Daydream Believer: OnLive

The OnLive Micro-Console

It's interesting how quickly countervailing opinions become prevailing opinions these days. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the Internet is so good at challenging every belief I would care to share (and a few that I should probably keep to myself). It's good to question your beliefs and ideas, and it's good to have voices that tell me not to pin my hopes, dreams and livelihood to a falling star. I'm sure my wife appreciates all the naysayers who've stopped me from chasing daydreams that would lead me away from my fairly secure job with steady paycheck and reliable insurance benefits. But few dreams become reality on accident, and well entrenched cynicism will never stop me from daydreaming.

A lot of ears pricked up when companies started murmuring about streaming high-res games over the internet. Wild, crazy rumors about a world where we wouldn't need to struggle to keep pace in the PC-hardware arms race. A new world where we'd almost automatically keep up with both new system requirements and the Joneses. Next thing, I was thinking about jet-pack commutes and sex-worker AIs that downloaded right into your high-tech pants at the blink of an eye.

But I can count on the Internet to challenge those daydreams. Maybe OnLive's game-streaming service wouldn't be quite as shiny without the studio lighting and lens effects. Maybe that jet pack would turn out to be a gas-guzzler, or the AI sexbot would download and start up while I was in the middle of weaving through jet-pack traffic, and even then it'd be all pixelated and awkward. But a jet pack would still be pretty cool, even if it wouldn't get a reasonable price point and the kinks worked out until iJet 3.0. And maybe, like my purchase of the original Kindle, buying iJet 1.0 could be a small vote of confidence in the potential of the technology.

When the big doubts started popping up about OnLive, I went looking for the promise of iJet 3.0. And boy, does the future look neat.

Looking at OnLive's LinkedIn page and "team" page on their own website, there's a lot of talent both in terms of networking experts and in spreading this technology to broader applications. See that VP of operations? Not only does he have a sweet mustache, but he's also got 16 years of experience delivering programming for NBC. Another VP isn't just the VP of games, he's the "VP of games and media." They're staffed with expertise to expand beyond games. OnLive's service is built around pushing lots of data very quickly. If the massive pipes OnLive needs are able to stay funded, it seems likely that we'll see a network capable of bringing a whole new level of speed and ease to streaming content of all sorts.

Currently, gamers can download games via digital distributors like Steam or GamersGate, from online stores like Amazon, or even from brick-n-mortar stores, but we're responsible for making sure we have the appropriate hardware. We can save money by renting titles that we know we won't be interested in for very long, but our options are restricted to local stores with short supplies or to the often-spotty service from online distributors and their baffling queue logics. I'm daydreaming of a system that combines the best of both worlds. What if game rental were as easy as renting a video over XBL? Drop a few bucks, and the game's ready to play for X hours or for the next Y days. No hoping you worked the right queue mojo or that your local Blockbuster accidentally stocked 100 copies of Gears of Warfare. No upgrading your drivers. It's almost as appealing as robot sex.

But dreams seldom come true on accident--at least not the good ones. Big possibilities don't mean much if the company can't get off the ground in the first place. As gamers, we've all been burned before by some promising new tech that didn't roll out effectively. We've been left with little more than a cute inside joke when friends notice the pristine Atari Lynx mounted on the bookshelf. So it makes sense that we'd be cautious before throwing our money at the folks behind the OnLive booth at GDC.

I'm not as worried about bandwidth as many seem to be. There's already plenty of surplus bandwidth capacity along the main corridors of the US intranet infrastructure, waiting to be used. As "luck" would have it, the three server centers for OnLive at San Francisco, Dallas and Washington D.C. happen to also be at key locations in the broader internet infrastructure. It also happens that OnLive is strongly hinting that AT&T, a major source of capital so far, will be a major partner in the launch.

But it's hard to be certain of what pricing is going to look like. So far, they've announced two price points. The first announced point was a more premium-priced structure built around a $15/month subscription and titled the "OnLive Game Service." That comes with a number of things that might not be hugely appealing (e.g., "Brag Clips™"), some bits that are moderately interesting (multiplayer across multiple platforms and massive spectating), and a few things that are downright appealing, like cloud-based saving that can be accessed from other platforms through your account.

