Tuesday, 20 September 2011

OnLive's John Spinale is Interviewed in Light of the UK Launch

We sat down with OnLive's VP of games and media John Spinale, who walked us through some of the platform's exciting features.

Are most games publishers on board with OnLive?

Yes. Almost all publishers and developers are on board. That's publishers and developers together, because on some level digital distribution starts to blur the line between publisher and developer. A lot of the little indie guys self-publish their own titles and obviously some of the big publicly traded publishing houses have lots and lots of developers that self-publish their own stuff.

In any case there's a large number of people on the platform right now and the vast majority of third-party games as they come out going forward will be on OnLive pretty much day and date. What's fun about that is say, Deus Ex, from the minute we were allowed to start selling it, players will sit there with their controllers and start playing at 12:01.

What's cool about that is that you don't have to wait for the download, go to the store, install it... you're just playing. We see people now desperate to start playing new releases as quickly as they can, get through the game, start showing their friends they were first, get Achievements the fastest or even get good at multiplayer so they can school their friends by the time their friend buys it and gets home the next day. We've seen so much of that behaviour, it's really funny.

We have the ability to have trailers as well, whether its developer diaries or commentary. We have a feature called the 'Arena', where you can watch other people playing the game live. You can pre-order games, get special promotional details, discounts and other goodies along the way.

The way OnLive works is that it is free, so you can come in and play all the demos for free. If you like what you're playing you can choose to rent or buy the game. In this case there are three-day rentals or five-day rentals for six or nine dollars or you can buy the full version for full retail price which is $50. We haven't announced UK pricing, but you'll see similarity to existing digital channels.

When you start a game, in the background a server is fired up with the game, it takes profiles and moves it to that server so all save games follow the player no matter where in the world they are. All user information and save games go with them. All that takes is something like eight seconds and then you're playing the game in under the time it would take to walk over to an Xbox and put in the disc.

What's the response time like when playing a fast-paced action game?

It's, good, really good. At the end of the day it has to be a responsive platform, it has to feel good otherwise people just won't play it.

Since the game is being streamed off a server, does that mean the PC versions of games are being used?

Yes, it's a modified version of the game really, so it's an OnLive version. But at the core of our game servers is essentially a PC architecture.

So your versions of multiplatform games look better than the console versions?

They do, which is nice. We're pretty happy with how all of the by-products or unintended consequences of our system are playing out.

Why haven't you been snapped up by a household name company yet? Have you had any acquisition offers or been approached?

We really want to make this company work as a stand-alone entity. We've tried to do that from the beginning with the partnerships we've put in place, we've tried to focus on delivering the best gaming experiences first. All the existing household names have great businesses in the console space or high-end PC space. We're trying to do something different.

I think the problem with getting acquired is that when you're trying to do something different it diminishes the value. We designed this thing from the get go, to go it alone, but with a lot of partners. The partners in the UK are British Telecom - that's a good partner to have for a network-only, internet-centric service like this. You don't have to be a BT customer to get OnLive but we'll certainly be promoting it together and continue to optimise the network for it.

Lots of people have expressed interest and it's very flattering and nice to hear that stuff, but we're not considering it, it's not on the horizon, but maybe someday. Who knows.

Do you think your service is getting the credit it deserves?

We started off in the US with a soft launch, we did some PR and said "hey, this is neat and revolutionary technology", but we didn't really market or push it hard because we were still developing what it was. We started off with 10 games and now have 150, so we were basically trying to build up the library and functionality, to have achievements, voice chat and things like that.

We didn't launch with that... we limped out with the fundamental architecture - which changes everything in that you're playing a game 100 miles or more away - but we didn't have a fully robust feature set that gets everybody excited.

Now we've put all that together over the course of the last year. There's a library of games and a really cool feature set that other platforms can't do, such as the fact that you're playing super high-end games on a tablet for example. Now we have a really robust platform so we have the ability to come out guns blazing in the UK and show everybody the opportunity is huge.

I think we just haven't really talked about it much in the UK yet so I don't think we deserve any credit, but soon hopefully we'll get some good reactions.

In the US we've seen it turn into this hockey stick. Since we did a soft launch we've added a bunch of features and push on it more recently, so we're seeing our user base grow like crazy. The articles that get written are very positive and our partners, the publishers and developers in game development who build stuff for our platform, they love us right now, and the consumers are starting to say wonderful things about us.

Those are the two groups, if you make them happy the rest works itself out. I'm actually pretty happy with the reception we've had so far.

Can your servers out-perform the big platform holders?

Yes, and it only gets better. That's the two pronged answer. Right now we have high-end gaming servers running the games. It's more than the average person has in their home, whether it's a console or a PC. If you want to spend ten grand you could build a rig better than I have in the data cabinet but that's the lunatic fringe that would do that.

That said, since we're in server centres, every nine to ten months we get to upgrade the back-end, we get to add servers, the latest graphics cards with more memory, CPU and so our platform keeps getting faster and faster every year instead of the Xbox which is sitting in your living room and isn't getting any faster since the day they released it in 2005.

So the service will improve over time then?

In a very big way. Our curve looks just like the PC curve, which is graphics cards get faster every year and we install new categories of servers that have the latest and greatest of kit.

Are you confident OnLive can keep up with the market as demand increases?

