Streaming gaming service OnLive drops subs; hardware coming soon

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Streaming gaming service OnLive surprised a lot of us (well, it surprised me anyway) when it actually worked as advertised. You run the client, pick your game and within a few seconds start playing. Granted the resolution tops out at 720P and there's a little bit of lag, but for casual gaming it works very nicely.

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The problem OnLive has faced turns out not to be about its technology, but about its business plan. When it rolled out, OnLive was saying that gamers would have to pay a subscription fee, plus buy the games. To be fair 'Founding Members' (which as far as I can tell, was everyone who signed up) were given a free sub for a year and the promise of a discounted subscription fee for the second year, but still potential customers bristled at the idea of paying twice for content (as they saw it).

OnLive broke some good news yesterday: the subscription fees are gone for good. OnLive said on its blog "...this announcement is confirming what we had hoped—that we can continue without a monthly fee beyond the first year. Although we wish we could have confirmed no monthly fee from the get-go, pioneering a major new video game paradigm is hard: we had to first grow to a large base of regular users before we could understand usage patterns and operating costs."

What this means is that you've got nothing to lose. You can sign up for a Free Trial Account, which doesn't require a credit card, and check out game demos or watch other members playing. The demos, in particular, are a great feature. You get a half hour to play the full game without needing to install anything. If you want more than that but aren't ready to buy the game outright you can buy a 3- or 5-day pass for a few bucks (and these allow you to save your game and come back to it later). Demos are also an excellent way to see how well OnLive works for you (presumably results will vary depending on ISP and broadband speed).

One other complaint about the system – that you pay full price for a game but don't really own it – still stands. This complaint is comprised of three points: you have to maintain a subscription in order to access the content you paid for (this point is now moot given that a sub is free); you have to be online to access your games (of course); and lastly OnLive can only promise to offer a particular game for a few years. If they lose the license to offer it, you lose your investment.

I've been a member since June and will say OnLive runs has run some sales where you can shave a good deal off game prices. Of course you have to balance that out against the crazy deals that digital distributors such as Steam and Direct2Drive run. If you're a hardcore gamer with a solid gaming system, those deals are still better than anything OnLive can offer, but you're arguably not the target audience, either. One of the benefits of OnLive is that you don't need much of a computer to run it.

In fact they're getting ready to take that idea one step further. OnLive says its "MicroConsole TV Adapters" and "OnLive Gamepads" are in manufacturing now. With those you don't need a computer at all. Founding Members get "first dibs" on these and I'll be ordering a set as soon as they're available and will bring you a review when the time comes. If the idea of using a gamepad for computer games sounds strange, rest assured all the games OnLive offers have been modified to work well with a gamepad. At least, all the ones I've tried have been.

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