GDC 09: 6 Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust

Are Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo in deep doo-doo when you can click an "on" button and instantly play the latest video games through a browser or set top box near your TV? That's the promise entrepreneur Steve Perlman (WebTV, Contour) is making with his new "microconsole" service. The idea? Take the processing and configuration headaches entirely out of your hands, then beam pictures at you over your broadband hookup, those pictures amounting to streaming interactive images of the latest top-end games. No muss, no fuss. You tap "Start Crysis" and presto, you're playing the every-bit-as-sweet-looking version as your online compadres.

Pipe dream? Reality. As of this week, that is, when Perlman's Rearden Studios debuted its "stealth development" response to the recent so-called "cloud computing" vogue. It's called OnLive, and its proponents are hoping to capitalize on the rise in broadband usage and commensurate surge in video gaming, while leading the charge in "displacing the limitations, cost and complexity of local computing."

I've hoisted the cloud computing flag twice in 12 months. Back in March 2008, I noted former Xbox Europe honcho Sandy Duncan's suggestion that consoles were set to die "in 5 to 10 years." According to Duncan

...there is a definite "convergence" of other devices such as set top boxes. There's hardly any technology difference between some hard disc video recorders and an Xbox 360 for example. In fact in 5 to 10 years I don't think you'll have any box at all under your TV, most of this stuff will be "virtualized" as web services by your content provider.

And again in January this year, I rapped about AMD's Fusion Render Cloud, which the company claimed would

...transform movie and gaming experiences through server-side rendering -- which stores visually rich content in a compute cloud, compresses it, and streams it in real-time over a wireless or broadband connection to a variety of devices such as smart phones, set-top boxes and ultra-thin notebooks. By delivering remotely rendered content to devices that are unable to store and process HD content due to such constraints as device size, battery capacity, and processing power, HD cloud computing represents the capability to bring HD entertainment to mobile users virtually anywhere.

I know something about cloud computing. In my other life, I was a systems engineer working on enterprise-grade mainframe vs. thin client R&D, essentially studies gauging the plausibility of running client-server applications using Microsoft's Remote Desktop and Citrix's ICA technology, e.g. running apps like Microsoft Office on central server farms and beaming screen data out to cheap "dumb terminals." I've run packet capture studies and composed tedious white papers celebrating the power of the paradigm (yes, it's worthy of that word).

And I tallied this user-friendly list of pros about it in January.

Streaming video games upend gaming as we know it. For starters, the technology challenges the need for offline retail sales, eliminates lengthy software downloads (instant "on" play), removes spiraling local storage requirements, jettisons messy/intrusive digital rights management (DRM) malarkey, obsoletes expensive computer components, and generally speaking fully equalizes the end-game experience.

You'll suffer fewer bugs. For the same reasons that benefit consoles, one-stop central-style gaming reduces hardware and driver compatibility quirks, wipes away the distinction between "PC" and "console" games entirely, and allows patches to be instantaneous. Everyone shares the same problems, and therefore benefits from the same solutions.

Every game, a demo. OnLive's already touting this in its FAQ. Try before you buy, whether for a small demo fee or with a time limitation metric. No more sardonic grumbling on message boards about a developer's "mendacity" because they couldn't be bothered to chisel a try-before-you-buy chunk of code off their product.

It's pirate-proof. Really? Really. Because it eliminates the very thing bootleggers need to do their dirty work -- physical media -- and adds an online requirement in the bargain. At best, you'd have a nominal number of illicit accounts in circulation, but we've already seen how simple it is for companies like Blizzard to wave a digital wand and topple thousands of felonious players like tenpins.

So that's my list of ad hoc pros. Now I'm going to upend my own arguments and knock a few legs out from under my rationalizations.

Hit the jump for my "Six Reasons OnLive Could Be a Bust."

Reason #1 - "Fair Access Policy." It's your ISP's new euphemism for "Did we say unlimited? Kidding!" While ISPs stand to lose lawsuits leveled by bitter consumers over false or misleading advertising, the short term reality is that many "unlimited" broadband providers cap your bandwidth if you hit your head on their fine print data ceiling. If you've ever been FAP'd, you know the drill: The ISP will claim they've throttled you to a more "reasonable" speed, but in reality, even browsing the web can be a slideshow. If OnLive's to really succeed, it'll have to contend with the mismatch in consumer adoption of broadband and ISP lag lighting (or laying) sufficient pipes, resulting in increasingly restrictive "hidden" strictures.

Reason #2 - Real vs. Test Lab Performance. Our hands-on time with the kit at GDC 2009 is a best-case scenario, as it was playing Crysis on "luxury" detail levels at the Crytek booth all those years ago running on beamed-back-from-the-future PCs to ensure no one griped about performance. Riddle me this: How's Crysis run at maximum grandeur on your PCs these days? For a relative few of you, the answer may be "not bad." For the rest, you're probably still dialing things down considerably. OnLive promises to make the prettiest settings a collective reality, but sending true 720p pictures across a 5Mbps minimum broadband link in realtime isn't possible. The solution? Compression, which blurs the picture slightly. Microsoft and Sony do something similar with their on-demand digital movie services. Oh sure, the picture runs at 720p resolution, but it's like the difference between a 44.1KHz MP3 ripped at 128Kbps vs. 320Kbps. Watch a 720p movie on a Blu-ray disc and compare with the download version. You'll instantly see what I mean. What's more, OnLive claims "any time, any where" access, but it won't be. Not really. You'll have to have dedicated broadband access for starters, which isn't everywhere. And while the local coffee shop or library or airport may be offering, you're sharing those nodes with who-knows-how-many others. What OnLive needs to work is what I'll dub "deterministic broadband," i.e. guaranteed, non-shared, uninterruptible speed. In short, it needs the reliability you expect from a hardline TV signal. Broadband isn't there yet, nor are ISPs willing to offer performance guarantees.

Reason #3 - "My Internet Connection's Fallen and It Can't Get Up." When your read/write stream's entirely over a network connection, you need perfect, low-latency, uninterrupted online access. If the connection so much as blips or the latency jitters, it's Game Interrupted (and in the most twitchy games, where microseconds separate you from messy bullet tattoos, it's also probably Game Over). What happens in OnLive if your ISP hiccups? Does the game "freeze-save"? What's the delta between the service's "last known good packet" metric and some sort of emergency fail-safe routine? OnLive has to have this stuff tied up if it wants to woo more than casual gamers content to fiddle with stuff like Luxor Mahjong and Bejeweled 2.

Reason #4 - R.I.P. Mod Scene. If the creative content's locked up on the back-end, what about enthusiast mods like skins, levels, vehicles, alternative roles, etc.? Would OnLive put up "development" servers that allow tinkering with publisher code for potential deployment on specially designated servers? How well do you suppose the notion of playing on OnLive's terms will go down with independent mod-scene gurus?

Reason #5 - Privacy Issues. You sign up for OnLive and you'll find you've also agreed to allow the company to collect and mine your personal play habits. Question is, do you care if a company's silently accreting data about your play habits and passing it along to third-party vendors and/or using it to pester you about their Next Best Thing? I'm not saying you should or shouldn't, just putting it out there.

Reason #6 - You Don't Own Anything. Buy a standalone game today and you pay for it once, can play it as many times as you like, and still go back to it in a decade or three absolutely free. Buy a streaming game from OnLive and what do you get? The game outright? Rent time based on a subscriber fee? Say the game's an MMO -- what happens if a publisher like Blizzard (World of Warcraft) goes under? And what happens if OnLive itself goes kaput?

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