Gaikai streaming game service offers full EA titles in a browser window; we go hands-on

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I've talked a lot about streaming game service OnLive in the past, but it isn't the only company trying to deliver hardcore gaming to your PC without the need for downloads, installers or driver tweaks. David Perry's Gaikai has been humming along in a low-key kind of way but now they've officially launched, with EA as a partner. At the Game Developer's Conference this week, Perry promises to show off Bioware's Mass Effect 2 running on a Facebook page.

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Full games in Facebook?! That kind of exposure is important to Gaikai because it has a completely different business model than OnLive does. OnLive wants to sell games and subscriptions to gamers. Gaikai wants to be an adveristing aid. In other words, Gaikai gives gamers a chance to demo games without any hassle, but it won't then sell you the game. If you like it, then you're expected to head to the publisher's site (or your local retailer) to buy the game.

That's an interesting service, but I foresee a lot of disappointed customers in the long run. If my PC has a horrible video card or is just old and slow, a game that runs great via the Gaikai demo (where remote servers are doing all the heavy lifting) might not run at all when I get the $50 retail version home. One of the reasons PC gamers really like demos is just to make sure a game will run acceptably on their system. This only applies to PC games of course. Gaikai only lets you demo a game on your PC but if that title is available on a console you'll be made aware of that fact and can choose to go that route.

Gaikai is still a bit picky about who can get into their service, based on bandwidth and your connection to the nearest server farm. Eventually the goal is to have a server farm in every major city but that's not the case yet. I'm outside of Boston and got the green light, so I decided to check out the 30 minute demo of Dead Space 2.

Since Gaikai plays games via a browser you'll need both Flash and Java installed. When you hit the demo page, you'll be checked for bandwidth and the appropriate plug-ins. Assuming you've got that covered the game loads and away you go. I was blasting gruesome alien thingies in no time.

Dead Space 2 streaming to a browser window
Gaikai

So how does Gaikai compare to OnLive? Even though the two aren't in direct competition it's irresistible to compare. First, Gaikai games run in a browser while OnLive uses a stand-alone client. That means a Gaikai game can turn up anywhere, like in an ad or, as mentioned, on a Facebook page. Gaikai has a 'full screen' option but when I tried it I got a stretched letterbox version of the game that didn't look very good. Onlive scales to full screen nicely. Onlive supports a gamepad while the Dead Space 2 demo on Gaikai didn't (that could've been specific to the game though). In fact Onlive modifies games to support a gamepad even if they originally didn't. Both services start up a game quite quickly but Gaikai felt a little faster at getting you into the game (important if you're going to suck in players via an ad).

Technically both services work surprisingly well and without spending a lot more time I'd be hard-pressed to say which one had less lag. They both offer a decent gaming experience for the casual gamer, and both have too much lag for the most hard-core, competitive players.

At this point I still prefer Onlive with its clean full-screen mode and its hardware console for playing on the TV but then I'd better, given that Onlive wants to sell me games while Gaikai is essentially an elaborate advertising platform. At least for now. Something tells me David Perry is using this advertising scheme as a way to get gamers familiar with Gaikia in preparation for rolling out a more complete service, (can ad revenue support a data center in every city?) but time will tell.

Want to try it out? There're a few games running in different places.

Mass Effect 2 is running at http://www.gaikai.com/
Dead Space 2 is hidden behind a brief survey
Spore is also available at Gaikai.com
The Sims 3 is available at http://www.thesims3.com/trial

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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