OnLive: Will it beat Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii?

Game consoles as you know them could become obsolete sooner than you'd think. Imagine a supersvelte thin-client box that streams HD games in real time over the Internet. Pay a subscription fee and it can run the latest games at reasonably high resolutions on your TV, PC or Mac. We just saw--and tried it--for ourselves. It's called OnLive.

This box (that fits neatly in the palm of your hand) has a couple USB 2.0 ports, Bluetooth support, optical audio and HDMI out jacks. That's about it. The OnLive "microconsole" doesn't have much in the way of juice (CPU-wise), but it just let us play Crysis at 720p on an oversized HDTV. It blazed through a couple races in Burnout: Paradise City and GRID.

Oh, yeah, and not only is it doing all this with minimal hardware overhead, it's ultra-fast Cyberdyne systems-type servers (currently set to launch officially in late 2009; beware the terminator apocalypse) takes full advantage of cloud computing. Beyond stashing your saves so that you can play your games anywhere you log in, the game graphics are rendered hundreds of miles away and then shot to you via ultra-optimized internet packets.

What did GamePro Senior Editor Sid Shuman and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone make of the performance? We were able to quickly toggle over and spectate matches of other players or record 15-second "Brag Clips" of some greatest hit moments. The games loaded surprisingly briskly. And there was almost no perceivable lag (trust us, we looked). The main drawbacks: You need exceptionally fast 5 Mbps speeds to attain HD 720p visual quality (standard def video can come out over 1.5Mbps lines), and the video compression smears out a bit of the graphical lushness. But as a whole, OnLive made for a mighty impressive demonstration of what may be the future of video game distribution. And we wouldn't be surprised if straight-up HD videostreaming wasn't far behind. Should GameStop (and other retailers) be terrified...? Shuman and Gladstone hashed it out over IM.

Sid: When we finally got hands-on with OnLive, I gotta admit, I was impressed. I tried my hand at some Crysis multiplayer, running in 720p, and the experience felt smooth...surprisingly smooth, in fact, considering that the graphics were being rendered on a server down in Santa Clara.

Darren: I know, they tell us that the server farm locations need to be within a 1000 mile radius, so I'd be interested to see if the service can still deliver the goods if I'm playing from someplace a little more remote. That said, yeah, it was a fairly solid frame rate -- what would you say, about 30-35 frames per second? There was a little bit of hinkiness, but not too much.

Sid: Which brings up a good point: just how fast does my internet need to be in order to get an enjoyable experience out of OnLive? For 720p HD video, OnLive requires a high-speed broadband connection rated at 5Mbps; standard-def video can swing as low as 1.5 Mbps. And though our experience was smooth, it was a controlled experience provided by the manufacturer. The real question is whether OnLive will hold up in the field, right? Like, will it run smooth and stable on my brother's dorm room network?

Darren: Seriously. How many people really hit that magic data speed connection? Will it work wirelessly? At the local Starbucks? Yeah, I think I already know that answer, but that doesn't take away the fact that whether you buy the microbox, or just play through your PC / Mac, you're still getting a solid gaming experience usually reserved for high-end game rigs. (and that point, I ain't stretching the truth -- at one point, I tried running Crysis at 1080p-equivalent resolution and barely cracked a 20 frame-per-second slide show. And that was on $5000+ gaming computer). So the fact that I'm seeing 720p Crysis running on an HD set is fairly impressive.

Sid: Yeah, and see, that's exactly where OnLive can do some big damage. I bailed out of the hardcore PC gaming scene back '05, largely because I was sick digging around in my PC's guts to install new motherboards and video cards. The promise of something like OnLive is that you'd never need to upgrade your PC again to play the latest games. As long as your broadband connection is fast enough, OnLive's backend servers render all the graphics for you. And in time, those graphics will just get better as OnLive upgrades its server hardware. Smooth, playable Direct X 11 gaming on a $500 netbook? That's impressive any way you look at it.

The Question of Prices and Games

Darren: no doubt, no doubt. I think the real tricks here -- besides the fat pipe hurdle -- will be getting the games and selling them at reasonable prices.

Sid: yeah, which is a bit of a sticking point. OnLive is charging a subscription fee just to access the free demos, right? Then it's another charge to buy or rent a game...

Darren: Hey, I'm not so sure I agree with you about that whole subscription fee issue. I mean, you look at Xbox 360's Live service and you're dropping 60 bones annually -- and that's on top of the price you're paying for the console. Plus the overpriced hard drive -- you dig where I'm going with this, sucka?

Now, the guys at Rearden Labs are talking a good game. They say how they'll time out releases with regular window of when titles hit store shelves. But what they aren't saying are 1) how much this system will cost, 2) how much the monthly / annual fee will be, and 3) how much the actual retail titles will sell for? I mean will I ever see savings on a digital downloaded game in my lifetime? It's not like someone is printing up a manual or burning a disc for me to play this.

