Thursday, 29 September 2011

OnLive is the Next-Gen Console

OnLive founder, president and CEO Steve Perlman is no stranger to cutting edge technology, having worked for both Apple and Microsoft over the course of a career that’s seen him dabble in everything from Quicktime to motion capture. OnLive can be viewed as an amalgamation of his past experience, drawing in aspects of digital distribution, hardware manufacture and software development as he attempts to take cloud-gaming by the horns.


At OnLive’s UK debut, the first region following its US launch in June last year, OnLive arrived with a strong, varied line-up of titles. From new releases like Deus Ex: Human Revolution to indie hits like Braid, choice of content is not an issue. We sat down with Perlman to talk about learning from the past, looking to the future and how OnLive might be the key to gaming’s next seismic shift.

What lessons have you learned in the first year of OnLive, stateside, that will be brought to the UK launch?

The list is huge. We launched in the US with 18 games, and wired connections to PCs and Macs - you need millions of connections in order to figure out what is needed to make it run before we went to WiFi - so then we added WiFi. Then we added the MicroConsole. Then we added tablets. And then we started adding a lot more games. Multiplayer. Voice-chat – three different types: spectating chat, which is quite unique to OnLive, in-game chat and then group chat with friends.

Did this iteration come from community feedback?

Some came from the community, some things were on the slate but we just didn’t get around to them. There were limited resources so we had to triage our development resources, [things like] building parental controls… other things were smaller; how do we price these games? What’s the right way to promote them? How do people compare this offering with downloads and physical media? Like with Square Enix and Deus Ex – a coupon in with the disc turned out to be a very successful idea. When we first launched PlayPack - which has over 100 games, and is £6.99 in the UK (it’s $9.99 in the US) - the studios weren’t super-fond of [services like] Netflix, because they see it as more difficult to be successful in movies. But we tried to point out that gaming is a different thing, and we can make a successful flat-rate service.

Certain types of games, certainly legacy games that have been around, make sense, but getting studios to bring in new games like Homefront and Fear 3 and saying, ‘Hey – how about we just do multiplayer for that because then you have annuity revenue and if the person really wants to do singleplayer they can buy the whole game’: that worked out great. So we’re getting games six weeks after release into this flat-rate plan. How could you have predicted a year before that that would be the case? Initially [publishers] were saying there’s no way we’re going into a flat-rate plan. But having a flat-rate plan is very appealing for parents and people on a budget. However, they’re not going to do it unless there’s quality games on there, so how do you find that balance? We worked that out, it was 15 months of learning in the states in order to get us where we are now. There’s also been a huge amount of work on improving the algorithmns: if you were to measure the performance of, say, Unreal Tournament today compared to where it was 15 months ago, it’s more responsive.

The Pando survey of UK ISPs suggests BT isn’t top of the pile – why did you go with BT?

There’s a number of different issues. In the US, there’s not one internet backbone there’s several. Unlike a website, or streaming video, we’re very concerned about what route you have; to make sure it’s a very direct route from the data centre right to the user. The backbone in the UK is something which BT wholesales, so they have the technical depth and knowledge of how all these different pieces fit together. And so we worked with them in making sure that our inter-connects are optimal, that we can connect to anything as optimally as possible. And BT have a great relationship with their customers from a retail point of view, and they have a large network of WiFi access points - you can, in some cases, get Onlive to work over 3G, but for tablets and mobile devices it's really a WiFi application.

Who pitched to who?

There’s another side to it. I was giving a very objective set of characteristics but, gosh, at this point we’ve probably met with every major operator in the world - certainly different operators in the UK. We meet with people who are motivated and have a vision to go and do something new, who are willing to take a chance and go with something that’s not defined. BT invested in OnLive before we had even launched the service, where the general consensus among experts was it didn’t even work technically, it wasn’t possible. BT invested in May of 2010, and we launched in June. They believe in what we’re doing; they analysed it, said it really does work and not only that but it’s something which has a chance to really revolutionise things. We’re showing them the basic service now, there’s going to be new things we’re going to come up with; we want a partner who’s not going to look askance at it and say it’s too risky to try. We need risk takers and its hard to find that with large corporations.

