One of the bigger news items coming out of the Game Developers Conference this week is the reveal of OnLive, a new gaming service that wants to make our beloved consoles obsolete. Basically, the idea is that all we need to play games such as Burnout Paradise is a broadband Internet connection and a television or a basic low-spec computer. No actual traditional in-home console or powerful graphics card required, as all of the data crunching and game processing is handled at OnLive's server farm. The service simply streams the video and audio of the game to your screen via the Internet. Think of it as PlayStation Remote Play meets cloud computing. Stephen Totilo over at MTV Multiplayer walks us through the basics of the OnLive concept and goes into more detail in an interview with the service's lead creator, Steve Pearlman.
A user downloads a 1MB application to their PC or Mac, using a computer that simply must connect to the Internet over broadband. No graphics card required. OR The user hooks up OnLive’s “MicroConsole” to their TV with an HDMI connection, negating the need for a PC. The MicroConsole is the size of a little larger than a Nintendo DS.
The games are booted up in a matter of seconds (single-digit seconds). Nothing is downloaded to the user. Nothing has to buffer. It all instantly streams visually to the user’s computer monitor or TV. Most of the processing is done back at the OnLive server farm. A small remainder of it is performed in the user’s computer or micro-console. There are no game program files to download, no hard drive memory required. The game just starts.
Users will be able to expect the OnLive servers that are spitting their games out at them to be upgraded regularly, in essence improving the specs of the service so that it can run more and more powerful games. No upgrade is needed on the users’ end, because all they are seeing and hearing is the video and audio signal of the games that are being run back at the OnLive servers. This is called cloud computing, where very little of the processing occurs on the users’ end. In essence, this frees the user from ever needing to buy a new console or upgrade their PC, because their viewing and playing device just serves as the window to experiences being powered elsewhere.
This is a very intriguing idea and could change how we enjoy our favorite games. However, I do have my usual concerns.
As with all digital delivery systems, the OnLive model means that I do not actually own any of "my" games. You know the argument by now: a purchased disc or cartridge is mine to enjoy forever, but downloadable games (or, in this case, streamed gameplay experiences) can vanish at the whim of the provider. What happens if I buy access to games via OnLive only to find one day that the company has gone out of business and shut down the servers? Thank you very much, it's been fun, Game Over, no refunds. I can see how OnLive could be a boon to people without the funds for purchasing the latest and greatest games on a regular basis or who don't care to build a personal library of favorite titles, but for those with a love for a shelf filled with fun and the disposable income to back it up, OnLive may have some work to do in order to reach the truly hardcore gaming audience.
Then we have the fact that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are unwilling to license their first-party games to OnLive. This should not come as a surprise. OnLive's business model is out to make these hardware producers obsolete. Why would they help feed the beast that aims to eat them? This means that OnLive is dependent on the many third-party publishers out there (and, according to the Multiplayer article, the company already has deals with Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Take-Two Interactive Software, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, THQ, Epic Games, Eidos, Atari and Codemasters). A service that offers nothing but third-party games could do very well for itself, but can OnLive truly meet the needs of a hungry gaming audience without offering titles from the worlds of Halo, Ratchet and Clank, Super Mario, and our other favorite major first-party franchises? Personally, I don't believe so.
Based on what has been revealed so far and assuming this is all on the level, I think that OnLive has a great idea behind it along with some intriguing technology. I don't see this iteration of cloud computing for gaming demolishing the console market, but all success stories have to start somewhere. OnLive or its next-generation successor may surprise us one day.