It's a high-class problem to have. Right now we've built a lot of capacity because we think the demand is pretty high. So far we've been able to keep building ahead of demand. We have a really well developed supply chain between us and our fulfilment partners, we have big relationships with people who own data centers so we have lots of space and network connectivity. It's a big, expensive business to build.

For the servers that power this we have a programme where they're manufactured in one country, assembled in another and then boat or trucked shipped to data centers, installed one rack at a time and it all just comes online. That's 80 new simultaneous players coming on in a click.

The business has been built to scale. We spent seven years in R&D mode before we went live which was a long slog building the tech to support what we're doing. This is the fun part where we get to worry about all the games, the Facebook connect and the stuff that gamers care about. All the other stuff was pushing a boulder up a hill to make sure this is possible.

How long do you think it will be before cloud gaming becomes the dominant way the public plays games?

I don't think consoles are going away any time soon and I don't think existing PCs are going away either. I think the opportunity is that over time this architecture makes sense. As my PC dies the question I have is 'do I want to buy another one with a higher end system, or is it time for me to upgrade my graphics card or not?' Those are the times when we start to come into play as a real meaningful decision and take market share.

Right now from a convenience perspective this is easy, frictionless and we're getting lots and lots of people that appreciate the value of immediate supportability. For us to get a majority as a genre of gaming platform it's going to take one whole cycle for that to happen. Whether that's everyone retiring their existing consoles or having their PCs be really underpowered... it'll be at least five years before we see this as a majority.

What problems do you think you still have left to overcome?

It's a whole lot of small problems; rolling out in a new territory, having the right promotions for that territory... we're rolling out in the UK and thus far we have amazing games but we don't have a football game. That's something that we'll certainly be fixing.

It's a lot of little problems. I'd say most of the major big ones are behind us - things like 'how do you build a games platform where the computing power is far away from the user?'. Once you solve that the rest of it becomes easy to understand and solve. Before I did this I used to build games, so I've worked with a lot developers and publishers, so when we designed this platform we said 'how can we make a platform that's a lot easier to develop for so we can get the best games possible? How can we make life easier for everyone?' and 'how can we make everything a little more exciting for everyone?'.

Hopefully you can see from the user-interface that it's a little more fun to be a part of OnLive, in addition to getting the games in a frictionless way.

So potentially, a developer could create a next-generation game for this platform now? Have you had any interest in that?

Lots. We can't announce anything yet but lots of people have expressed interest in doing cloud-only games because if you're making a PC game right now you have to make sure it works on a wide range of PCs, from super high end to low end. But if you really want to grab the mass market you need to at least be in the middle if not scale all the way down to the low-end stuff, which means turning off all the options, running at low res and that's not your game anymore.

People like this idea because you can switch all the options on as if it's running on a huge machine and every gamer gets the same experience.

How are you going to build awareness and sell OnLive in the UK?

We're going to do somewhat of a traditional launch, we're going to be out there talking about it with games media, mass market, tech consumers, consumer products channels and talking to a whole lot of consumers as well, getting the word out there through standard marketing vehicles online and offline.

How do you get these types of concepts in front of gamers? I wouldn't say it's a well understood formula but we know the people who are likely to be interested in this and there are a whole bunch of vehicles you can use to get to them. Whether that's television or online media those are the sorts of things we intend to do.

What has the feedback been from brick and mortar retailers, and is that a problem for you in terms of them potentially scaring off publishers from backing it?

Publishers haven't been scared because the publishers say 'this is the future, whether it's OnLive or whoever follows it in one year or five years, something like this is going to be how games are delivered in the future... whether that irritates other people or not we need to be part of it'.

If you listen to any of the earnings calls of publically traded companies all they talk about is digital distribution. That's it. This is very important to them and so is retail, but brick and mortar, shiny disc are not growing they're shrinking. Everybody gets what's about to happen and that they need to support us.

Steam is a great channel for digital distribution too. There's a lot of great options and so there hasn't been any push back from publishers in terms of supporting us.

In terms of retail in the US we haven't taken our micro-console down the retail channel yet because we haven't had to, but that's something we'll be doing real soon and doing the same in the UK a little bit after launch. You only need that if you want to hook it up to a TV, tablet or Mac - it's all software.

Can OnLive be bigger than the traditional platform holders?

We hope so. We think there's a lot of potential here, the consumer value proposition is frictionless and cool, but also the next time the console cycle starts up people will ask if they want to spend $500 on a new console or just get the same games without that investment. It's sort of an easy decision for gamers as they go into the next round of console purchases.

We'll see what the next-generation of consoles look like but I guarantee you if Sony and Microsoft ship next-gen consoles they're going to be expensive.

The other thing we're doing is getting rid of the need for a micro-console over time. There's a whole generation of internet connected TVs coming out and they have applications such as Netflix installed already, so it's basically just a case off connecting the TV to the internet and you're off to the races. We'll be one of the pre-installed apps on those TVs. We'll announce which ones soon and hopefully launch with them at the end of this year or start of the next.

We've also made a new version of our controller called the 'universal controller', which can talk to pretty much anything. Today we have it working with a Samsung Galaxy but it will also work with pretty much any iOS or Android tablet. Now suddenly I can navigate a game platform and play triple-A games on my tablet. It's really cool to play a genre of game that wasn't intended to be played on a tablet.

SOURCES: CVG Interview with OnLive's VP of games and media John Spinale, parts 1 and 2.

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