I've heard both sides on this pricing scheme, and I figure it could work out well for some. At $15 each month for the subscription, it could work out well for some. Say you spend $1,000 every 4 years on a new gaming rig? That's $720 in OnLive subscriptions during the same period. But being charged a monthly fee while still having to pay for rentals and game purchases seems off for a lot of gamers. We can easily understand paying for hardware and then paying for software, but paying for a subscription and then for games doesn't partition as easily.

And I was starting to wonder: Why aren't they leading into the OnLive service with enough of a discount to make sure they gain market traction (i.e., as a loss-leader)? Maybe I've been reading too much Chris Anderson, but between that and being used to the loss-leading strategies of console companies, I found OnLive's angle a bit puzzling.

Which is why it was a relief to see the announcement of the free, a la carte model during GDC last week. It doesn't look like it'll offer cloud saves, and this "OnLive Game Portal" wouldn't offer as broad a selection of games or new releases as quickly as the subscription service, but it lacks the up-front price that makes me suspicious before I even know how much game purchases and rentals are going to cost. If I can sign up for this service free of charge, I'm more than happy to help OnLive brag about a larger user base next time they're talking to investors. It sure costs less than investing in the Kindle or preordering an iJet.

OnLive is titrating information carefully between now and the June 17 (E3) launch date, so it's too early to know exactly what we'll be asked to sign up for this summer. There's plenty of time to tweak the announced pricing models, add details, or announce entirely new price options. But my sense is that OnLive's products are likely going to fall into a cozy hybrid of GameFly's subscription model and the immediate satisfaction of a brick-n-mortar rental shop like Blockbuster. And if they can get a critical mass of subscribers, I can see great things coming for online games and entertainment.

Comments

Good article.

I'd bet on streaming being the future, to some extent, but I wouldn't necessarily bet on On-Live being the one to conquer the market.

Of course, first in wins...

TheCounselor wrote:
Good article.

I'd bet on streaming being the future, to some extent, but I wouldn't necessarily bet on On-Live being the one to conquer the market.

Of course, first in wins...

Tell that to the sega channel.

Good article. I will be keeping an eye on this, it seems promising.

I'm actually hoping that OnLive, or a similar service, can crack this particular nut. The older I get, the less interested I am in tweaking drivers and hardware and settings; I have other things I'd rather be doing because, unlike a lot of people around here, that kind of thing isn't fun to me. I'm skeptical of OnLive, but whether or not I give it a shot depends on how well it's received and what its library looks like.

MMOs: good, always-on requirement makes sense
Ubisoft DRM: bad, always-on requirement is nonsensical
OnLive: I gotta file this with the Ubi DRM for now.

It's a neat idea, not to have to worry about your own hardware (but then there are consoles). But that means you're borrowing someone else's, and so beholden to them—when they take it away, you don't get to play. Maybe it's just reactionary, and I'm not working on enough information, and I sort of tuned out after wordy mentioned pants-downloadable sex-bot AIs and wasn't really paying attention after that, but that's how it looks to me. We'll see how/if it pans out, but I'm not interested.

Has anything like this been tried in another country? South Korea? Japan? I understand broadband access is much more prevalent there, so I wonder if they've jumped on this model before and, if so, how it worked out.

According to broadband.gov I've got 88ms latency and 7ms jitter on my cable connection, and that's before I'm streaming GB down the intertubes. Great for Civ 5, bad for Left 4 Dead.

This still strikes me as niche.

Eh, if it works on anything close to the level they have been promising I will be very happy. Very happy and very, very, very surprised.

I imagine something like this would actually help bring a lot of console gamers back into PC gaming. I grew up on the NES and SNES before the PC, so ever since a controller has been embedded in my brain as the most ideal method of gaming. However, I still had exposure to PC games as a kid and when I hit high school worked on upgrading my PC so I could play AvP2, Planetside and Unreal Tournament 2K4.

I stopped playing PC games because I got sick of the constant updating of the hardware, the bad timing of the market (got RAMBUS on the original PC just as DDR2 came out and kicked its ass) and the bothersome issues with compatible components and drivers. Something like OnLive removes all of that and merely demands an excellent web connection. In some ways this is still iffy (why isn't FiOS available in my area whyyyyy) but it is a much better option than having to stick to constant hardware updates and worrying if everything is compatible, not to mention the unfortunate surprise of seeing a better processor or RAM model being released next week.

