Pipeline Dreams

When I read and hear about this fabulous OnLive service that everyone is suddenly talking about at GDC, I’m immediately reminded of the Phantom, which I hasten to point out is still not the centerpiece of my living room. After all, while OnLive may have what the Phantom never did — credibility — the basic idea is now running six years old, and still seems like the stuff of myth and legends that computer engineers tell their kids to put them to sleep at night. Pardon my enormous skepticism, but I believe as much in the practicality of OnLive as I do the existence of Leprechauns and Unicorns.

To his credit, founder Steve Perlman is doing a masterful job of publicly selling the idea that this service should be seen as something more than an improbable silicon dream, and the promise of “interactive video compression” technology to deliver high-definition gaming in real time sure sounds fancy. But, really, am I now meant to buy into the idea that some company I’ve never heard of has partnered with the worlds major publishers to deliver gaming from some nebulous cloud of data a thousand miles away at the speed of virtual light, and all on the cheap?

But, even as I question the technology itself, it's the practicality of building a long-term consumer base where I find my real stumbling block. Call it lack of vision, but I don't see gamers, a historically finicky genus, getting all warm and fuzzy on the idea of relying on their internet connection and flawless latency every time they feel like accessing content for which they have paid top dollar. I can feel the furious heat from a distant future where two hours downtime means that your entire library of gaming has been held captive.

But, for the time being let’s give OnLive the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that in a year or so you can go to the store, buy a fifty dollar piece of equipment, plug it into your television or computer and rely on distant processors and routers to consistently deliver latency free gaming. Suddenly, everyone with even a rudimentary PC now has convenient, controlled access to a library of games.

Well, that answers everyone’s problems, doesn’t it? I mean, here it is! This is it, the future — the road to the one-console dream.

I long to be enthusiastic. I want to be optimistic. On paper, this seems feasible, not just because it models what seems to be the natural evolution of gaming but because it answers so many issues along the way. At first, I couldn’t quite figure out how this virtual unknown was able to get companies like EA or Take-Two to even give them an appointment, and then I realized exactly how publisher-friendly this kind of platform is. Think about how many problems OnLive potentially addresses:

Lost Revenue to the Used Market
Piracy
DRM
Licensing Fees
The Costs of Cross-platform Development
Scalability

With a proof of concept and a good powerpoint presentation, its really not that surprising that publishers might be falling over themselves at the prospect. And, lets face it, the timing is right. The major console manufacturers are reeling from the magnificent costs of getting the latest generation rolling. There’s no enthusiasm from consumers or manufacturers to even think about the next generation. No, that doesn’t mean that Sony and Microsoft will be enthusiastic about conceding their hard-fought marketshare, but it’s not difficult to imagine that if publishers found an alternative that addressed their concerns, their support for traditional consoles might flag.

From an industry point of view, it all makes sense. Practically, however? Well, that’s another story. Now may be the time to begin exploring this kind of service, but it’s hard to believe that the broadband infrastructure is there for enough people to invest and get a good result. Beyond that, there’s the question of adoption from what has become one of the most significant segments of the market, casual gamers. This is exactly the sort of thing they hate about video games. You just get them comfortable with their Wii and all of the sudden you tell them that now they need to do something entirely different and alien. There’s something very hardcore and impersonal about OnLive, and while I can see myself trying the service out it’s not as easy to imagine a lot of parents and grandparents getting on board with a service based system delivering games from a network cloud.

Face it, you can't really put OnLive subscriptions under the Christmas Tree.

And, then there’s Nintendo. While I can imagine vague scenarios in which Microsoft and Sony might collapse under pressure from partners and crippled budgets, the Big N by comparison seems indefatigable. Go ahead and try to imagine a realistic scenario where a Mario game is delivered through OnLive, I dare you.

So basically then, this is another online games delivery service, and so I have to ask why this is better than GameTap or Steam. Get right down to it, and they are asking me to pay a premium to subscribe to service where I can buy the same games for what’s sure to be the same price, but instead of using physical media or a relatively permanent media now I must rely on an internet connection and distant servers to properly process and deliver the content. Remind me again why I would want to pay a fee to not have my games?

