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

My previous objections aside...I'm kind of wondering who their target demographic really is?

PC gamers won't get the performance they have come to expect. Also, as was said earlier, will only a controller work? If so, PC gamers won't get the controls they expect either. The cost point seems geared towards PC gamers, but I don't see them really jumping in.

For console gamers, it seems that they would end up paying more for (more or less) the same level of service and be limited to PC game offerings.

It just doesn't really make sense.

I guess I'm looking at this like Spaz: as a service to sign up for when something catches your eye and drop when it doesn't. I'd sign up for a bit to play Cryostasis and the The Void, for example.

Maybe there's something special about this tech that I'm missing, but seems to me the only reason to expect this to work is blind optimism. I'd be amazed, truly amazed, if this ends up providing any service worth paying for once it's available to everyone.

Spaz wrote:

I really don't see such a disinterested gamer plunking down the $300 cost of hardware every 5ish years because one game interested them.

Me neither. The people I know like this tend to be at least a generation behind the hardware curve at all times, meaning that if it's a PC game, it's an old one that will run on the machine they need for work anyway, and if it's a console game, it's for an old console they got as a hand-me-down or picked up for less than a hundred bucks used, or they play on a friend or spouse's console.

Most people who know how to use a PC at all are forward-thinking enough to check system requirements before putting down money, and to ask a gaming friend if they don't understand what all the numbers mean. That sucks that your friend wasted his money, but I don't think his plight is all that common.

Just to make it clear, I'm advocating for OnLive as a kind of glorified Netflix (subscribe when you want one or two games, drop it when you're done) whose main strength is liberating players from hardware.

How many people do you know who subscribe to Netflix for one month to watch one or two movies, and then drop it until they want to watch movies again? Isn't that what Blockbuster and Redbox are for? Monthly fees inherently imply a relatively long-term commitment. While some people could conceivably use OnLive the way you describe, I tend to think that it would be too much trouble for the mass market.

wordsmythe, is this your first non-Fringe Busters front page article? We should go out drinking. ... To celebrate?

i cant see this working anywhere until these darn bandwidth caps are lifted. Maybe in the states since you guys seem to have it a lot easier. [b]But i already run my bandwidth cap to its limit every month and im paying almost 70 bucks a month lol.

When i first heard about this i thought it was years off... and hoped that by then caps would be no more.... but its launching already? gezzzz

and has anyone figured out if this is even possible with games like FPSs? or is this just for casual style games... puzzle games etc? If so, then ok...

Just fiddlin' with some numbers for perspective.

DVD is 24fps 480p and peaks at 10Mbps.
Blu-ray is 24fps 1080p and peaks at 50Mbps.

Onlive @ 480p/30fps claims 1.5Mbps usage.
Onlive @ 720p/30fps claims 6.5Mbps usage.

DVD/BR obviously include high quality audio in that data rate (generally around 10% of the max data rate). I've no idea what OnLive is sending for audio.

Onlive might have a super amazing compression algorithm that makes games palatable at a higher frame rate and lower data rate then DVD. Personally, I doubt I'd find it acceptable, but I'm not really the target market. Anything less then 1080p at 60+ fps is of no interest to me.

Playing for an hour @ 480p would use up ~0.65GB of your monthly cap. Less then 100hrs of gaming a month for us Rogers/Bell captives without going over the 60GB cap (not including any other usage).

Playing for an hour @ 720p would use up ~2.8GB of the cap.

McChuck wrote:

wordsmythe, is this your first non-Fringe Busters front page article? We should go out drinking. ... To celebrate?

I choose to believe this is the case!

MikeMac wrote:

Playing for an hour @ 480p would use up ~0.65GB of your monthly cap. Less then 100hrs of gaming a month for us Rogers/Bell captives without going over the 60GB cap (not including any other usage).

Playing for an hour @ 720p would use up ~2.8GB of the cap.

The numbers are not pretty for anyone dealing with a download cap, especially in Australia.

Nevin73 wrote:

My previous objections aside...I'm kind of wondering who their target demographic really is?

