Have you heard of OnLive? It’s a service that lets you play games remotely, including some of the most recent ones. Powerful servers are used to run the games, which you control over the Internet as you normally would, with either keyboard and mouse or, if you are of the console persuasion, with your controller. The video output is streamed right back to you, and is displayed either on your computer screen or on your TV. Naturally this setup requires a high-speed, low-latency connection to work.
A few years ago, something like this would not have been possible. But now, as broadband connections become more and more common, services such as OnLive can be viable, at least in theory. And so, after years of development, OnLive went live on June 17. If you live in the continental US and have a PC or a Mac that meet the service’s hardware requirements, you can sign up and begin racking up gaming hours at your leisure.
To spice up the launch, OnLive introduced a promotion. Players could become “founding members” and get a free year of service, as well as a discounted rate for the second year, should they so choose. Since I’ve been skeptical of OnLive’s ability to deliver on its promises, I was very interested in giving the whole thing a try and hopefully proving myself wrong. Yesterday my confirmation arrived and I decided to dive right in.
Registration is easy enough, just your name, address, credit card, blood type, gaming handle, and so on. Once completed, the website prompts you to download the OnLive software. Apparently, however, I couldn’t download it using my Google Chrome browser. The site kindly suggested I use either Firefox or Internet Explorer instead. Alright then. I fired up Firefox and the installation successfully completed.
Before I go into my actual gaming experience, a few words about the features of OnLive. Not only do you get to play games, but there is also an entire social network of streaming video available to you. You can view any game in progress, unless the players have blocked the spectating feature, and you can also record your moments of glory or despair and share them with the world to be mocked or admired.
Finally I was ready to play. In order to do that, the player must purchase a game from the catalog, or, if you are not quite ready to commit, you can play any of the games for free for 30 minutes. The first game I tried was Batman: Arkham Asylum, and I was never able to get it to play. Each time I clicked on it, the loading screen would come up, and after a few seconds I was kicked off of OnLive. Whenever I tried to sign back in, the service would allow me back, but gave me a warning that my latency was too high.
According to the FAQ, “if your ‘ping’ result is much more than 25 msec”, it is not recommended for online gaming. The problem is, my ping, which I of course immediately tested, was somewhere around 15ms, according to pingtest.net. My speed was also way higher than the 5 Mbps that OnLive demands. Likewise my PC is well within the hardware requirements. This has led me to conclude that the problem does not lie with me.
After dozens upon dozens of attempts to launch different games, I was able to get Just Cause 2 to run. Having played my allotted half an hour, I can honestly say that, yes, it works. It doesn’t work exceptionally well, however. The controls are generally responsive, which was a pleasant surprise. Still, they are not perfect. Often there is a micro-delay of a sort. It’s usually noticeable when you fire on an enemy, and it takes a split second for the bullets to actually fly. Normally it’s not a big deal, but in fast-paced games it could create problems, especially when it comes to multiplayer.
The visuals are an entirely different story. First and foremost, you are locked into a 720p resolution (PC gamers know it as 1280 x 720.) Games, therefore, run in a window, which in my case looked pretty sad and lonely in the middle of my 2650 x 1600 desktop. There is an option to run in full-screen mode, but you can imagine what that does to image quality. My second problem, and coincidentally a complete deal-breaker, was the fact that the video quality is low, to the point of being vastly unimpressive. Having played a proper demo of Just Cause 2 on my computer, I was in a perfect position to compare the visuals, and I must say OnLive to a real game is what YouTube is to BluRay.
The above is not to say that you can’t see what’s going on. The game is very playable, but all the graphical splendor and all the crisp details are lost. It’s like looking at the Grand Canyon through a dirty windshield. It’s like watching a movie on a classroom projector. There is simply no comparison. I felt as though I would be better off playing on an older computer with graphics settings turned down.
Of course, there is still the question of the price. You have to pay for the games, but at least you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars for a top-notch computer. I guess if I had a choice between never gaming at all or gaming via OnLive, I’d pick the latter. Still, I was disappointed by the service’s performance. On a more positive note, this is an excellent proof of concept. Maybe in another five to 10 years, a similar service will actually be able to deliver a pixel-perfect and instantly responsive gaming experience.
Overall I have the following to say: on a personal level (as a technology enthusiast) I wish all the best to the team behind OnLive. But at the same time, I don’t believe I will become a paying customer as long as it remains in its current shape.