Rediscovering OnLive… After It’s Already Too Late

E3 2010. I have a secret backroom meeting with the VP of OnLive, set up for me by a site that currently pretends I’d never worked for them. I’ll admit: I was not really looking forward to it. OnLive had a LOT of negative press at the time, mostly due to the whole button-delay-due-to-lag thing that was probably blown way out of proportion. But whatever.

He showed me OnLive working on an iPad. He showed me their new universal controller. He told me about how they were expanding to the U.K., where pings are around 50 instead of the U.S.’s ~200. He let me play Homefront on a tablet. He gave me a micro console, and an OnLive press pass (which I promptly abused by “purchasing” every game in their library). The best part, to me: there was no lag. Sure, the E3 setting means that there will always be the most pristine network and gameplay environment (don’t want to give press people a bad impression!), but I was impressed. I headed home with high spirits about the platform, ready to tell the world all about how great OnLive actually was.

Sadly, my micro console only came with an HDMI cable, and I was living in the past with a 21″ pre-HD console TV. Sure, I could play my hundred-or-so new games on my computer, but my laptop gets so hot that it burns off my thigh hair, so it’d have to be a pretty amazing game to be worth the pain. Nevertheless, I was able to test out the micro console at a friend’s house… where OnLive performed even better than at my E3 meeting. Then, back to my SD life, I promptly forgot about OnLive. Just like everyone else, it appears.

Two years later, just days before a much-lauded same-day-as-retail launch of Darksiders II, it’s announced that OnLive has laid off most of their staff and has been purchased by Lauder Partners, one of cloud gaming’s original investors from back in the formative days of hardware-less gaming (2009). Everyone (well, the whopping 1,600 of us with OnLive games) fears that the licenses we purchased are now null and void. Luckily, even after the exit of OnLive head honcho and CEO Steve Perlman (he’s being replaced by Lauder Partners head Gary Lauder), the OnLive service will remain uninterrupted, like it has every minute of every hour since it launched. But then again… it took less than a week after Perlman stated he was staying with the company for him to leave for good. Promises really aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Meanwhile, I finally got an HDTV. I boot up my micro console for the first time in two years, and… it’s wonderful. Playing Batman: Arkham City for the first time, I only had two minor graphical hiccups. No lag. No discs. No loading. Someone even popped in and watched me play for a while – pretty cool. It helps that I finally have a steady internet connection and a fancy TV, but… man. Cloud gaming, if they can make us feel like we won’t lose every penny we’ve spent on licenses when the platform goes belly up, is the future. It’s just not the present. There’s still too much uncertainty over ownership, over whether your internet will work when you want to play, over whether your connection will drop during a critical mission… and after OnLive filed for a bankruptcy alternative, it’s clear that the platform is on the way out.

The thing is: people thought downloadable games would never be able to match physical products when they were first introduced, either. But now, most PC gaming is digital-only. And a lot of newer games require you to have an internet connection in order to work. Sure, that still causes lots of problems (Ubisoft and Diablo III, I’m looking at you), but it’s getting to be just the way gaming is now. Eventually, the entire wall of my living room filled with old software and the shelves and shelves of old game consoles sitting under my TV will not only be obsolete, but they’ll be a relic of a model of gaming that doesn’t even exist anymore. Someday we’ll receive television transmissions directly into our brains, and games will be played without controllers, systems, or even screens. But change is hard. It’ll be a while.

I’m glad that I still have the chance to live in both worlds now, if just for a little longer. If you have a chance, give one of their games a spin. Most of the games – even AAA titles – have a free demo. The worst that can happen is that you don’t download a game that you’re playing for free. Weird concept, but it really works. Too bad we’re all too scared to give up the way things used to be done.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Rediscovering OnLive… After It’s Already Too Late

  1. Hm. It might be crass to say that they appeared before their time, but, well, it’s basically true. Looking at the Verge’s article on this (http://www.theverge.com/2012/8/28/3274739/onlive-report), it’s mentioned in passing that they couldn’t manage to do virtualisation, and had one serverbox for every player. Thats.. that is really, really bad. I terms of performance, sure, it’s great, but as for actual profits, that really means that they needed to extract enough money out of every single subscriber to cover the costs for buying and upkeep of an entire box. Imagine if they had grown to, say, steam levels, with some 20mil registered and 4-5mil concurrents at peak. What then? 20 million server boxes? Heck, 5 million? That’s still pretty much insane.

    As for OnLive’s concept itself.. well, here’s the thing – it didn’t offer a real benefit for your avg player. They either have a console hooked up to a big TV, or a computer of some kind that suits their needs (low-fi indie retro gaming, or hi-def superAAA games on max). If they are into portable games, they’ll get a handheld, or an ipad/iphone. I really don’t see an actual market niche that deliberately benefits from cloudstreaming like this beyond, well, the “oh, it actually works and is kind of cool”. Yeah, you could say that the sub cost models are cheaper for the player compared to buying each game separately, but, really, there’s the question – if the cost to player is so much lower, how does OnLive manage to break even? They have to pay for hosting the games too…And the more of a good bargain OnLive turned out to be for the consumer, the worse profitmaker it was for OnLive’s devs / shareholders.

