So I’ve been playing… OnLive

Yeah, sure, it’s not a game per-se, but a gaming service. Still, since my computer is out of commission at the moment and I’m stuck on my work laptop (good for work, not for much else), I’ve decided to give OnLive another go, now that it’s been released in the UK. I tried it once before, mind you, when the service was still young. Back then it wouldn’t even let you connect to the servers if you were using a wi-fi connection. Now the software just warns you and allows you to continue.

Now then, to give you some context – this laptop has no dedicated video-card. For the guys who don’t know what that means – it means that when a game tries to show you something fancy, it will have to work that little processor of his instead of a dedicated graphics processing unit (or GPU). And the game will also use the little processor until it runs out of processing juice, creating a bottleneck, making you game slow to a crawl, skipping frames or simply hanging for a few seconds.

The little processing unit that this laptop has though, gives it the ability to render HD movies. That’s basically what OnLive is all about. Gaming on the cloud – a fancy term of you literally playing a video game – gives you a streamed movie of the game that is running on the OnLive servers using your input. So you’re basically playing a game on the servers in the UK, which show you what happens on your own monitor. Genius!

That kind of technology wasn’t exactly possible in the olden days because of very thin network connections. Let’s just say that a 56k modem which stopped working when you wanted to give someone a call isn’t exactly the most appropriate connection when you want to stream video.  This gets us into the other problem with OnLive – not everybody has a good enough internet connection to run the software properly. It’s not that bad here in Romania, we actually have consistently high speeds at quite low prices, but I know other countries that aren’t as such.

The requirements themselves are not actually that harsh though – all you need to use OnLive is a broadband 3mbps connection. I have 50. Yay me. The application also runs on pretty much any computer with a functional operating system. If you have a huge 1 meter diameter TV, you’re in luck anyway – OnLive also offers a mini console – a glorified box with an ethernet slot, a few USB slots and a video output. There’s also OnLive for your Android, Mac, iPad, iPod Touch and whatever else has a screen on it.

Now, the software itself is more like a window towards content. At any time you can check into your friends who are playing through OnLive and see them play in real time, voice chat with them through the integrated voice communication client, rate their gameplay and so on. But it’s not just between friends; if you want, you can just look at any random guy playing a game. If you feel like playing the game they are playing, you can for half an hour for totally free! That is one feature that you won’t exactly find anywhere else, and one that cannot hurt the industry. A half-hour demo of the whole game is an amazing way to try to sell your game. Not only that, but for certain games you can buy play-passes, allowing you to properly rent the games for a few days or weeks.

OnLive is the definition of games on demand. My question is – is it really in demand? I do not question the technology, they have pulled that off much better than I thought was possible at this point in time. In many ways it’s almost futuristic. In many ways it’s quite a primitive system – because of its server only architecture, it’s limited not only in what it can do, but also in what it allows you to do.

Let me explain: because the games are on the cloud only, when you buy the game, even if it’s full price, you don’t own the game itself. You only own the rights to play the game in OnLive. That’s it. You don’t have a physical copy, you don’t even download anything. Everything is on their servers. To me that is acceptable – we all pay real money for virtual things anyway. Because of the fact that games are on the cloud, they are currently unable to be modded (they said they are looking into that though). In addition, if your internet falls in a gutter somewhere, drunk after a night for heavy porn downloading, you are unable to use OnLive, entering the Steam syndrome (but at least Steam has a non-functional offline mode). Also, there is slight input lag. But that’s normal, the closest server is 8000 KM away (or more).

Many things can go wrong. Yesterday I could run OnLive just fine. Today I can’t. Keeps telling me that the latency is high or that the connection is intermittent. That’s on my side though, I’m 2 rooms away from the router, using a wireless connection in a Saturday evening. That’s bound to happen. But it also makes OnLive slightly unstable. Which now brings me to the market it caters to: it has none.

Why do I say this? Simple – it does not cater to gamers because gamers already have systems that can run the games they want to play, whether console or PC. It does not cater to casual gamers because they either do not find out about this system, don’t have a good enough connection or simply don’t care about the games. It does not cater to people who travel a lot because you rarely find a good enough stable internet connection that is necessary for this system. It does not cater to hardcore gamers because of the slight input lag. It does not cater to graphics crazies because of lossy video streaming.

The only market I see OnLive cater to is the big family in which one member wants to play and has to share his systems with everybody else. Either that, or the guy who has to use a crappy system because his gaming computer is out of commission. Aka me, mind you. That’s it. And because I don’t live in the UK nor in the US, I can’t even buy anything on the service.

I don’t know what to believe about OnLive. It’s mixed feelings. Like that extremely cute girl with an extremely flat chest. I know she looks awesome, but she is missing something important. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Maybe OnLive will perk up and prove to be a better system afterall, but right now I think it’s a bit incomplete.

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