It’s a buzzworthy concept that is titillating on the surface, but seems rife with impracticalities when closely examined. I’m just not sure that gamers in general are ready to abandon gaming as a product and look at instead as an indistinct service.

Comments

With a proof of concept and a good powerpoint presentation, its really not that surprising that publishers might be falling over themselves at the prospect. And, lets face it, the timing is right. The major console manufacturers are reeling from the magnificent costs of getting the latest generation rolling. There’s no enthusiasm from consumers or manufacturers to even think about the next generation. No, that doesn’t mean that Sony and Microsoft will be enthusiastic about conceding their hard-fought marketshare, but it’s not difficult to imagine that if publishers found an alternative that addressed their concerns, their support for traditional consoles might flag.

Couple things.. this seems more about bringing PC gaming to a cloud based streaming service.. I don't see anything in there yet that brings console gaming to this service. I view it more as an alternative method of playing PC games rather than replacing your Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.

And, then there’s Nintendo. While I can imagine vague scenarios in which Microsoft and Sony might collapse under pressure from partners and crippled budgets, the Big N by comparison seems indefatigable. Go ahead and try to imagine a realistic scenario where a Mario game is delivered through OnLive, I dare you.

Again.. I'm not sure they are even going after this.. this is more about bringing PC games to a larger audience.

and they are asking me to pay a premium to subscribe to service where I can buy the same games for what’s sure to be the same price, but instead of using physical media or a relatively permanent media now I must rely on an internet connection and distant servers to properly process and deliver the content. Remind me again why I would want to pay a fee to not have my games?

This is fair.. but to be really fair they haven't announced ANY pricing model yet. For all we know its free and you pay for rental or "owning" these games.. AND for all we know you get a physical copy of the disc for a nominal fee.

Wow, I forgot all about OnLive's existance.

Beyond that, there’s the question of adoption from what has become one of the most significant segments of the market, casual gamers.

Could be that it's too abstract for the casual gamers, but on the other hand: you can't put online Flash games under the tree either, can you? Cloud gaming could close the tech gap too, making pc gaming as easy as console gaming. Get online and play! See, we've got a slogan and all! Could be a big plus for the casual market.

the ibasic dea

You might want to fix this, before Wordy comes barging in. If you're quick enough he might not have picked up the scent yet!

edit: You fixed it even before I finished posting!

Couple things.. this seems more about bringing PC gaming to a cloud based streaming service.. I don't see anything in there yet that brings console gaming to this service. I view it more as an alternative method of playing PC games rather than replacing your Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii.

Which, to my mind makes it even less practical. I suppose if you really wanted to play your PC games on the TV or just weren't willing to upgrade your PC then this might seem like a nice service, but aside from that I still don't quite see the upside.

I do think that breaking into console gaming is a natural extension of this service.

This is fair.. but to be really fair they haven't announced ANY pricing model yet. For all we know its free and you pay for rental or "owning" these games.. AND for all we know you get a physical copy of the disc for a nominal fee.

If the publishers agree to anything like this I'll pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe.

A co-worker of mine saw OnLive at GDC and reports that there's far too much latency present for this to work properly.

On the one hand, no one ever got rich by underestimating what technology will be capable of several years in the future. On the other hand, this seems to go distinctly against the trend of everything becoming more distributed - centralization doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in this case, because I can't see any economies of scale coming in to play here. The amount of infrastructure investment you would need seems like it would be a nearly linear increase per customer, at least in terms of rendering power.

SocialChameleon wrote:
A co-worker of mine saw OnLive at GDC and reports that there's far too much latency present for this to work properly.

You are looking at this all wrong! Think about the possibility of a horrid framerate on every FPS for everyone across the globe! Lag by the truckload! Suddenly, everyone in the world would be reduced to my own skill level in the first person shooter! Its like a dream come true...

TheGameguru wrote:

Again.. I'm not sure they are even going after this.. this is more about bringing PC games to a larger audience.

(I guess we can just carry over the old thread here now )

Isn't that what the current generation of consoles are doing, though? Yes, PC games are a hassle to get working sometimes, that's why lots of us have switched to consoles.

I do wonder about the long term purpose of this kind of system. They're going to invest large amounts of capital in a system when their competitor is Moore's law?