Indeed. It seems like they're targeting gamers who:

- don't have a decent PC
- have a good (non-WiFi) internet connection
- haven't already bought a console
- are serious enough gamers to not be happy with Popcap games and to pay a monthly subscription

That feels like a fairly small intersection on the Venn diagram to me.

harrisben wrote:
MikeMac wrote:

Playing for an hour @ 480p would use up ~0.65GB of your monthly cap. Less then 100hrs of gaming a month for us Rogers/Bell captives without going over the 60GB cap (not including any other usage).

Playing for an hour @ 720p would use up ~2.8GB of the cap.

The numbers are not pretty for anyone dealing with a download cap, especially in Australia.

Aussie caps have been getting much better over the last year or two. We're currently on 130GB a month for $60, and 200GB a month would only be $70. Give it another couple of years and it'd be pretty decent.

Zelos wrote:
Nevin73 wrote:

My previous objections aside...I'm kind of wondering who their target demographic really is?

Indeed. It seems like they're targeting gamers who:

- don't have a decent PC
- have a good (non-WiFi) internet connection
- haven't already bought a console
- are serious enough gamers to not be happy with Popcap games and to pay a monthly subscription

That feels like a fairly small intersection on the Venn diagram to me.

A lot of this discussion seems to really be overlooking the free option.

wordsmythe wrote:

A lot of this discussion seems to really be overlooking the free option.

What is the free option, though? There aren't any serious details in the announcement, just that it will allow you to play 'select' rental titles and limited-time demos. Just how 'select' are they talking?

wordsmythe wrote:
Zelos wrote:
Nevin73 wrote:

My previous objections aside...I'm kind of wondering who their target demographic really is?

Indeed. It seems like they're targeting gamers who:

- don't have a decent PC
- have a good (non-WiFi) internet connection
- haven't already bought a console
- are serious enough gamers to not be happy with Popcap games and to pay a monthly subscription

That feels like a fairly small intersection on the Venn diagram to me.

A lot of this discussion seems to really be overlooking the free option.

Granted, the devil, as they say, is in the details. Would the free option include the hardware? If so, then yes, then free would be a great alternative to other gaming options as long as the rental prices were reasonable. If the hardware isn't free, have they said how much it would cost?

Zelos wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

A lot of this discussion seems to really be overlooking the free option.

What is the free option, though? There aren't any serious details in the announcement, just that it will allow you to play 'select' rental titles and limited-time demos. Just how 'select' are they talking?

You're right that they haven't put out many details yet. It sounds like there will be a delay before free subscribers get to play some of the new titles. Paid subscribers will get them right away.

I feel like OnLive should have pitched things the other way around:

1:
FREE subscription to online games service that renders graphics over the cloud! Pay to buy or rent individual titles from our huge selection!

2:
Premium subscription for $15/month: Get games sooner! Get special exclusive games!

If anyone wants to hire me to run PR for their company, send me a PM.

Nevin73 wrote:

Granted, the devil, as they say, is in the details. Would the free option include the hardware? If so, then yes, then free would be a great alternative to other gaming options as long as the rental prices were reasonable. If the hardware isn't free, have they said how much it would cost?

As I understand it, there IS no hardware to start with. At launch there will only be a PC client, with a set-top box to follow in the unspecified future.

wordsmythe wrote:

If anyone wants to hire me to run PR for their company, send me a PM.

I though you already had been hired by OnLive, or is this just volunteer work?

You cut me, sir!

I'm probably not in a spot to sign up for the paid subscription (at least not regularly), but I am optimistic about the free service, and I'm hopeful about the potential of the technology.

The talk about hotels and airlines using a model like this reminds me of Pay-per-Gaming in a few of the hotels I've visited.

Their problem was outrageous rates and terribly dated selections. I'm wondering if it could be a semi-profitable model.

At the very least, Hotels surrounding GDC could be given special exclusives and whatnot.

I'm relatively sure the Cable companies would c*ck it up if they integrated it into their set-tops.

Call me when every house in the US has crazy internet speeds like they do in Korea and some other places. My choices now are fast but pathetically unreliable cable or rock solid but fairly low bandwidth DSL. That's the way it's been since roughly 2000? They've bumped the speed a couple of times on our DSL line, but it's still just barely fast enough to stream 480p video.

