Thursday, 5 January 2012

OnLive App for Mobile - Can Your Tablet Really Replace Your Console

Cloud gaming service OnLive has finally arrived on an Android slate or (soon) on an iPad near you, promising to seriously shake-up the mobile gaming scene by allowing tablet gamers to play a massive library of quality triple-A games. And the fact that leading developers such as Rockstar and Traveller's Tales are already developing touch-controlled, tablet-friendly versions of some of their best titles surely suggests that something quite special is afoot.

If you've somehow managed to miss the hype around OnLive and the new notion of "cloud gaming" over the last couple of years, perhaps the easiest way to explain it would be to liken it to music streaming services such as Spotify. Except in this case you are streaming games instead of tunes. And some cracking games at that...

Providing you have a fast, reliable Wi-Fi connection, you are able to play hundreds of great gaming titles across a whole range of devices you already own - tablets, low-cost and low-power PC netbooks and Macs - without the need to buy a console.

And in addition to all of that, OnLive's sturdy and well-designed console-style controller is now compatible with both Android tablets and iPads via Bluetooth, which adds a further dimension to playing "proper" console and PC titles on these devices.

The end of the games console?

So is OnLive the mobile gaming nirvana that it promises to be? And, more importantly, what does this latest development in cloud gaming mean for the console hardware market?

Once you've played a few of the best titles currently available via OnLive on the iPad, such as Rockstar's glorious L.A. Noire or family-favourite LEGO Batman, it's very easy to be lulled into the argument that this whole package - complete with fully-featured mobile app, a growing library of games and the familiar feel of a console controller in your hand - marks the end of the costly console race once and for all.

"Mobile has leapt forward in the last few years and with the advent of new mobile devices from smartphones to tablets we have seen a whole new user base emerge that wants the mobility but also wants to game," says Bruce Grove, general manager for OnLive UK. "At the same time broadband speeds continue to increase rapidly, and with 4G networks moving to Europe next year, the timing is perfect to bring cloud gaming to mobile."

OnLive unquestionably adds a whole new dimension to mobile gaming, although the service has been criticised by some hardcore PC gamers in the past for suffering from "lag" (i.e. a delay) in some games, where quick responses can mean the difference between virtual life and death.

But Grove does not see this as a problem for cloud gaming on tablets. Indeed, he is quick to argue that any problems with lag are purely down to slow Wi-Fi connections and that "the advantage for devices with smaller screens is that they require less bandwidth to produce a really crisp image. One of the major benefits with OnLive is the local device doesn't need anywhere near the processing or graphics power otherwise required from playing a disc version."

iOS versus OnLive

Some mobile developers we've spoken to about the new OnLive offering over the past week have expressed surprise that Apple would actually approve such an app for the iPad. After all, the logic goes, wouldn't having the option of playing full console or PC titles on your iPad totally scupper native iOS gaming and games development?

Some leading experts in the games development business are also quite vocal about their aversion to the OnLive business model, in terms of what it offers gamers and developers. One such critic is Dr. Richard Wilson, CEO of UK games developers' trade body TIGA.

"iPads and Android devices are great for gaming," says the TIGA boss. "They have good processors built in already and are getting better very fast. They will probably more than double in processing power every year. Therefore, people may as well have the game processing locally - rather than in the cloud on remote servers. The latter requires a lot of data transfer and therefore bandwidth. Those without good broadband simply cannot use it. So if you are out of range of Wi-Fi you won't be able to play."

Hardcore PC gamers in particular will always want to invest in the latest graphics and processor tech to squeeze the ultimate experience out of their games. Yet OnLive reps argue that this niche is exactly the market that cloud gaming is not targeting.

That said, TIGA's Wilson still argues: "It's not clear why huge numbers of people should sign up to OnLive because it is not clear that it offers anything better."