I could easily see OnLive giving PC gaming a massive boon in interest that it has been suffering from for the past several years. Of course, this is only amongst the same number of people that find it worthwhile to own multiple game systems to begin with and those that don't mind paying for Xbox Live. But hey, it's more than the current PC gaming market seems to get.

But being charged a monthly fee while still having to pay for rentals and game purchases seems off for a lot of gamers. We can easily understand paying for hardware and then paying for software, but paying for a subscription and then for games doesn't partition as easily.

Yeah, as a primarily console player I had to agree with this line of thought.

Then I remembered that I pay like $60 a year just for the privilege of interacting with other Live users, and a subscription model doesn't seem quite so crazy.

And then I remembered that my bandwidth is capped by Rogers and any kind of service where I'm downloading full games to 'rent' is a service that is going to destroy me with excess bandwidth fees.

The Original Article wrote:
And I was starting to wonder: Why aren't they leading into the OnLive service with enough of a discount to make sure they gain market traction (i.e., as a loss-leader)? Maybe I've been reading too much Chris Anderson, but between that and being used to the loss-leading strategies of console companies, I found OnLive's angle a bit puzzling.

It's the difference between the mostly internal revenue driving console platform holders vs. the external investment involved in getting OnLive off the ground.

Consider Sony and Microsoft - they were willing to take on remarkable losses in their initial forays into the console scene, but they also had revenue from other sectors to make up for the initial damage involved in entering the market. From what I can tell, OnLive doesn't have that luxury, so they have to be a bit more conservative in their pricing, if only to ensure their investors that they aren't leading them directly off of a cliff.

Clemenstation wrote:
But being charged a monthly fee while still having to pay for rentals and game purchases seems off for a lot of gamers. We can easily understand paying for hardware and then paying for software, but paying for a subscription and then for games doesn't partition as easily.

Yeah, as a primarily console player I had to agree with this line of thought.

Then I remembered that I pay like $60 a year just for the privilege of interacting with other Live users, and a subscription model doesn't seem quite so crazy.

And then I remembered that my bandwidth is capped by Rogers and any kind of service where I'm downloading full games to 'rent' is a service that is going to destroy me with excess bandwidth fees.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but On-Live is supposed to be relatively light on the bandwidth usage side of things. Thus, it's not like you'll be downloading whole games. You're just getting compressed video.

A very good frame of the debate. People aer talking OnLive down because $15 a month doesn't buy them "anything" -- and by "anything", they mean games. Which is where they're wrong -- $15 rents you a virtual top-of-the-line rig (although one vulnerable to lag), without locking you into an investment. OnLive needs to articulate this distinction as clearly as Wordy's piece did. So far they don't seem to be coming up with a good message that would clearly describe that $15-a-month value proposion.

But:

wordy wrote:
A new world where we'd almost automatically keep up with both new system requirements the Joneses.

This sentence doesn't parse

Ignoring the technical infeasibility of Onlive for 99.999% of the planet and pretending there is a market salivating at the bit to get their hands on the technology, why would a developer want to put their game on the service over putting out the regular product we know today? I can't imagine revenue would be more than traditional sales for anything but the top tier of games, and even then it's a stretch of the imagination. Do they believe this is somehow opening up a new market to them? In my mind it is merely shifting existing customers from one model to another at best, and earning less revenue in the process.

I guess I'm the resident pessimist because I don't see this business model working.

I still think their pricing model is to expensive. 720$ over 4 years is about what you should be spending for very good computer parts, not 1000$, and then you actually OWN those parts, and can actually display games at high resolutions and own the content. Sorry, Gorilla, a lag-vulnerable system that displays games at 720P at 30FPS is most certainly not a virtual top-of-the-line system. Their free model is more interesting, but details are sketchy, and "lacking games" is never a good thing.

The "you're paying for convenience" argument doesn't work for me either. It flies only so far as the nearest console, which is incredibly convenient. People who are fundamentaly concerned with having gaming as convenient as possible aren't thinking "I wish I could play PC games without all the hassles and cost!", they're thinking "I like my Xbox! OnLive what?"