SocialChameleon wrote:
A co-worker of mine saw OnLive at GDC and reports that there's far too much latency present for this to work properly.

Indeed, the hands-on story I read described significant lag and lots of encoding artifacts, and that was in (presumably) perfect test conditions using a relatively nearby server.

Switchbreak wrote:
On the one hand, no one ever got rich by underestimating what technology will be capable of several years in the future. On the other hand, this seems to go distinctly against the trend of everything becoming more distributed - centralization doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in this case, because I can't see any economies of scale coming in to play here. The amount of infrastructure investment you would need seems like it would be a nearly linear increase per customer, at least in terms of rendering power.

Good point. A fanciful alternative would be harnessing the excess processing power of systems like the PS3 and sharing them across the internet- everyone's machines becoming a little distributed server. I have a co-worker who already leaves his 360 on pretty much 24-7, he'd never notice.

I guess it's a great idea for some segment of the gaming population, but I still want physical media that I can hold on to forever and play whenever I want...internet connected or not.

There will be a time and its rapidly approaching that this concept just becomes quaint. The next generation will simply feel that owning some form of optical media or Flash rom based media as amusing.

Look whats happening to email even.. kids today don't even bother to check email.. its becoming the "snail mail" of their generation.

Great read.

While the prospect of having some super-computer "out there" crunching all the numbers and delivering next-next gen content to my TV is enticing, the idea of being chained to a high-speed internet service to play said content diminishes my enthusiasm significantly.

Also, what if it's a monthly subscription service like NetFlix? If I only buy one or two games every couple months right now, why would I want to 'rent' these games for a monthly fee when I don't get a whole lot of personal game time to start with? I could easily see myself paying more for the service than current retail games cost me and I'd have no physical media to show for it to boot.

If you buy the games outright, what happens if the service goes belly-up in 12 or 24 months? What do I have to show for it then?

I guess it's a great idea for some segment of the gaming population, but I still want physical media that I can hold on to forever and play whenever I want...internet connected or not. Hugs Atari 2600

I'll admit that there's some appeal in a service like this to me, because it would mean that I didn't have to jump on the expensive treadmill of hardware upgrades. I've posted before about how confusing the hardware requirements of PC games can be, so I'll not get into that.

If this service actually didn't have a lot of lag and offered me the ability to play games like Crysis or Cryostasis (or heck, anything made after 2004; they all run like garbage on my computer), I'd consider signing up for it. I don't see how it would make me any more dependent on a broadband connection than I already would be with a lot of PC DRM, and I don't see how any proposed purchasing model would differ much from GameTap or Steam.

I'm a cynic, so I don't think this would work, but if it did, I'd buy it.

Sir, you speak as if unicorns and leprechauns do not exist. I have seen unicorns, and they fart rainbows.

Blah. Figure out how to excise lag from even the most basic multiplayer games, then we'll talk.

Although I am tickled by the possibility of texture lag or physics lag. "Why is that mannequin flying off into the sky?" "Oh, the network's a bit choppy... I'm sure his face and skin and the force of gravity will load in just a sec."

I don't see a market for this, how would the pricing model work? do I pay a fat rate to On Live and they inturn pay the publishers? Do I pay a subscription + rental/payment method? Why not just stick with Steam and pay less?

I am also not sure if being able to access games on demand is that big of a boon for gaming. With Steam and preloading of new releases or just downloading them, it doesn't really take that long to have access to the content. I think this is a good tech and an interesting topic for discussions but I do not see any market for this service.

The model that people really need to look at here is iTunes, at least for the pricing aspect.

Why did iTunes lead to the decline in retail music sales to the point where hard copies of albums are only for the tiny local band, the mega-sized famous band and the hardcore followers of everyone else? The simple answer is pricing. Apple stuck a finger in the eye of retail (and many an amazing mom-and-pop record store) by offering their content cheaper than the brick and mortar guys could. Thus, people started to buy on iTunes, and realized how much more convenient it was, and the model took off.

Steam offers the same convenience today, but at close to retail cost. If OnLive can release the big titles at $20 or less, gamers will inevitably move to the service, and retail will slowly start to take a less prominent role. Otherwise, game prices are going to have to increase. It's unnatural to have an industry who has been charging the same prices for ten years. Something has to change, and if the publishers cannot lower their costs, then they will be forced to raise their prices or cut their expenses, which means fewer games, less quality, and more cash-ins.

