Friday, 30 September 2011

Interview: John Spinale of OnLive

The cloud gaming service OnLive launched last week in the UK to intense media interest. BeefJack sat down with OnLive’s Vice President of Games and Media, John Spinale, at the Eurogamer Expo 2011 for a wide-ranging interview on how OnLive looks to add new dimensions to the gaming experience, the potential to distribute “the highest-end graphical game in the world” on the platform and why OnLive’s users have surprised even its founders with their creativity.

BeefJack: There’s an incredible buzz about OnLive here on the show floor, with the stand being absolutely mobbed. Is there a particular satisfaction about this happening at the Eurogamer Expo after, shall we say, they expressed “disbelief” last year in their coverage of OnLive?

John Spinale: They were sceptical – and I think that’s fair, because what we do sounds too good to be true. We work in a sceptical business so it was totally acceptable for somebody to say “I don’t believe you, I’m going to put you through the paces”, and I think they’ve been really good about saying “Hey, you know what? We were sceptical but you’ve proven us wrong”.

I don’t know whether it produces a certain satisfaction, but it’s good to feel like the platform is being accepted here. When we launched in the States, it was all about people being curious about the technology because it sounds too good to be true, and they wanted to know how it works. At the end of the day, while it’s fine to talk about the technology, what’s most interesting to gamers and consumers is not the tech – what happens in the background – but what games can they play, what features do we have as a platform and why they would want to use this instead of another way to get their games, either at retail or on a different platform.

So for me it’s satisfying because the conversation has moved on now to the fun part.

BeefJack: Talking about the gamer experience, one of the things that was highlighted in the OnLive developer session was the new forms of social interaction – for instance, the ability to instantly observe other people playing singleplayer games. That sort of feature has never been done by anyone else before. Do you think that level of social integration, the likes of which even Xbox Live and PlayStation Network can’t match, is the killer feature for you?

John Spinale: I certainly think it’s a killer feature, I don’t now though whether it’s the killer feature. The trend is everything is going online, everything’s becoming more social. Gamers are social people. It is so much more fun to play a game with your friends than by yourself. Statistically speaking, the vast majority of gamers’ time is geared towards playing socially, whether it’s on the couch with your friends playing a football game or online playing a shooter.

So, by having an online-only platform, it allows us to do all sorts of social things that you can’t do in the traditional console world. Spectating is a big one. Instead of looking over someone’s shoulder, you can surf through hundreds and hundreds of people playing different games. It’s not necessarily a killer feature for any one individual, but we’re finding a lot of time is just spent browsing through the games, like channel surfing on your TV.

BeefJack: Gaming has always struggled to find a place in the television medium as something to be watched, yet with OnLive you’ve created the ultimate TV network for games…

John Spinale: Yeah, we’re psyched about that. I think we’ll see that now we’ve got all this working, we’ll start to marry this with more functionality to broaden the appeal. For example, the concept of curation, so that a celebrity could narrate what’s going on so that all the spectators have a bit of context. That and other stuff can really start to turn the viewing experience into a more collaborative experience. That’s where I think it’s going to really turn into a whole other thing.

BeefJack: One of the things that leapt out at me was its applications for e-sports: for commentary, for audience interaction during tournaments…

John Spinale: In the fullness of time, we’ll see things like this happening – none of it’s live today – but you can imagine I have a tablet version of OnLive where I can mark up information like on a chalkboard while someone’s playing, or if say someone scores a really cool goal, I can rewind it and point out to the viewer how this other guy is way out of position over here, using the tablet to interact with the television feed. You can have voice chat on with someone who’s a well-known celebrity commentator who is pointing details like that out in real-time in the game space. So you’re right – it helps turn games into a broadcast medium.

BeefJack: Was taking elements of the way sports are presented on TV a big inspiration during the design stage for OnLive?

John Spinale: Yeah, it totally was. The first thing was: hardware in the games business is the bane of everyone’s existence, because you as a consumer has to spend £200-£300 to buy a box, the manufacturer has had to spend even more to make them, maybe losing money on them, a publisher has to spend a lot of money subsidising that box whenever they sell a game and it’s a really rough eco-system.

So if you can pull hardware out of the equation it just makes the business better, in that from a gamer’s perspective I can not have to spend that £200 on a box and I can spend it on games so that’s pretty fantastic.

