Could the current generation of games consoles be the last? Are the days of having to fork out £1000+ for a cutting-edge, high-end gaming PC numbered?
Well, the answer to both questions might just might be “yes”, if OnLive can prove itself.
After seven years in top-secret development, OnLive was officially unveiled last night (Tuesday) in San Francisco, where the annual Game Developers Conference is taking place this week.
What is OnLive? If you’re familiar with “cloud computing“, you’ll have a fair idea already. Essentially, it is a service that allows you to play the latest videogames online without the need for a game disk or even the game code on your hard drive.
How It Works (Click on image for a larger version):
PC gamers who use Steam and console gamers who use Mirosoft’s XBox Live or Sony’s Playstation Network are already familiar with the idea of buying digital copies of games from online stores and downloading them direct to their hard drive. OnLive takes the concept one step further.
You pay for the game but you don’t actually download the code. The service works by running the game for you remotely on a powerful server somewhere on the internet. This then sends to you only the data you need to display the game on your monitor and to interpret your controller input and send it back to the server.
In essence, the internet becomes your games hardware. So there’s no need for a console or for a high-end personal computer with a powerful graphics processor. A bog-standard, cheap, low-end machine is fine, they say – and the games will all work on both PCs and Macs.
In fact you don’t even need a computer at all. You can plug a small electronic gizmo – a “micro-console” the size of a pack of cards (above, with the OnLive controller) – into your large-screen HDTV and Bob’s your uncle, you’re ready to go. We’re told the box won’t be expensive – in fact, it may even be given away free when you subscribe to the service.
Yes, you will have to pay a monthly or annual fee to use the service – but then, that’s the way XBox Live works at the moment, although the PlayStation Network and online PC gaming are free.
The games you can play are not limited to simple ones such as Tetris or Bubble Bobble. Far from it. The demo shown to journalists in the run-up to the launch, for example, was Crysis (below), one of the most graphically-advanced, processor-intensive PC games out there. And at the Games Developers Conference the system will be up and running with 16 recent, cutting-edge games being played live on the floor.
What you do need, of course, is a broadband connection. And that may be where OnLive faces its biggest stumbling block, assuming all the other underlying technology is sound.
Anyone who plays games online at the moment knows it can be a frustrating experience, even with most of the processing being done on your end. Sometimes it’s due to problems with the game servers you are connecting to but, most of the time, the weak link is your broadband connection.
Depending on where you live, broadband performance can be patchy to say the least. Even if you have a good, stable connection, oversubscribed networks and throttling by the providers can slow internet traffic to a relative crawl.
However, OnLive’s trump card, the innovation powering their potentially revolutionary technology, is a major breakthrough in data compression technology that allows them to push a lot more data through the pipe a lot quicker than has been possible up until now.
As a result, they say that their service will work fine with a mere 2Mb connection, if you are happy with standard definition graphics. Even for High Definition, they say all you need is a 5Mb connection (one slight downside is that, currently only 720p HD is supported, not 1080p – but some have long argued that there is so little noticable difference in the visual results that it makes no odds).
So, a 5Mb connection will give you smooth, glitch-free, HD OnLive gaming. In the UK, the cheapest, entry-level connection Virgin Media now offer now is “up to” 10Mb. Cable internet speeds are generally quite stable regardless of where you live – but if you are in a heavily populated area, you may not get the full 10Mb due to the number of people using the network. Virgin also offer “up to” 20Mb and are in the process of rolling out their 50Mb service. And according to this report by the BBC yesterday, they are already planning a 150Mb service.
Of course, these speeds are for cable customers. Those who have to rely on ADSL broadband through a standard BT phone line or the equivalent are still stuck with “up to” 8Mb. And much moreso than cable customers, ADSL speeds fluctuate wildly depending on where you live, as the signal deteriorates rapidly the further you are from the telephone exchange. However, BT is in the process of improving its infrastructure and aims to roll out speeds of 40Mb to 60Mb between 2010 and 2012.
Whoever you get your broadband from, and regardless of the speed you can potentially get for your money, network congestion can be a major problem due to the number of customers competing for the limited bandwidth – so much so that many broadband providers either cap the amount you can download each month or “throttle” your connection if you download or upload too much during the busiest hours of the day.
If OnLive needs a 5Mb connection and it is using most of that 5Mb to shift data at all times during a gaming session, you will trigger your throttling (or “traffic management” as the providers like to euphemistically call it) limit very quickly if you are on one of the lower connection speeds or use up all your download for a month in a few days. Either way, you won’t be able to play.
For example, on a 10Mb Virgin Media connection, currently if you download more than 1200MB between 4pm and 9pm, your connection speed will be cut to just 2.5Mb for five hours. At a flat-out 5Mb, you can download 1200MB in about 40 minutes.
Another issue OnLive may have to contend with is asynchronous broadband. This means that your upload speed is a lot lower than your download speed. For example, on Virgin’s 10Mb download service, your upload speed is only around 0.5Mb. Presumably OnLive needs a lot less upload bandwidth than the download speed – but is 0.5Mb enough?
So much for the weak link.
On the plus side, OnLive finally makes cross-platform gaming possible. You can play online with anyone, regardless of whether they or you are using a PC, Mac or the plug-in TV box.
Many of the big games publishers – including Electronic Arts, THQ, Take-Two Interactive, Codemasters, Eidos, Atari, Warner Bros., Epic Games and Ubisoft – have signed up to the service. And why wouldn’t they? It is potentially the answer to all their problems. It cuts down on their distribution costs, in the same way digital downloads do, but more importantly, it virtually eliminates piracy. There’s nothing – no game disc or digital download – to steal and copy.
If OnLive is a success and turns out to be the future of gaming, however, there would be a number of big losers.
Console makers Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are obvious casualties, along with high-end PC component manufacturers, especially graphics chips makers.
But retailers would also be cut out of the loop entirely. And the market in second-hand games – a thorn in the side of games publishers as they get no share of profits from second-hand sales – would disappear.
And beyond games, the possibilities are endless – any program could potentially be bought and run online. Which would potentially mean no need for powerful computers in the home (or the workplace?) at all.
It’s very early days, so I wouldn’t get too excited (or worried, depending on your viewpoint) just yet. The demos being given to journalists and at the GDC are on a carefully-controlled network with, no doubt, plenty of bandwidth to spare.
But, on the other hand, this is clearly a lot more than just some fancy tech demo and is definitely one to keep a close eye on. Because regardless of whether OnLive succeeds or fails, the technology it has created is likely to have a big impact on the future plans of the games hardware big boys.