Fifteen years ago, who would have thought that ten million people would plunk down $15 a month, on top of paying retail cost for a game disk and expansions, for any game?

For the record, I don't think OnLive will be the service that lasts, mostly because the guy leading after the first lap is rarely the winner of the race, but it's a step in the direction of cloud computing and online gaming.

after reading all about this at various places on the intarweb..

[size=20]MEH..[/size]

TheCounselor wrote:

Steam offers the same convenience today, but at close to retail cost. If OnLive can release the big titles at $20 or less, gamers will inevitably move to the service, and retail will slowly start to take a less prominent role. Otherwise, game prices are going to have to increase. It's unnatural to have an industry who has been charging the same prices for ten years. Something has to change, and if the publishers cannot lower their costs, then they will be forced to raise their prices or cut their expenses, which means fewer games, less quality, and more cash-ins.

But Gabe Newell's own figures show that cutting game prices means more profit, because you sell more copies and the marginal cost of each copy is so low.

TheCounselor wrote:
Steam offers the same convenience today, but at close to retail cost. If OnLive can release the big titles at $20 or less, gamers will inevitably move to the service, and retail will slowly start to take a less prominent role. Otherwise, game prices are going to have to increase. It's unnatural to have an industry who has been charging the same prices for ten years. Something has to change, and if the publishers cannot lower their costs, then they will be forced to raise their prices or cut their expenses, which means fewer games, less quality, and more cash-ins.

The reason Steam offers prices close to retail cost, and the reason online will do the same, is that if they didn't, retailers would go balistic and black-ball publishers. Like it or not, retail is still king, and publishers still need it, OnLive or not.

Dysplastic wrote:
TheCounselor wrote:
Steam offers the same convenience today, but at close to retail cost. If OnLive can release the big titles at $20 or less, gamers will inevitably move to the service, and retail will slowly start to take a less prominent role. Otherwise, game prices are going to have to increase. It's unnatural to have an industry who has been charging the same prices for ten years. Something has to change, and if the publishers cannot lower their costs, then they will be forced to raise their prices or cut their expenses, which means fewer games, less quality, and more cash-ins.

The reason Steam offers prices close to retail cost, and the reason online will do the same, is that if they didn't, retailers would go balistic and black-ball publishers. Like it or not, retail is still king, and publishers still need it, OnLive or not.

bingo. Once Steam overtakes the revenue from retail stores, we'll see the ability to leverage the price advantage.

And suddenly all the texture pop-in in Unreal Engine 3 games, like Gears and Mass Effect, becomes a lot more bearable.

Not to mention the input - feedback relation. Even WoW, the MMO that feels most natural, feels off. And there isn't any video streaming there. Just basic commands and coordinates. Light stuff.

The technology isn't here yet. If it was, the gaming industry wouldn't get first dibs. There are bigger players out there crazy for this kind of processing power.

Once Steam overtakes the revenue from retail stores, we'll see the ability to leverage the price advantage.

I suspect we are already seeing that with the sales and deals that Steam is able to offer.

At the gamespot gdc press conference he mentions being able to offer it free with a service package. That reminded me of my cellphone and how I never needed one till I got one... for free. Now I can't imagine not having a cellphone and my monthly bill is $130 a month.

So instead of plopping down a chunk of money upfront on a pc or console I'll be doling out a subscription fee monthly. I might be interested. Especially if the games I buy will always work and be backwards compatible. That can't be said for all the games I've bought for all the computers and consoles throughout the years.

According to one websites hands on preview of the system they said you can definitely notice the lag but not as badly as they were expecting to and they did notice some artifacts and blocks in the video quality. All in all they seemed to be impressed that it even worked as good as it did but that it was not perfect.

One thing I would be wondering about is are they telling the truth about them running the games from their data center 50 miles away or do they just have a few hidden computers running the demos there. And to me if people could notice the lag at only a 50 mile distance what makes them think they can do it at a thousand.