That was the beginning of the thought process, but once we realised that, OK, the platform allows us to do so many different things because now everything is up in the data centre and streamed as video, then your mind begins to go on to this other dimension and asking: what does that really mean? It becomes another media type like movies, music and television – games could be broadcast out like them so what can we do with that?

You can take these kinds of live events and make it more exciting, accessible and deeper than if you were just looking over someone’s shoulder.

BeefJack: Have developers and publishers given you feedback that they’ve been inspired by this new approach?

John Spinale: Absolutely. The way that product evolution works in the gaming platform world is that you give someone the tools, and then they go and build something even more exciting than you ever imagined. We did a really great job of saying “hey, here’s all these motion inputs [on the iPad], here’s a couple of sample games” and the development community went crazy with it and produced these wonderful motion-friendly games.

We’re introducing a ton of new functionality in the platform world and it takes a little while for developers to get their heads around what’s possible and then to start to exploit it. So I think today’s generation of OnLive games are pretty similar to the functionality of what you’ll find on the consoles – but the next generation of games that will start to come out later this year and early in 2012 will really start to take advantage of the OnLive platform in the way they incorporate this new functionality.

BeefJack: How much work does have to go into making a game OnLive-compatible?

John Spinale: It’s pretty easy, though it does depend – if you have a PC version of a game it can be a matter of days to make it compatible. Your mileage may vary if you have big complex multiplayer stuff, which can take longer. We’ve got a lot of indie games on OnLive where it’s a team of two guys who’ve made the game and they don’t have a ton of time to deal with porting to a new platform so we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. When we were building this platform it was a question of how do we make it as easy as possible for developers, because if they embrace your platform then you’ll get great content and cool, interesting, innovative games.

BeefJack: One of the things that came up in the developer talk was that it’s not limited to PC games which was how it was originally perceived – so it is possible to port Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games to OnLive?

John Spinale: Oh, absolutely. That’s why we clarified it in the talk. In our data centres we are running on a PC architecture that our servers are based on top of, but if you look at the portfolio of games on the service no-one would call them “PC games”. You think of PC games as being the likes of real-time strategy, MMOs or browser-based, but if you look at Batman: Arkham City that’s not a “PC game” in that sense of the term, it just happens to be running on a Windows PC in a data centre somewhere else.

Now, that’s because in our data centres we can run your game on an ultra high-end gaming PC that can produce much, much higher performance than the existing consoles. That’s why we chose that architecture. That’s more of a technical detail than anything the end-gamer would be concerned about, and of course early on we didn’t have the MicroConsole and you could only play OnLive games via a PC or Mac.

Now that you see the full spectrum of devices that OnLive works on – console, PC, tablets, Blu-Ray players, televisions and so on – people get more of a sense of the broad nature of the platform now.

BeefJack: Now that you’ve introduced your own home console – and at a significantly cheaper price than the Xbox 360 and PS3 – do you think it raises potential issues with Microsoft and Sony about games designed for their platforms coming to yours?

John Spinale: I think that when you look at third-party publishers such as THQ, Ubisoft, all those guys, they make all of their games cross-platform because it is so expensive to build a game and you need to get it into as many distribution channels as possible, so they’re going to of course continue to support Xbox 360 and PS3. But we’re now another platform – I’m sure the existing format holders would like there not to be another platform, but I don’t think they view us as a threat or a real problem. I think we’re an addition to the existing marketplace today.

BeefJack: You showed the Arkham City HD trailer at the talk, and have talked previously about how your system could run Epic’s Unreal Engine Samaritan demo. Do you think that there’s a possibility of a developer deciding to create a truly high-end graphics game – a next generation Crysis – and targeting your platform exclusively as the only one that could run it?

John Spinale: I can say that is very likely that something like that will happen. There’s always a crew of cutting-edge developers who wants to push things to another level and drives more performance from a system in a way that nobody else does. The Crytek guys were awesome at doing that last generation, I did it 15 years ago on the first generation of hardware-accelerated PCs and 3D games [John's long CV in games development stretches back to working on MechWarrior 2 at Activision in the 1990s as well as on the Tomb Raider franchise for Eidos, amongst numerous other titles]. There’s always someone who’s willing to shrink down their market size to be the most cutting-edge possible, and what’s nice about our platform is that we are the most high performance one available today that any consumer can afford. So there are definitely people who recognise that.

BeefJack: Are there already such projects in place?

