|Tuesday, March 24, 2009
06:37 - Get thee off yon treadmill
Anyone who's ever spent boatloads of money on a gaming PC, and dreads doing it again, don't. OnLive is here.
Before I dive into what OnLive is and how it works, let me start by saying that you should read every word of this article as this service has the potential to completely change the way games are played. If it works and gets proper support from both publishers and gamers, you may never need a high-end PC to play the latest games, or perhaps even ever buy a console again. That is not an exaggeration.
Just announced at this year's GDC, OnLive is an on-demand gaming service. It's essentially the gaming version of cloud computing - everything is computed, rendered and housed online. In its simplest description, your controller inputs are uploaded, a high-end server takes your inputs and plays the game, and then a video stream of the output is sent back to your computer. Think of it as something like Youtube or Hulu for games.
The service works with pretty much any Windows or Mac machine as a small browser plug-in. Optionally, you will also be able to purchase a small device, called the OnLive MicroConsole, that you can hook directly into your TV via HDMI, though if your computer supports video output to your TV, you can just do it that way instead. Of course, you can also just play on your computer's display if you don't want to pipe it out to your living room set.
When you load up the service and choose a game to play (I'll come back to the service's out-of-games features in a bit), it starts immediately. The game is housed and played on one of OnLive's servers, so there's never anything to download. Using an appropriate input device, be it a controller or mouse and keyboard, you'll then play the game as you would if it were installed on your local machine. Your inputs are read by the plugin (or the standalone device if you choose to go that route) and uploaded to the server. The server then plays the game just like it would if you were sitting at the machine, except that instead of outputting the video to a display, it gets compressed and streamed to your computer where you can see the action. Rinse and repeat 60 times per second.
Allegedly all you need is a cable-class Internet connection, and the playability is as good as if the thing were on your local machine. I would imagine it all comes down to the fact that gaming is an immersive experience: just as once you're in the middle of a DVD movie you no longer notice the occasional MPEG artifacts in the black areas, once you get subsumed into the gameplay such that you're concerned primarily with the experience and not the utter perfection of your HDMI signal, you'll never notice that it's coming over the net rather than making your own hard drive and video cards belch smoke. Assuming lag and latency are kept under control, I doubt many gamers will really notice a difference. And before long it won't even be a question anymore.
Because the benefits of going this way are huge. Never again will you have to spend $3000 on a gaming rig and $500 on a new video card or set of DIMMs every year. The company handles all the upgrading of the hardware and puts it on server-class blades; the back-end is always top-of-the-line. And as a customer you never have to sink the purchase cost into a game; just rent play time on anything on the market, with no strings attached and no box to use up space on your shelf. This is going to change the way the economics of gaming works on a fundamental level. Before long it'll seem the height of vanity to build your own gaming system and maintain your own library of purchased titles rather than just tuning in for some on-demand fun.
There's a bunch more that this announcement entails, but it's probably best delivered by the company itself, in a live press conference today at 7:00 PDT from GDC. Tune in if you'd like to see it in action...
UPDATE: Been watching the live comment stream throughout this; it's hilarious to watch people's reactions. Early on, everyone was laughing at it, calling it a joke, not believing it was anything worth paying attention to... they kept saying things like "Play Crysis and then we'll talk". And then they demo'ed Crysis, and I started seeing things like:
All of a sudden everyone's sitting up and taking notice. The vast majority of commenters are talking about picking their jaws up off the floor, talking about how this is the end of the console wars and the harbinger of world peace. It's bowling them over.
When they mentioned the fact that there's no potential for piracy in this system, everybody's reaction is: "LOL I beg to differ!" and "Someone always does figure it out"—And I just have to ask... how exactly do they expect it can be pirated? Some scurvy buccaneer is going to hijack the data center and take over all the hosting bills?
They keep asking about the price now. "I sure hope this isn't too expensive, like I couldn't see paying more than $150-200 for this"... somehow I doubt it'll cost that much. It'll be mostly a subscription thing; nuts to those who hate subscriptions, but I'd say that's way better than plunking down the $700 or so that some people are tossing around. However, the comments al universally went "Subscription? NOOOOOO!" as soon as that was mentioned. Apparently they think it'll be like $250/month plus the cost of a "console", as though that little decompressor box even counts as a "console". C'mon... they have to price this competitively or else they may as well not bother.
I mean, hell, they're demo'ing it playing via a browser plugin. All the "console" is is a glorified decoder box and Ethernet switch so you can do it on your TV. It's not going to cost hundreds of dollars like an Xbox or PS3. Hell, I'd be surprised if they sold it at component cost; more likely they'll work out some subsidized deal like that Roku thing that does Netflix.
A lot of people think the controller looks dorky, and most people want the "L I V E" buttons to go away.
They can't seem to get it into their heads that this isn't a "console" that will have "exclusive titles". This encompasses all platforms; they can serve anything from any platform, all from inside the big cloud. I can't put it any better than the commenter who said: "Lmao dude just glue all ur previous consoles together lol"
They also think that Microsoft will copy this within weeks; or that they and Sony and NVidia et al. will be sending in teams of ninjas any moment. But what's the point of any gamer signing up with a branded exclusive when OnLive will be able to deliver all the same games from Microsoft, Sony, and anyone else who tries it, unless they release them as "exclusives" that only run on a putative Xbox Online or Sony Online service that they'd have to develop for as a whole separate console?
And now they're wrapping up... and announcing that there are demo PCs and Macs out in the lobby for everyone to try it for themselves. That should put paid to anyone who thinks it's all a giant rig.
Now I just want to see what Penny Arcade has to say about all this...
UPDATE: We have our answer.