OnLive game streaming hands-on: a real surprise
I’ve made no secret of my skepticism for OnLive, the streaming gaming service that launched last Thursday. In fact as recently as Friday I expressed my doubt about the service. Then Friday evening my account was activated and I got to try the service first hand, from the comfort of my Comcast-serviced home.
And now I’m a believer. The service works pretty much as advertised, or at least has done so for me. How well it performs for you will depend on your internet speed and your distance from the nearest OnLive data center. The most up-to-date info on data centers comes from January, when there was one in Washington DC, one in Dallas and one in the Bay area. I'm outside of Boston. I've contacted OnLive to see if they have an updated list of data center locations but haven't heard back from them yet.
There are two broad considerations when it comes to OnLive’s long-term success. The tech stuff (how well it works) and the business model. Let’s start with tech.
When you start playing an OnLive game, somewhere in the bowels of a data center a server fires up the game for you and starts streaming it. It takes a minute or so before you start getting data. There’s no installing (or uninstalling) and no worrying about DirectX, graphics driver updates or other tweaks. It just works.
On the down side, you’re getting a game running at 1280x720 with no chance to change that. You can run the client full-screen or Windowed, and OnLive with upscale the image to fit your resolution/window size. If you’ve got a gaming rig capable of running games at high-resolution this might be a problem for you; the games aren’t going to look as sharp as you’re used to. On the other hand, if you have a dedicated gaming rig you’re probably not really the target audience anyway.
I put OnLive to the test on three systems: my gaming PC, an aging Mac Book Pro (2.16 Ghz Core Duo w/2 gigs of RAM) and an Atom-based netbook running Windows 7 w/1 gig of RAM. The service performed flawlessly on the gaming rig and Mac, but wouldn’t run on the netbook due to it being underpowered. (If it had run on the netbook I would’ve been very surprised; it's a severely underpowered machine.) The official requirements are 32-bit Windows XP, 32- 64-bit Vista/Windows 7, or Mac OS 10.6+ for an OS; a dual core processor; a monitor that supports a resolution of least 1280x720; and a wired 5 Mbps connection (that wired requirement is going to be a hindrance for a lot of laptop users).
Once you start playing a game, you’ll quickly forget that you’re streaming it. It runs pretty much the way you’d expect a game to run. If you’re nit-picking then you’ll be able to find issues: sometimes high-res textures take a few seconds to fill and every once in a while control will ‘stick’ for a few milliseconds. These are problems to point at when testing the service, but when you’re just playing a game for fun they won’t be an issue. For the average consumer who doesn’t have a high-end PC to game on, OnLive works well. It’s pretty cool.
One thing to consider is how much of your monthly bandwidth cap you’re going through, if you have one of those (and you probably do, even if your ISP doesn’t advertise it). I haven’t found a good way to measure this. I will say that other gamers in my house didn’t notice any kind of lag or sluggishness in their own games, so OnLive wasn’t saturating our bandwidth while I was playing.
Now let’s talk about the business model a little. Here things are a bit more dicey. Right now OnLive is running a special offer (or was, it’s hard to say if they’ve filled up the available slots) where you can get a full year of the service free, and a second year for $4.95/month. The standard subscription price is $14.95/month.
As part of a subscription you can demo most games for 30 minutes. This isn’t a demo like you may be used to. Basically a demo starts the game just as if you’d purchased it, and 30 minutes later it shuts down. So you aren’t getting a slice of the game as delivered by the devs. Instead you’re getting the first 30 minutes, including cut-scenes, tutorial stuff, character creation if applicable and so on. If you want to demo a second time, you start at the beginning again.
Your subscription also gets you all the social stuff. You can “spectate” other player’s games, which is more fun than I expected it to be (though I’m not sure how long it’ll be before the shine wears off that activity). You can add friends, look at their “brag clips” (short videos of gameplay that a player can save at any time) and things of that nature. It’s a pretty nice package of social features, but we’re here to play games.
If you want to play past the demo period, you have to pay. There are 3 tiers to paying. You can buy a 3-day Pass, a 5-day Pass, or a Full Pass (unlimited play). Not every game offers all three options, and not all options cost the same across games. Borderlands costs $5.99 for a 3-day Pass, $8.99 for a 5-day Pass and $29.99 for a Full Pass. Assassin’s Creed II is only available as a Full Pass for $39.99. Batman Arkham Asylum is only available in 3 & 5 day Passes at $4.99 & $6.99 respectively. The most expensive game I found was Splinter Cell Conviction, available only as a Full Pass for $59.99. It’s worth noting that the Full Pass prices are comparable to buying digitally downloaded versions of these games from services like Steam, Impulse or Direct2Drive.
The problem with these Full Pass prices is that you need to have an active subscription to OnLive in order to play them, and OnLive has to still have the license to offer that game. If you’re a gamer who frequently goes back to older games this could be a problem for you. In the end it's a trade-off. A hardcore gamer with a capable PC is probably better off buying the games from a digital distribution system. Casual gamers who don’t have the latest graphics cards or who don’t want to mess with drivers and patches might find the convenience outweighs the drawbacks of buying games on OnLive.
Personally, even though I consider myself a hardcore gamer, I’m going to keep using OnLive to demo and rent PC games that I’m not willing to purchase outright. This is the only way I know of to rent PC games (even if OnLine doesn’t call it renting, that’s clearly what it is) and in some cases I might just opt for the OnLive ease of use over downloading and installing a particular title. (I’m hardcore but also lazy and often pressed for time: more time playing and less time fiddling is a win for me.)
Gaming on the Mac is getting better all the time, what with Steam launching for OS X recently, but OnLive brings all but one of its titles to the Mac now (Mass Effect 2 is Windows-only due to licensing restrictions), so Mac users might be a good target audience for the service. Also OnLive says its Mini-Console (which will hook up to a TV) is coming towards the end of the year, and that’ll add another vector for bringing in new gamers.
In all, a weekend with OnLive has turned me from complete skeptic to cautiously optimistic about their service. I’d love to see some kind of ‘buffet’ subscription model somewhere down the line. $14.95/month for the current service seems quite steep, to be honest. If OnLive threw in a few 3 or 5-day pass vouchers each month, or did something similar to sweeten the pot, it’d be an easier sell. For those of us who get in under the current special offer, we’ll have to make that decision in 2 years. For the special offer monthly fee of $0, OnLive is well worth at least checking out. I’m totally amazed that they pulled this off.