The past months have seen developments in portable gaming, from 3DS to Vita – do you see yourselves now competing with those platforms?

Not directly. This brings up the broader question of whether we see consoles as competitors. This is the very first time a new platform has been introduced into the gaming space which is not a direct competitor against existing ones. We have lots of folks that are Xbox 360, PS3 and PC users who use OnLive as well. We’re more than happy to work in concert with these other platforms. We view ourselves as joining the ecosystem. It’s the same with portables, if you’re on an airplane without connectivity and you have your iPad or Android tablet, you’re not going to use OnLive. Then again, if you’re at the airport and your train’s running late and you want to play Deus Ex, you can. And that’s awesome.

So you think people will carry around a laptop, a Vita and an OnLive controller… ?

They may. You know what, if you have an Xbox 360 controller, we’ll work with that too. We’re not even saying use our controller – if you like, sure. We don’t have an agenda to corner the market everywhere. We really want to create a community and allow people to interact and talk to each other and so on.

The GameStop debacle – how do you feel about it, do you understand their position, removing the cards?

We worked with Square Enix on this. It’s hard to believe, but way back last spring we said, 'Hey, this’d be a good promotion'. So when it came out in August it was long out of our hands. They’re the ones who have the relationship with GameStop, we stood back and said, 'Look, it was Square Enix’s promotion - we’re happy to work with them and we’re happy to work with GameStop'. We don’t have an agenda to go and disrupt someone else’s business. As far as brick and mortar retail, obviously we’d like to work with them. You’ll be seeing more announcements coming from us, here and in the States, about deals that we’re doing with retailers.

People that say it’s the end of bricks and mortar and the world’s moving to digital distribution and that’s it… well, hang on what about Apple stores? Who knows more about digital distrubtion than iTunes and the App Store? And what are they doing? They’re building stores. It’s less about the end of bricks and mortar and more about the ongoing transformation of bricks and mortar. About 20 years ago they weren’t carrying [digital] media in these stores and now they are. And now they’re carrying more devices that play the media. It’s just part of that ongoing transition. The retailers that do not change, that continue in the way they are, will become extinct. That is true. I won’t comment on which, but there’s one brick and mortar retailer who wants to have a pink version of the MicroConsole with glitter on it, and it comes packaged with a version of PlayPack with girls’ games. Nothing wrong with that – we found it very amusing and said sure! I think the long and short of it is the world is changing, that’s the key thing.

How likely do you think it is that smartphone gamers, raised on pick-up-and-play titles will move into the core gamer category? Do you think you can wean them off their iPhone games?

We don’t have an objective to wean them off. Again, it’s a co-existence thing, it’s a big market.

What are the average resolutions OnLive displays?

One of the beauties of cloud gaming is the servers are always running at full quality. We’re constantly surveying, down to the millisecond, what the throughput is and the quality of the connections wherever we are and we don’t have enough users that can sustain 1080p, 60fps - you need about 10 megabits a second to do that. When we get to that point we’ll switch over, make [1080p] available, and then that’ll become the standard that comes out of all the servers.

So you can match console resolution?

Yes. We’ll start doing 4K resolution games. We can do it in the lab [now], 4096 by 2048 in full 3D – that’s the type of resolution Avatar would be projected in a theatre. We can make that work. We have the capability to do it. There are projectors you can get that can do that, certainly not mainstream TVs, but they will be there [in the future].

And no lag or latency issues?

No, increasing resolution doesn’t add to the latency. It means, today anyway, you need to parallel up the GPUs. But then again, with the GPUs a few years from now, you won’t have to. We can do multiple GPUs per server or we can do multiple servers that are combined together, we have those options. You might say, 'Gosh, that sounds awfully expensive, to run a hyper-realistic game and need 16 simultaneous servers'. Well, maybe it is during the day but you want to play it at 2am? It’s regular price. There’s lots of things we could do to bridge the gap.