Sid: All excellent points -- the proof will be in the pricing. The game library is of some concern as well. We saw versions of Crysis and Burnout playing during the OnLive demo. But without system-seller mascots like Master Chief or Kratos, OnLive might struggle to form an identity. Playing high-end PC games at maximum settings with great performance is all well and good, but I can't say it's something I'd jump at.

Darren: Have you actually played Crysis? Or Crysis Warhead? Dude, those are some solid games. And you don't see something like that running on a console (yet). And since EA is one of the partners signing on board for this, imagine playing a REAL RTS game on your TV. Red Alert 3, anyone? Don't know about you, but when I'm trying to play RTS games on a console (I'm looking at YOU Halo Wars) I want to wing my gamepad at the set and draw circles around units on-screen. Companies such as Warner Brothers, EA, and Epic Games, Ubisoft, Eidos, Atari Interactive, Take-Two Interactive, THQ and Codemaster already look like they are on board. Call me crazy, but I think that they might have a sweet game or two between 'em.

But I will concede one point: There need to be enough unique PC-only games out there to really sell this. Otherwise, there's nothing stopping someone from playing the same games on a console they already own. And not have to be online to play 'em. Now if I were running this show, I'd scramble to hook up with the indie / casual gaming community and tap that braintrust to lock down some of the really cool, unique games that you usually see pop up on the PSN, and Xbox Live Arcade and WiiWare stores

Sid: I agree that Crysis is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, a little bit of that visual luster is stripped away due to the aggressive, high-speed video compression needed for OnLive. When I played Crysis, I definitely noticed visual artifacting that made colors look grittier and more banded, giving the overall impression of playing the game in one of those TV windows.

Darren: Yeah, I was noticing some muddiness as well (it wasn't as pronounced when I was racing around GRID) but I can forgive it a little right now. I mean, this is a closed alpha test version of a service that won't launch until sometime in waaaaay late 2009. So I'm holding my nit-pickery to a minimum for now.

Sid: BUT the real deal-breaker here may be the "Micro Console," which is the tiny, almost inconsequential breakout box that allows you to play OnLive games on your TV. This little guy was pretty slick -- HDMI output, 5.1 optical output, two USB ports for peripherals like mice and keyboards, packed in quite a few features in a tiny, iPod-like form factor. Did you catch the OnLive guys hinting that the Micro Console might be cheap enough to "give away" with a subscription to the OnLive service?

Darren: I don't think that'd be a deal-breaker, more a deal maker. I mean the ability to plug in a mouse and keyboard to play an RTS anywhere in the home doesn't sound like a pile of suck to me. And for something significantly less than the "usual" gaming PC...

Sid: Yeah, it sounds like we both think OnLive will have more consequences for the PC gaming market than the console market...for now, at least. Can you imagine living in a futuristic society where men don't need PS3s and Xboxes to play insanely gorgeous games? Someone pinch me, I feel like I'm living in a George Orwell book.

Darren: Right, and for all those jokers who pose as pundits proclaiming the death of PC gaming (surprise -- still not dead) this is a big fat Brooklyn cheer for them. I mean, people have been dreaming about this idea of a streaming console for a long time (ahem -- Phantom console, anyone?) but now the Internet bandwidth to support it is at least remotely feasible.

I mean, OnLive will let you spectate people play as well as join in games. Not too shabby. But going back to one thing that I am probably digging the most about this: If done right, the service can stick it back to resellers that are cashing in on used game sales. At those retail stores, they profiteer of old games, resell 'em, and not share any of the profits without the folks that actually make the games. I mean, the music and movie industries are figuring it out through the likes of iTunes and Hulu, but games are hugely demanding mediums. And I, for one, would love to see more money go back to the right people. Not vultures.

Sid: Good thought. You know you're making some powerful enemies here though, right?

Darren: Y'know, the funny thing is, in the past, developers used to be polite about retailers that resold used games. They'd grumble because it was basically the only game in town -- so to speak. Maybe it's a sign of the economic times. Maybe it's because digital download / streaming technology finally looks ready for real world use. Whatever the reason, developers and publishers want (and for what it's worth, I think they deserve) a bigger piece of the pie.They said as much at DICE back in February.

Think about how the Roku box and the NetFlix Instant Access Queue on the Xbox 360 started pushing people to sign up (I did). I'm not racing out to buy DVDs like I used to a year ago. All I'm saying is that, technology is blowing down all kinds of doors. I may still be a little skeptical if OnLive can pull off everything they are promising, but it's a promising-looking start.

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