Thursday, 15 September 2011

OnLive is Second to Steam in Digital Delivery

Will OnLive kill the console?

OnLive is a fairly simple idea. Instead of using a console or a computer to run a game for you, the system uses a server over the internet. It's the implications of that idea that, if they work, are nothing short of revolutionary.

Cloud gaming explained

Your controller or keyboard sends your input over the internet, to an OnLive server which then bounces back to you the result of your action onscreen. There's no physical disc, and not even any download time - you can start a 30-minute game demo in seconds, for free. Or rent or buy games that are linked to your account (UK pricing hasn't been announced yet, US pricing is typically around $5 for a three-day rental, $50 for a new game). And that means you can take them anywhere, play them on anything.

The same game, with progress tracked, can be played on a PC, Mac, big-screen TV with a micro-console and controller, Android tablet or iPad (from this autumn) and even, in the future, on an internet-enabled TV or Blu-Ray player. So you can start a game at work in your lunchtime, continue it on a tablet on wi-fi on the way home and finish it on your big TV.

For games companies, that means no piracy, and no physical distribution hassles. For gamers, as well as portability and instant availability, it also means you can watch anyone else's game (even talk to them while they play), from a megalomania-inducing bank of screens of games happening right that second.

Time-travelling tricks

What about the added delay – the latency – between pressing a key, it going out through the internet, and the response coming back? OnLive's trick is over 100 algorithms that minimise lag or latency. The system only refreshes the parts of the screen it needs to (leaving black patches static), it scales video quality to match your connection. The end result is, OnLive says, that a fairly standard home broadband connection (over 4-5 Mbps) should rarely, if ever, experience serious lag.

Even playing off US servers, at MSN's exclusive demo, games were utterly playable. Split/Second's kinetic racing was controllable, even in tight conditions. And while Homefront single-player and multiplayer were occasionally not ideal, the game remained playable throughout. And that's playing off a US server, as the European ones aren't online yet.

OnLive on the rise

When OnLive launched, most games on the service had already been released for a while, but "we're now launching many games on the same day as the Xbox 360 and Sony PS3" says Steve Perlman, CEO of OnLive (he previously created the tech behind QuickTime, WebTV and MOVA motion-capture cameras). "We've got over 50 publishers now signed up," adds Perlman. "That's pretty much every major."

OnLive has been a big success in the US. "We're second to Steam in digital delivery, publishers tell us," says Perlman. "And in the high 90 percentiles for user satisfaction, for people clocking in hours of play." OnLive has already seen publishers use it to release game demos. And games specialist site GameSpot in the US now uses OnLive to embed demos of games into its coverage. "Next we're working with retailers to create OnLive kiosks – so they can demo any game, not just one game."

Rival schools

Perlman maintains that OnLive isn't a competitor to the existing model of games, but he also admits: "we've already changed the way games can be marketed. In the short term, people using review sites can now immediately try the game. In the future… well, if you buy a movie you can now play it on lots of different devices. With games that was unthinkable. The days of physical media are numbered."

What of the big players? "Microsoft and Sony sell more than just hardware – it's brand, community, exclusive content," says Perlman. "They will adapt. After all, neither machine originally had streaming movies – but they do now."

The issue with OnLive is not that the world of games is changing, rather who will end up out in front. "By 2020, the majority of purchasing will be through the cloud, rather than physical discs or downloading," says Nick Parker, respected video games analyst, and founder and director of Parker Consulting. The question then is will gamers be streaming through OnLive?

The end of the console?

"Microsoft and Sony will have their own streaming solutions," says Parker. "As will EA, Valve. But even if OnLive ends up with 10% to 20% of the market – as most publishers will want to put their games everywhere ‑ that's still a big slice." Will OnLive's version of cloud gaming win out compared to different approaches? "OnLive is under threat itself, as it too is a platform," says Parker – pointing to rival service Gaikai as being potentially more nimble, if a new challenger enters from an unexpected direction.

"Browser games are getting better and better," says Parker. "There are German companies producing browser-based MMOs surpassing everyone's expectations of quality. And casual gamers are already moving away from console-like experiences towards social games and mobile. For many, if you told them they could never play Gran Turismo again, they might say 'oh well'. By 2014 we could see browser games that are fantastic. There are a number of horses running and a number of stars that need to align before we know what's going to happen."

Whatever happens, most agree that the chances you'll still be playing games on a disc you stick in a console in 10 years’ time are low. Welcome to the future…


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