Is OnLive the Death of PC Gaming?

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OnLive is a service that promises to stream your top games — AAA titles such as Crysis, among others — over the Internet to any device. Not limited to powerful desktop computers, the company promises to stream these games to laptops, cell phones, and even a small dedicated box designed to hook up to your HDTV.

With all of that said, is this the death of PC gaming? The answer is probably not.  At least not yet. We tried OnLive at a press event held last September, and the technology was impressive; you could, for example, play a game being streamed to an iPhone.  It wasn’t perfect, though, and while there’s no doubt the technology has improved by leaps and bounds since then, it does leave a few issues to ponder.

OnLive brings to mind the now-defunct and seemingly-scammy Phantom console that sought to bring PC gaming to the console audience. This company is doing something similar — providing gamers with the content they want, without the need for expensive, powerful, power-hungry systems. As long as you have internet access, which is increasingly no longer a concern for most people, you can play your games with full framerates. The company has been working on this technology for close to a decade, and its founder, Steve Perlman, has been associated with other big tech names like WebTV and Quicktime. Looking at those two properties alone, you can see how Perlman might come up with an idea like OnLive. 

OnLive says that they’re right at the center of a number of market and technology trends that both allow them to offer the service as well as take advantage of the market it creates:

  • The shift to cloud computing, displacing the limitations, cost and complexity of local computing;
  • An explosion of consumer broadband connectivity, bringing fast bandwidth to the home
  • Unprecedented innovation, creativity and expansion within the video game market

All that sounds great, right? Gaming anytime, anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection. No costly upgrades, no long installations.  Well, things aren’t perfect, not really.  Let’s take a look at some of the issues with the service that are often glossed over.

Bandwidth Requirements
OnLive requires a minimum of 1.5Mbps to play the game at what it calls “SD resolution”. 5Mbps gets you what they call “HD resolution”. That’s probably not 1920×1080, either, but something closer to 1280×720. Internet connection slows down? You’ll have problems. Want to download something else in the background? You’ll have problems. Share your connection with a large household? Problems.

The streaming service works on a subscription basis: $14.95 monthly, with the first three months of service free to the first 25,000 people who sign up.  Not a bad price to game, except we forgot: that doesn’t include any games. You’re still going to have to pay full price for any game you want to actually play on the service on top of the fifteen dollar monthly fee. That’s $180 a year, which starts to degrade the cost-benefit analysis of the situation a little bit. The company also hasn’t mentioned whether you’ll be able to unlock games you already own for use on the service. Chances are very poor that you will.

Having said that, OnLive does offer a few things that traditional services can’t match. Since the games are installed and rendered on massive server farms, there’s no wait times when you get a new game: you purchase it and it’s ready to play, no matter what computer you’re on. Additionally, you’ll be able to rent games for predetermined periods of time to see if you like it without buying it. For games that don’t traditionally offer demos to play, that’s a big win. 

Wireless Connectivity
OnLive makes a big deal about laptops, both PCs and Macs, playing high-definition games from all over the house. In the fine print, though, they make sure to note that they don’t support wireless networking, at least at launch. That means that you’ll need to hook your computer up with an Ethernet cable directly to your router.

There are obviously some kinks that need to be worked out, but OnLive offers an absolutely intriguing service. As broadband internet connections grow both in number and speeds, services like this are only going to multiply. OnLive works with games (for now), but it probably won’t be long before we see other resource-intensive applications, such as editing and modelling software, also sent to the cloud for performance and ease of use improvements.

If nothing else, the new service is controversial. While it’s certainly not going to kill off traditional means of gaming in the next few years, it shows one vision of what the future might bring: always-connected devices that run any heavy application as a service distantly rather than locally.  Amusingly enough, it’s a return to the thin-client model of computing popularized years ago and still in use in some enterprises today. What do you think OnLive will be. Would you let it replace the way you play games today? Sound off in our comments below.




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