I discussed OnLive over the weekend with both a hardcore PC fanboy who doesn't like consoles but doesn't have the cash to stay in the upgrade race (he plays a lot of older games) and a casual gamer who has enough money to work the PC but just likes the convenience of playing on his 360, and OnLive had absolutely zero appeal to either.

I really see this as a proof of concept that they're trying to sell to a major cable company. OnLive would work best as a feature you could get along with your regular cable bill, where you're already paying a monthly fee, for on-demand games that you can play without having to own a console or go to the game store/rental place. In this regard, it could be a huge success.

I don't see it working as a replacement for desktop PCs. I just don't think the market exists. People who don't like the hassle/cost of PCs have moved on to consoles, and I don't see what this offers that would bring them back.

Part of me hopes that OnLive will be coopted by something like Amazon, essentially offering an instant-on rental model. But those are dreams of the iJet variety...

I think this will be immensely useful for people with, like, actual jobs who only dabble in games because they can't commit.

Perfect example: A friend of mine, who works as a fiscal analyst for a major university in L.A., came over and played Tropico 3 for something like 4 hours. He was hooked, but he didn't own a 360. So he went home and bought a copy of the game from eBay, only to find out that his desktop and laptop lacked DX9. I lent him my old GPU, only to find that he didn't even have a PCI-X slot. Utter fail!

He's got a copy of a game he can't play. He can buy a new gaming rig (anywhere from $500 to $2000) or spend the money to buy an XBox and probably JUST use it for one game.

Something like OnLive would be a godsend for him, as he's only got a passing interest in a handful of games. I think, ultimately, this is what the bulk of the market will be.

For someone like me, OnLive basically amounts to a way out of the exclusivity ghetto.

They'll take my hard drive out of my cold dead hand before I move to something like OnLive.

The Cloud has uses, but if OnLive and Microsoft (who have taken out patents on leasing "computer time" models) have their way, we will be renting our hardware from them at a much higher cost over the long run than what equipment (PC or console) costs today.

First off, it'll be "just another bill" which seems to prove that Americans will pay for anything if it comes in easy monthly installments. But then you lose control of your hardware, the ability to come up with new and interesting mods, and less overall freedom.

The publishers love it, because it basically closes the door on piracy (unless they can usurp paying user accounts). But I see this as nothing but badness of the consumer.

Btw, has NBC had any good shows on for a while?

TheCounselor wrote:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but On-Live is supposed to be relatively light on the bandwidth usage side of things. Thus, it's not like you'll be downloading whole games. You're just getting compressed video.

Just? HD video takes up a lot of bandwidth and to start the games on OnLive will only be available in HD. They say it'll be possible because of their revolutionary compression scheme. But light on the bandwidth side it will not be. And that bandwidth usage will be continual and steady for as long as you're playing the game.

Anyone signing up better hope their ISP doesn't have one of those secret data usage caps.

Thanks for the reminder! This would never work in Australia where data caps are the norm and ISP's cheat their users by insisting data from within Australia, but not from their 'approved sites' counts towards the monthly download limit.

I hate the fact that I am moving back there in less than a week...

Dysplastic wrote:
I guess I'm the resident pessimist because I don't see this business model working.

I still think their pricing model is to expensive. 720$ over 4 years is about what you should be spending for very good computer parts, not 1000$, and then you actually OWN those parts, and can actually display games at high resolutions and own the content. Sorry, Gorilla, a lag-vulnerable system that displays games at 720P at 30FPS is most certainly not a virtual top-of-the-line system. Their free model is more interesting, but details are sketchy, and "lacking games" is never a good thing.

If you pay less than $180 for computer parts on average each year, then you should probably look at the no-subscription information as it comes out.

Spaz wrote:
I think this will be immensely useful for people with, like, actual jobs who only dabble in games because they can't commit.

I've been accused of worse! I do admit, though, that I didn't buy or rent Prototype, Infamous, Red Faction: Guerrilla, or Arkham Asylum. I do plan to rent the Batman title eventually, though, I suppose.

Heck, maybe OnLive caught early wind of this proposal and are just riding it to its logical conclusion. Nice take, though.

wordsmythe wrote:
If you pay less than $180 for computer parts on average each year, then you should probably look at the no-subscription information as it comes out.

What I've seen doesn't inspire me.