    P.S. If Amazon’s AWS cloud would go into cloud gaming, then *that* would possibly be the first real success. It’s a massive billion-dollar-gorilla. Esp. as amazon is alreayd known for selling games both on disc and digitally.

  2. PSJ

    Onlive was my gaming life raft last summer before I had a decent gaming PC…their deals are just as insane as steam and as long as you have a decent connection, there’s no significant lag.

    That said, I had the exact same problem with not having an hdmi compatible TV, and as soon as I did have a good PC, I all but abandoned Onlive. They’re definitely a good hint of what’s to come, but I don’t think that high-speed internet is universal enough for it to be currently viable. I still use my account occasionally to play on my phone, but it overheats incredibly fast and does lag noticeably. Best wishes to OnLive for the future, but I think they’re in for a rough few years.

  3. These are the two biggest things about the service that I think OnLive isn’t selling well to the public:

    1) You can play these games with an eMachine from 1998 or a flippin’ Netbook if you have a solid internet connection. Show people that you don’t need a $500 graphics card to play the best and newest games.

    2) The PlayPack. For $10/month you can play like 150 different games, as much as you want. It’s like Netflix for games, and, by all rights, this should have taken off like crazy. But it’s like OnLive just… didn’t know how to explain that to people. Even saying now, I barely care about how inherently super cool that fact is. Like a GameFly subscription, but without waiting to receive the games in the mail, or even for them to download. Play INSTANTLY. Advertise that, and get a few killer NEW games on the service (not just some indies from 2005), and people will care. Games are expensive. Give us a good deal and we’re all yours.

    • Alexander The 1st

      2.) Sure, it is $10/month, but the limiting factor here is data plans, more notably data caps.

      If we assume it sends one byte per second for an entire month, it sends 2592000 [30 days * 24 hours * 60 minutes * 60 seconds] bytes of data (Which, okay, is 2.4 MB, if my calculations are correct [based off of (25920000/1024)/1024 ]).

      And while granted, that’s an extremely small amount of data over every second of the month, that’s assuming 1fps of a resolution of 1×1, not including outbound data.

      For 777600 pixels on screen, at 30fps, with 16-bit audio at 44100 Hz (16-bits per Hz Sampling per second)…

      That’s 3038400 bytes per second being transmitted at any one time with OnLive.

      If you assume you play 10 hours a week (~1 hour a day) [40 hours * 60 minutes * 60 seconds]:

      437529600000 bytes a month.

      Or 407.48119354248047 GB [((4575296000000/1024)/1024)/1024]

      I currently used ~20 GB last month, at an apparent high according to my data record.

      In fact, to even include that amount of gaming from my current ISP, unbundled with another plan, I’d have to pay $62/month. For internet. When right now I’m overpaying at $42/month for the lowest high speed offering.

      That, on top of the $10/month plan, makes it $70/month, not including netflix or anything else.

      (Source: http://www.telus.com/content/internet/high-speed/compare-high-speed-plans.jsp )

      Thank you very much, but I’ll stick with my regular $60 disks. This is the next hurdle for cloud gaming.*

      *As a PS3 and F2P MMO gamer, I don’t like the idea of paying monthly for a service on top of my current internet service to simply play online. It needs to be bounds ahead of the game for me to consider it, like with Netflix, which I still don’t, because…well, I don’t really watch movies often enough to justify it.

    • Alexander The 1st

      That said, the big sell for cloud gaming for me, in my opinion, is gut instinct sales.

      Imagine if, for Steam, when you bought a game and had to wait for a 9GB game to download (Something like, Jade Empire, or the 11GB Tomb Raider Legends) – but then Steam gave you the option of paying $5 right now to gain access to a temporary OnLive subscription that lasted until the download finished, transfering the save file from that use to your computer when it did finish. Maybe even throw in during patching support to sweeten the deal.

      If they did that, I’d totally be on that like white on rice. I had the misfortune recently of impulse buying Jade Empire for PC on Steam at 1:00 a.m. one day, because all the stores were closed anyways, and then had to wait until 3:30 to begin playing it. :|

  4. Torsten

    So there has been a Spotify for games for few years and nobody knew?
    I remember reading some articles way back when and Mr Young did write his thoughts about the service. Already then it was clear that this is the future of gaming, but back then it was still mostly on concept level. But if the company is now going down and most people have not even heard of the service, then it is going down because of the lousiest marketing and management department a gaming company has ever had.

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