John Spinale: People are starting to do some work now. I don’t think anything has been announced but the seeds are definitely being planted for some of that stuff. What Steve Perlman [OnLive CEO] showed earlier at the talk – the Mova facial capture stuff – things like that can only happen in the OnLive environment. It definitely opens up a world of possibilities and that’s what gets the development community really excited. There are a bunch of very creative, very talented people who are inspired by that, and for them figuring out “How do I make a business out of this?” is very much a second order of priority, but “What can I do that’s really cool and exciting?” is always the first thing they think of.

BeefJack: And that would be a great selling point for you: “The most incredible graphics in a game ever”…

John Spinale: Yeah, it works for us, without a doubt! You can play the highest-end graphical game possible in today’s world but you don’t actually need a $3000 gaming PC to play it. So that’s what the consumer proposition is. Developers love it because they can go and make the best game ever, consumers love it because they don’t have to spend 1,000s of dollars on gaming equipment that’s going to be obsolete in three years.

BeefJack: The other factor then is that you could play that same game on multiple devices – whether it be through your TV, a laptop or an iPad for example. Do you think that is the future: the idea of one game, one login, one service but across any device?

John Spinale: Yeah, and I think that’s becoming true in any form of media as well. When you buy a song, you feel like song belongs to you and shouldn’t be only playable on a single device. I’ve brought a license to that song and I should be able to play it where I want. The same is happening in the world of film.

It’s a little clunky still as it’s being rolled out, but it is happening and I think the exact same thing should be true in games, especially if those games are pretty expensive relative to those other forms of media. If you have purchased a game, I think it’s very reasonable and fair to say you should have access to that title wherever and on whatever you want. It just hasn’t been possible before due to the size of that media and the need for resources, but as soon as you go into the online world those restraints go away.

I think publishers are totally fine with that concept. In the States we’ve had a couple of deals where we bundled in a copy of the cloud version, so that if you go and buy a game at retail you also get a copy you can play on OnLive. And I think publishers want to do what’s right for the customer. If you’ve just dropped £40 on a game, of course you should be able to play that as well on your laptop or your iPad. Obviously, it’s our platform that allows for that sort of thing, but they’re doing the right thing with it for the customer.

BeefJack: So could OnLive act as the “one console future” predicted by the likes of Dennis Dyack?

John Spinale: I think there’s always going to be room for more than one platform. Who else is going to play in this world with us, I don’t know, but inevitably when we look back at platforms there’s always been several around. Sure, I’d be thrilled if we were the only platform needed, but I just don’t think it’s likely.

But you never know! We shall see. Right now, we’re a new thing that adds a lot of new dimensions, and I think that everybody finds a different bit of value in it where it fits into the world today. Even if you are an avid Xbox 360 player… there may be a lot of people who try out a ton of games on OnLive and make the decision to buy another Xbox and that’s OK. Over time, the benefits and performance tends to get people to consider us as a platform in it’s own right. Everyone has their own reason for wanting to try it out, and over time more keep coming back, which is great.

BeefJack: You touched there on two elements I’d like to ask you about. Firstly, the competition – at present you are the only company doing this, but GameStop have announced their own streaming service in the US. Do you worry that streaming could suddenly become a gold rush market and you would no longer have that USP? Does it ever worry you that Valve will turn around tomorrow and announce streaming for Steam, or that the Xbox 720 or PS4 will have this built in?

John Spinale: Like I said, I do think this will be a multiplayer market at some point and there could be a lot of different ways that that next player emerges – it could be any of the one’s you mentioned there. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad for the consumer – in the past, you had to pay $300 or $400 up front for the kit and then you had to make your bed on that platform and were pretty much hosed if you picked the wrong one, the one’s without a lot of great content. There’s always been multiple players, going back to the 16 bit cartridge era when the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis duked it out.

In this online world, though, the customer doesn’t have to make that up-front capital outlay, so I think the good news for them will be that if there are multiple streaming platforms… well, it won’t be a bad thing for the consumer.

To me it’s all about the social aspects and community, and being able to say “Hey, we actually integrate this into your real world”. It’s like the social media world: do you need two Facebooks? So I think that will actually be more of a question for the customer over the long run.

BeefJack: You mentioned the pack-in codes, and obviously there was an issue with GameStop removing them from copies of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the US. What were your feelings on that?

