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
The Costs of Cross-platform Development
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.