Though from what does work they need to license this technology out just to video streaming services.

breander wrote:
According to one websites hands on preview of the system they said you can definitely notice the lag but not as badly as they were expecting to and they did notice some artifacts and blocks in the video quality. All in all they seemed to be impressed that it even worked as good as it did but that it was not perfect.

One thing I would be wondering about is are they telling the truth about them running the games from their data center 50 miles away or do they just have a few hidden computers running the demos there. And to me if people could notice the lag at only a 50 mile distance what makes them think they can do it at a thousand.

Though from what does work they need to license this technology out just to video streaming services.

I don't understand why people keep mentioning video streaming services. None of them are encoding their video in real time, which is what this supposed new tech is addressing. Video conferencing sure, but not regular video streaming.

If it works good enough then the economics will be difficult to ignore.

This is the one platform future.

With little to no up front cost to the consumer.

And direct to consumer advantages of digital delivery.

Otherwise the problem is it is still about software. Nintendo for instance isn't going to be putting their games on a platform like this anytime soon.

And Sony and MS have their big exclusive franchises as well.

The only place to get those games will be on those consoles. Halo on the 360. Grand Turismo on the PS3. Mario, WiiSports and company on the Wii.

Also as Nintendo has shown games are more than just processing power. Interface is a big differentiator of Nintendo's current generation console and handheld.

I think this service will not work for 3D games, but maybe it is intended for 2D games like Bejeweled, where not much interaction is going on, or board games... I think for casual 2D games it might work, there might even be an audience for that...

what do you guys think?

cheers

nossid wrote:
breander wrote:
According to one websites hands on preview of the system they said you can definitely notice the lag but not as badly as they were expecting to and they did notice some artifacts and blocks in the video quality. All in all they seemed to be impressed that it even worked as good as it did but that it was not perfect.

One thing I would be wondering about is are they telling the truth about them running the games from their data center 50 miles away or do they just have a few hidden computers running the demos there. And to me if people could notice the lag at only a 50 mile distance what makes them think they can do it at a thousand.

Though from what does work they need to license this technology out just to video streaming services.

I don't understand why people keep mentioning video streaming services. None of them are encoding their video in real time, which is what this supposed new tech is addressing. Video conferencing sure, but not regular video streaming.

The reason I mention video streaming services because it seems to use less bandwidth to transfer higher quality video then is offered currently. I get that video streaming services are not encoding it right then and there when you view a video off of say youtube but I'm sure there is some way they could use the technology they have to developed to improve streaming services.

I think the idea of OnLive is a very good one and I can see the potential of a connectivity environment where it would work as advertised but I don't think we're there yet. This is a service that will depend utterly on pure net neutrality being in place and we're now in an environment where greedy telcos are doing everything they can to prevent such a thing, be it with poor latency, throttling or ridiculously low caps. For all the efforts OnLive is making at getting the best connectivity possible, they have no control over what happens to that traffic when it hits the ISP. Even on Comcast's 250GB cap, I could see this service becoming impractical for long-term use and here in Canada, the major telcos are talking about imposing 60GB caps on everyone including resellers which would make it impossible.

Perlman also said a 5MB connection would be needed for 720p but what he neglected to say until the end of the conference is that's per user. There is rarely a time in our house where there aren't 2 people playing games at once and there's only 2 people here most of the time. The best non-big-telco connection we can get is 5MB which means if I'm even surfing the web or downloading a podcast while Stylez tries to game, it doesn't work. In a college dorm environment or just a regular house with several gamers, you'd practically need your own fiber trunk to have the bandwidth necessary (joking of course.)

I really like the ideas they have here but this is a service that I literally think is too far ahead of its time. The current network environment they have is too constrictive to the razor-thin tolerances they have to operate under and unless the big telcos are kept in check, it will only get worse. I do hop they can keep the idea alive long enough to see the day where it is practical.

brof wrote:
I think this service will not work for 3D games, but maybe it is intended for 2D games like Bejeweled, where not much interaction is going on, or board games... I think for casual 2D games it might work, there might even be an audience for that...

what do you guys think?

cheers

They demoed the service with Crysis and all the games they are showing at GDC are high-end 3D games with the exception of World of Goo. This is intended to be a hardcore gamer's service.

There is a good discussion about this on the most recent Listen Up podcast from GDC.