John Spinale: Well, I think that’s their prerogative to do that to the boxes that are in their stores – maybe not necessarily their prerogative but Square Enix's to not package in things for certain retailers – so conceptually I’m fine with that.

I think the way they handled the situation could probably have been a little… smoother. From my perspective, I always put the customer first and ask what is the right thing to do for them and work backwards from that. I think the intention is fine, but there were a lot of customers who were unhappy because off that, and that’s never a good place to be.

We made it right for any customer who came and wanted to talk to us and said they would really like the cloud copy – that’s an easy thing for us to fix.

BeefJack: So you did have customers who’d bought it at GameStop coming directly to you and asking for a code?

John Spinale: Yeah – and we gave them their copy.

BeefJack: Initially when you launched in the US, there was a subscription and then customers brought games on top. Since then, you’ve dropped that initial subscription, and added in rentals and a monthly package subscription. Do you think you went with the wrong model initially?

John Spinale: Absolutely. I think we were looking at the Xbox Live model – needing a base subscription to be in OnLive seemed to make sense because we have the cost of running the business, like Live does, and we were building servers and doing all this stuff and it seemed reasonable to charge for that and that was the assumption at launch.

Once we stuck our toe in the water, there were two things that happened: one was that consumers said they really didn’t like the subscription idea, and given the option they’d rather not – and I mean seriously would rather not – pay it, and that customer feedback is good.

The other thing is that once they came on to our platform, they were buying enough games that we didn’t have to charge a subscription to run our business. It wasn’t that we were trying to be greedy, but we were trying to get a business up and running and fund all this infrastructure we were developing. The great news was that people were buying enough software to allow us to run our business without a subscription fee.

So that kind of came together in the first few months of the operation. We never technically charged anyone a subscription fee – we reserved the right to after giving them the first year free – but then people were still hesitant about that concept so we dropped it.

And I think that was the right answer; that’s where the world is on the consumer internet – try something, and then if you like it…

BeefJack: So the present structure – the ability to buy games, subscribe to the PlayPack or rent them for three or five days – you’re happy with that?

John Spinale: Yeah, it works great. We kind of learned as we went along – and I think that’s the fun thing about being a start-up: that we can test different things and see what works and what doesn’t, listen to our customers and so on.

So on the standard side of things we have a free demo: you can try out any of over 150 games without any hassle, and that’s a pretty powerful thing within itself. A lot of those are available for rentals and then you can buy them for normal retail prices – and the prices are very competitive.

So that’s the standard aspect. But then we introduced our PlayPack subscription, which has about 100 games in it and that’s £6.99 a month, which I think is great value. So that’s all you can eat, right, and it appeals to a different crowd who like the idea of paying that amount a month to simply turn the console on and play a bunch of really great games. Most of them may not be the latest titles, but they were AAA games when they came out and any one of them could cost you $20 today to play. You can play and complete three, five games or more for the same hit on your wallet. It’s resonated really well.

There’s some really good games in there as well – we’re really pleased with what the publishers have been putting in there. Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Asylum – people would still pay a fair amount of money to buy those at retail still.

What’s really fun is games like Deus Ex – the original one – that came out in 2000. If you were to try and buy a copy now it would be hard to find, and if you did you’d have trouble installing it on a modern computer because it was made for Windows 98 or something. So you’d have to spend a lot of time building a virtual environment for it – finding the right drivers and so on – and I was talking to an editor who loves that game, but had just spent 12 hours configuring it to run on his PC so he could replay the original before Human Revolution came out. Whereas if you play it on our servers it would take around 12 seconds.

BeefJack: Is that an area you’d like to look into as well, with the growth of retro gaming? Your ability to curate a pure experience of playing these games as they would have been originally without any of the hassle?

John Spinale: I hadn’t though about that! We do have lots and lots of retro games, but I hadn’t thought about it in terms of the spirit of bringing them back in the way they were originally released – which is a great idea because it’s more than just a packaging and presentation concept. I think that’s good because it’s really fun for gamers to think about it that way. Yeah, I think we might do that!

BeefJack: I’ll expect the cheque in the post!

John Spinale: Yeah, it’d be great to see the games that you’d heard about and be able to experience them again in that light.

So, in the PlayPack – these were great games when they came out, the likes of Just Cause 2 from 2010, Tomb Raider, Unreal Tournament 3… these are all really great games. And there’s a good mix between Indie stuff and big publishers.