Onlive dude wrote:
The OnLive Game Portal is for gamers looking for direct access to OnLive games without being required to subscribe to the features of the full OnLive Game Service. Through the OnLive Game Portal, gamers will be able to play select games directly on a rental basis as well as game demos for free; subject to available OnLive service capacity.

That sounds a lot like "You can play for free, unless the people who pay are playing. Then you're SOL. Try again in 2 hours."

But, yes, it remains to be seen how it works in practice.

Minarchist wrote:
Heck, maybe OnLive caught early wind of this proposal and are just riding it to its logical conclusion. Nice take, though.

Even without depending on the FCC, there's always Nielsen's Law to keep in mind when it comes to bandwidth worries.

As far as data caps go, the bandwidth your connection could provide and the cost are separate issues. If we look at 720p and even the weaker of the connections marketed as broadband, there is not a physical limitation. i.e. people don't need to go out and lay new cable for OnLive to be feasible.

Business models can be changed, especially if OnLive gets in bed with one of the cable providers. Think of a Tivo-like add-on to your cable package, for "only $15 rental per month". Greater control of what people are doing on your pipes, tech support for a single hardware configuration, monthly revenue stream...sounds awfully appealing to a Comcast executive looking to make more money from the same cable.

Personally, 720p and high ping woud not satisfy me, but I'm not sure I'm the target market.

Dysplastic wrote:
Onlive dude wrote:
The OnLive Game Portal is for gamers looking for direct access to OnLive games without being required to subscribe to the features of the full OnLive Game Service. Through the OnLive Game Portal, gamers will be able to play select games directly on a rental basis as well as game demos for free; subject to available OnLive service capacity.

That sounds a lot like "You can play for free, unless the people who pay are playing. Then you're SOL. Try again in 2 hours."

But, yes, it remains to be seen how it works in practice.

Two takes on limited information, there. Couching language like that is about half of the stuff I read for work, by volume.

wordsmythe wrote:
Two takes on limited information, there. Couching language like that is about half of the stuff I read for work, by volume.

How else would you interpret that line, then?

The only good thing I could see from this would be more interest from publisher's and developers in returning to the PC market. As they are now so in love with consoles and not interested in PC ports, generally blaming "piracy" they would be able to develop games that are pretty immune to piracy in the OnLive world.

Except then maybe some PC games would end up as OnLive exclusives... putting us right back in the same place we are now, but just adding a 4th console to the wars basically. Oh well.

Dysplastic wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Two takes on limited information, there. Couching language like that is about half of the stuff I read for work, by volume.

How else would you interpret that line, then?

I'd gloss over it. Same as when I see a disclaimer about not being able to reply on forward-looking statements in an SEC filing.

harrisben wrote:
why would a developer want to put their game on the service over putting out the regular product we know today?

I imagine pirating a product available via OnLive would be a Hell of a lot more difficult than pirating a product off of retail shelves. Plus, as I stated, it opens up people like me who don't bother with PC games anymore due to the hardware restrictions to coughing up cash again. So there's certainly reasons for a developer to trust OnLive as a potential revenue stream.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
TheCounselor wrote:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but On-Live is supposed to be relatively light on the bandwidth usage side of things. Thus, it's not like you'll be downloading whole games. You're just getting compressed video.

Just? HD video takes up a lot of bandwidth and to start the games on OnLive will only be available in HD. They say it'll be possible because of their revolutionary compression scheme. But light on the bandwidth side it will not be. And that bandwidth usage will be continual and steady for as long as you're playing the game.

Anyone signing up better hope their ISP doesn't have one of those secret data usage caps.

This is where I don't buy what they're selling. Real-time 720P video at 30FPS with no buffering and with playably low latency doesn't seem even remotely doable on current internet connections. The fact that they've done nothing yet to demonstrate their supposed fix for this dilemma (and no, demos running over a LAN at a convention don't count) makes me doubt that they actually possess these deep magics. I'm thinking that the promise of 720P/30FPS will hold for people who live right next door to their servers, and in the average use case the "compression algorithm" will be a fancy word for delivering video at a dramatically lower resolution and probably lower frame rate.

I will buy the idea of actually playing an action oriented game on this kind of thing when I actually try it - from afar it seems like a pretty dubious prospect.