Daydream Believer: OnLive
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.