BeefJack: Was this another case where looking outside the gaming industry at other media business models – in this case, streaming movie services such as LoveFilm here in the UK, Netflix in the US – helps differentiate OnLive from the sort of model the games industry has been following for the last 20 odd years?

John Spinale: I think other industries have led the way on this, which is good because now customers understand the essential concept of streaming music, streaming movies, television – so the world of streaming games is easier to wrap their heads around. There are now a number of different ways in which they’re comfortable and willing to experiment with.

And it’s the same with the publishers. Take THQ with Homefront – they took the multiplayer component and said “We’d like more people to experience this” and so put that into the PlayPack. And then our subscribers can play as much as they want of this still pretty fresh game’s multiplayer without having to buy the full retail copy – and if it they like it, they can go buy the full version and play through the single player mode.

So people are experimenting with this and it’s doing really well. We’re all still learning what works for the consumer and the publishers – I mean, it’s no secret that game publishers have had a pretty rough ride over the last few years. The console business is a big, expensive business to be in, so everyone’s looking for new ways to be profitable in todays market, which is why I think they’re interested in being partners and experimenting with us.

BeefJack: So with the excitement surrounding the launch, is it a case of consolidation in the UK and Western Europe now or are there certain things in the pipeline that you’re moving on to?

John Spinale: Well, there are always things in the pipeline, which is the fun part of the work for us now. We laid all the infrastructure and technology and that was the really hard part of our business – the last seven years of sorting out the tech to make this happen because it goes so deep, from custom data centres to custom game servers for a new platform, and to do that all round the world. Then it was a case of working with publishers to make sure we get great content and really great games on the system.

Now that we have a lot of momentum in both of those areas, we can start to get into the really fun, innovative things that will bring new dimensions to the platform, and we’re rolling out features like that all the time now. We just added a bunch of different voice chat options so you and your mates can be spectating somebody playing and turn that into a sort of chat room – you could have ten people watching one person playing. You can also form permanent chat groups that can go across games. So we’re adding lots and lots of stuff like that, geared towards communication and socialising.

Take the Brag Clip feature. I can take them and post them out to Facebook as well as share them with your OnLive friends. Stuff like that is relatively straightforward for us to do, but it adds a whole new dimension to the experience. We try to make it as seamless an experience as possible between playing and sharing.

Then there’s the art that’s getting generated with that. It’s a great example of where you provide users with tools. For instance, Gearbox who developed Duke Nukem Forever put in a whiteboard in the game. An OnLive user called Hrubiks – who’s a really good artist – draws illustrations on that whiteboard and then records them as Brag Clips and shares them. Every single day he does a new picture [John showed several of Hrubiks' Brag Clips at this point, including a superb sketch of the Mona Lisa drawn from within DNF] – and he’s gotten really good at this, and he now has a following because people can see his profile, find out all about this guy and become friends with him. He has 245 friends on the service whereas the average person might have only 20 to 40. You can also rate both him and his work. He owns one game – Duke Nukem Forever – and he has the best part of 250 friends, all of whom are there to follow his artwork. Stuff like that is so cool.

BeefJack: Was that the sort of thing you didn’t foresee?

John Spinale: Right. That’s the best part of building a bit of a playground – people can just go crazy, do their own thing and come up with stuff that you would just never expect.

Philosophically, from the moment I joined and we were thinking about hope we were going to turn this into a product, the one that has never changed is that we said we are going to keep this as open as possible, so that we can take advantage of the best of the gaming eco-system that’s out there.

And there’s other dimensions too. We can embed it into a web page, so if you’re reading an article you can click on the link and within three seconds have access to a free half hour demo of a game. We’re trying to figure out how do you bring all the different worlds together. So you could read all about a game, all this great editorial but the dimension that was always missing was “Hey, can I try it?” – and we have the ability to provide that link. We’re doing that with GameSpot – it’s live now in the US – but it’s certainly not an exclusive relationship. Anyone who has a valuable editorial property, we’re happy to work with them and let them try it out.

Also they can take their content and integrate it into our world more tightly. On a game’s page on OnLive you have additional features such as trailers and so on, and you could have previews and reviews to read in there as well. We can take that stuff off the web and provide a relatively seamless experience for users.

BeefJack: Thanks for taking so much time out to talk to us.

John Spinale: It was an absolute pleasure.

SOURCE: BeefJack.

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