In that case, you could change the pricing depending on the users’ display and usage time?

Yeah. We can, if we need to. And it all depends on how the world evolves. The ISPs are the ones determining how widely available broadband is, but as they’re putting out fibre they can put over pretty much any data they want on it. And over time things just get less expensive, it’s the nature of broadband. And computational capability gets less expensive as time goes on, too. But the thing about it is even if we were to release something like that, there are no games that run at that resolution. We can crank them up artificially, but they don’t have as many polygons as they normally would, or detail, to really take advantage of the resolution. What’s nice about where OnLive is getting to is when you get enough gamers using [it], the developers can go and do what they’ve been wanting to and go crazy with the kind of realism that can be achieved.

So theoretically, developers can come to you with a ground-up title and bypass the next console generation if they wanted to?

It’s not theoretical, we’re working with them now. For most people these titles will look like live-action, and you’ll just be controlling the characters - a lot of publishers and developers want to try to do things which bridge the gap between cinema and videogames. In some cases they’re using the exact same [character] models for OnLive [games] as for a feature film release. [OnLive’s wholly-owned subsidiary and proprietary] Mova technology has mostly been used for feature films, Green Lantern, Tron, because the resolution is too high for consoles. It’s brilliant what people have been able to do with 2005 hardware, but there’s only so far you can take it, right? The PC market, with high-end GPUs is not large enough to support the development of a very high-end title right now. So we’re bringing that back, we’re going to go and make high-end computing available to developers and that will also help the PC market, because they’ll get titles which will way out-perform consoles again.

Will this be offered contractually - 'Build your title with our tools and debut on OnLive'?

We make the Mova technology available to developers and as I said some of them are using it. But we support Unreal Engine, whatever they want to put in there, we’re not saying you have to support a particular tool chain. These things are complicated enough that if you really get down to it, there’s a handful of teams in the world today that can deliver what I’d call a photo-realistic videogame. In fact, you’re going to have some people from the motion picture industry, some people from the videogame industry each bringing different dimensions of that.

You think OnLive will draw together film and videogames?

It absolutely will.

In a way that consoles haven’t?

They didn’t get that far. In my view, there probably will not be another high-end console. We don't know of any in the works, the developers have not received any prototypes and the Wii U is not that, it's a different kind of thing. I think that this is the next console. I think everyone’s waiting to see if this really works: is it good enough? Is it going to attract an audience? You know, it took a year, and it’s perfectly fair for people to wait that long till they’re confident. We had some developers who decided to dive in and get ahead of the game before others and, frankly, the smaller developers have more to gain from getting in early than the large developers. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen. The key thing here is, there are so many disparate things going on between different devices, platforms and so on – we’d like to try to bring these things together. And we’d like to find a way to let each of our partners – broadband partners, tool partners, creative partners like Warner Bros., distribution partners – do what they do best. Let us be the nerds developing this technology, which is what we’re pretty good at.

If Apple moves more boldly into the gaming space they might want to host titles like Deus Ex on the App Store themselves – is that a danger?

I’m not too worried about it. Here’s a business answer – when you look at Apple’s financials, they pretty much break even with the App store, they make their money selling hardware. Google make their money selling advertising, they don’t make any money at all on Android, so when you look at the motivations of each of these different companies you realise they want [different things]. Something like From Dust [touch control version for OnLive] is going to sell iPads [and] Apple doesn’t like that? Are you kidding? The margins on that, that’s where they make their money. That’s a reason for them.

The other thing is, doing leading-edge stuff you tend to get thrown in the boat with the people that are more visionaries. So in our dealings with Apple, Google, so forth people tend to say, 'Wow, that’s cool, how can we help you?' It’s been great so far. People talk about exclusives: We have exclusives for pretty much every game on Macintosh. So again, we help them sell Macs. We even have a driver for Xbox 360 controllers which are not normally supported by Mac.

SOURCE: EDGE.

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