unless it’s an immensely successful game they can’t really get them pressed onto disks. It’s too expensive with retail distribution etc.

And although people do download games from Xbox Live and the Wii store, they don't nearly as much as they pick up disks. For example a lot of the early Xbox consoles had very small drives, maybe 20GB. So if you’ve got a bunch of songs form Rock Band you have to decide what you’re going to delete in order to download something. So a lot of the indies just get shut out.

So what we’ve said is come one come all. We have all these great indie games, and even if you’ve never heard of it because they’ve got no marketing budget, you sometimes see someone playing something in the Arena – our spectating area – and people might want to try, and hey, here’s a free demo. And then they get into it and they buy the indie game.

We’ve done some other cool things, there’s a thing you may have heard of called the Humble Bundle. It’s a bunch of indie guys that got together and they said, ‘you choose how much you’re going to pay us and you get these games, and here’s how much goes to the creators, the distributors, and how much to charity.’

We participate in it, so whoever buys a game in the Humble Bundle, they can play the cloud version of it on OnLIve wherever they are. So you get the downloaded version and the OnLive version for whatever you decide the price is. Hard to complain about that.

So that’s the kind of this we can do. The Humble Bundle guys are loving it, because they’re getting exposure to people that just wouldn’t take the time to download the game. But again we don’t have an agenda to stamp downloading out, quite the contrary. We want creative people. And who knows maybe someone that downloads that thing and mods it becomes the next creative guy that comes up with the next awesome game experience that no one ever thought of before.

Do you think OnLive has to prove that it can nurture a hit?

There is going to come a point where there is some game that is releases on OnLive that isn’t released anywhere else, that is a take-off, monumental thing. Just like Halo was to Xbox. Something that will bring a huge amount of attention to the platform and so on. That will come.
Whether it comes out of the indie space or if it comes from a publisher who does some special thing for OnLive, it’s hard to predict. Even games that are technically very sophisticated, it’s hard to see if they’re going to succeed creatively. I anticipate that at some point there is going to be a time like that, but in the meantime we’re going to put as many things out there as we can and make the experience as frictionless as possible.

SOURCE: PCR Online interview part 1, PCR Online interview part 2


  1. It’s a bunch ofD3 Items indie guys that got together and they said, ‘you choose how much you’re going to pay us and you get these games, and here’s how much goes to the creators, the distributors, RS Goldand how much to charity.’