"To be successful OnLive needs to offer something different that cannot be offered by the apps stored and run locally. For example MMOs. However, the business model is challenging. It is expensive for OnLive to run and serve the games. Conversely, hosting downloadable games is comparatively cheap; so they automatically have an expensive overhead."

OnLive's UK manager brushes off such criticisms of cloud gaming, and is adamant that they still care a lot about the opinions and needs of the bleeding-edge PC gamer.

"Of course we do," says Grove. "They're the people others turn to for advice on games and platforms, I used to develop high-end PC rigs for a living so I'm both familiar with and part of that demographic. But now I've got something new, I can sit at home and play Assassin's Creed: Revelations or Batman: Arkham City, hit save and a few of hours later I'm in Brussels in a coffee shop sitting there with a tablet and controller carrying on where I left off."

"The attraction of that to me as a gamer is huge, not to mention how accessible it makes high-end gaming for everyone - something I believe can only be a good thing for the development of new titles. We just expanded the potential audience. Beyond that, just think about what it means for game development, now all these devices and screens just became part of the same platform, let the developers start thinking about that and what it could bring to gaming."

Goodbye Xbox 720 and PS4?

So what of the rumoured Xbox 720 and the PlayStation 4? If you can now play a vast library of great games on almost any device without shelling out for an expensive new box to put under the telly, is there any incentive for Microsoft or Sony to pump billions of dollars into expensive gaming hardware development?

"If OnLive can offer games from pretty much any platform, from any period in history, they're going to pull in a huge crowd," argues games consultant, Brian Baglow. "Why buy devices which play only a small subset of the games you can actually get your hands on, when you can get something which has a truly vast cross-platform library behind it?"

In Baglow's opinion, the typical 'mainstream or general gamer' simply doesn't care about the differences between platforms. "Why can't you play Plants Vs Zombies against your mates if you have an Xbox and they have a PS3/iPad/PC? The demand from the market will erode the requirement for different consoles - at least for the casual end of the market. Though I think there will always be a space for dedicated hardware."

And while opinions within the games development industry are clearly divided on OnLive and what it might mean for the future of gaming, one thing is for sure. If you own an Android tablet or an iPad then we really do urge you to check out the free app for yourself. Whether or not you would prefer to buy your games 'in the cloud' or on a good old-fashioned disc will be down to the individual.

As with everything, the market will eventually decide whether or not OnLive on mobile and tablets will be a roaring success or something that only appeals to a limited number of mobile gamers. For now though, the quality of the experience of playing L.A. Noire and LEGO Batman on the iPad has easily persuaded us to shell out that £39.99 on the Universal OnLive Wireless Controller (that also ships with a PC/Mac dongle for your laptop).

So what about the future? There is already a well-sourced rumour that major TV companies will be making announcements of new net-connected Smart TVs arriving with a bundled OnLive App at CES 2012 in Las Vegas next week.

"I believe cloud gaming is here to stay, networks are only going to get more powerful and accessibility become easier," says a bullish Bruce Grove. "A few years ago iPlayer, YouTube and so on were all seen as unusable in the real world. But now they're built into our TV sets, they're fully mobile and most importantly, they're seen as a great adjunct to existing media solutions."

"OnLive has shown the same is true for games, there's plenty of people who are some way off being served by good broadband so there's going to be a need for more traditional style of gaming for a long time yet. The existing consoles can't walk away from that user base, nor should they. But yes, I believe cloud gaming is going to play a part for everyone and I'd expect to see it in some form in the next generation of consoles."

Grove promises gamers that OnLive is only going to continue to improve its offering, with "more publishers, more great titles, including some titles that I think will play really well for the UK market in particular, and more devices. If you can get iPlayer and LOVEFiLM on your TV then why not OnLive?

"We want to remove the hardware as a barrier to entry and allow people to game on whatever they want whenever they want."

You can download the OnLive Android App from the Android Market now, with the OnLive iPad App due to launch very soon, following final approval from Apple.

What do you think - could OnLive kill the console gaming?