OnLive, a new game-changing technology

A few years back, a company called Infinium Labs introduced a new game console, The Phantom. It was going to change the face of PC and video gaming by offering a downloadable catalog of titles available by subscription. It was an aptly named product: The Phantom never shipped.

Yesterday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a similar sounding service was announced: OnLive. The major differences between The Phantom and OnLive seem to be that first, OnLive doesn't deliver games to your house, it delivers output (more on that in a minute) and second, OnLine doesn't appear to be vaporware.

What do I mean by delivering output? From the sounds of things, all processing of input is going to take place on OnLive's servers, so you need almost no processing power at home. Hit a button on your controller, the packet travels to an OnLive server, where the input is processed, the next frame is rendered, and that frame is pushed back to your device. That sounds crazy to me! OnLine says that a game (and they plant to launch with 16 recent, AAA titles) will play the same on a PC or a Mac or on your TV via a small "mini-console" that they'll supply you with. The only requirement is bandwidth: 2 Mbps for standard definition (think Nintendo Wii) games and 4 Mbps for high def.

VentureBeat has an extensive first look at the technology, or check out Introducing OnLive... and the End of Consoles at GameDaily.

It's a fascinating idea, but I'm dubious until I see it in action "in the wild" so to speak. If you play games even semi-seriously, can you imagine the response time being fast enough to satisfy you? Perhaps under ideal conditions, but any kind of rough spot in the internet jungle between you and the OnLive servers are going to result in jerkiness or lag, or so I would imagine. I also wonder how much bandwidth this will eat up for hardcore gamers; a concern given that more and more ISP are introducing bandwidth caps.

And some of the 'strengths' sound like weaknesses to me. From the VentureBeat article:

Game publishers could also frequently update their games on OnLive by changing the code running on the servers. If one part of a game is too hard, the publishers can simply patch that part and then everyone will play the new version the next time they log in. Publishers can also pull the plug on games that aren’t selling well without taking a big inventory hit.

You'd have no control over these changes, since the game doesn't exist in your house. So if you liked that challenging part of the game, you'd lose it (rather than opting not to patch, as you would now). More significantly, what if one of the games that has the plug pulled is something that you love, or that you're half-way through playing? Suddenly, bam!, it's gone?

The technology geek in me is fascinated, though. I'll be watching this one with interest. If nothing else, it might be a great supplement for hardcore gamers, and a wonder service for the more casual players.

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