Knowing I'm far from the only person in such a situation makes the whole idea sound more or less impossible for all but the tiniest portion of the population.

Point that came to my mind in Elysium's UbiSoft DRM thread:

Scratched wrote:

Having games tied to a zillion external dependencies means I need them to be up for the game to work (excluding the 'crack it' option).

I think this is the key. There are already plenty of dependencies outside the game, but they're mostly hardware-related, which means you can fix them, given enough time, money and patience.

I think that's the appeal of something like OnLive to me. If I save half an hour of my time every month, that's is worth more to me than $15.

I understand that it might be more expensive to get the monthly subscription than to maintain my gaming PC, but the time and frustration of keeping a gaming rig fully operational has always been my sore spot. I'm willing to trade a couple extra bucks each month to never have to deal with driver rollbacks again. I don't even much mind if a game is subject to the whims of my half-reliable internet connection, because I have no shortage of other things I could (and probably should) be doing at any given point.

cube wrote:

This won't fix switchbreak's issue, unless OnLive is planning on laying fiber out to each customer. The "LAN" here is basically a marketing ploy-consumers will still be connecting through their existing ISP's to the OnLive servers, wherever they are located.

Also, it's not just the speed of light that's an issue here. It's also the routers and switches in the way between the consumer and the OnLive servers, each of which adds a non-trivial amount of latency to the connection. Even then, as it is currently, users in Chicago will most likely see a .1 second input delay to either the DC or Dallas servers(assuming that my normal ~50 ms TF2 ping is correct for a Dallas server) BEFORE rendering time is taken into account. That's unacceptable for any action game.

Ah, you pessimist. Did you miss the part about Onlive partnering with AT&T? That's AT&T! If anyone knows how to maintain a nationwide high-volume, high-bandwidth information network with no glitches, they do.

Mytch wrote:

Ah, you pessimist. Did you miss the part about Onlive partnering with AT&T? That's AT&T! If anyone knows how to maintain a nationwide high-volume, high-bandwidth information network with no glitches, they do.

Blast this Internet and its inability to portray sarcasm (or not?). AT&T has not been getting a lot of love from the iPhone crowd.

Gravey wrote:

Blast this Internet and its inability to portray sarcasm (or not?).

I try to relate my sarcastic wit as best I can using words only...and I succeed every time!

Look at this a slightly different way; this is essentially just the mainframe-dumb terminal computing model. But that was predicated on the facts that computers used to be both physically massive and massively expensive. Onlive's business model is, to some degree, a gamble that in some fashion computing is going to return to that. Now unless I'm very much mistaken computing has been getting smaller and cheaper for 30 years with no real signs of letting up. And people voted a long time ago to abandon the dumb terminal computing model. I just don't see it flying.

Alongside this I personally would be happy to see it fail. I don't need or want another "closed" gaming platform or another content delivery pltform in my house. On top of that, whoever owns the platform owns the content producers, if I were making games for it i'd be really wary of getting taken for ride over it.

Anyone interested in trying the internet connection test they are giving to some beta candidates? I got a link from them, but I think I may have lied about my residence at the time If anyone is interested in trying to get into their beta - PM me.

edit: claimed.

An open letter to OnLive games:

Gentlemen,

I enjoy marketing. I allow marketing to come to me in forms that I can appreciate. Furniture, books, art, technology, gaming. I have a few holes punched in the firewall for you, guys, and I edit fiercely.

I allowed you into my Twitter feed. I suffered through your GDC flash-mob contests most recently. I followed your every move as you lowered prices on particular publishing partners. Even though I already finished 2033 on XBox I stongly considered picking it up when it was half off, just to test out your service.

When you launched some years ago you purported to be the alternative for the hardcore. You said you would have multiplayer frag fests without the investment. Now I can see you for what you really are: A hopeless shill.

You wanted to give away your "console" with Homefront, a game that was foisted onto the public most recently, and is from all reports just shy of worthless.

Now, seconds ago, you sent me your latest (and, now, final) piece of marketing spam. "Love the movie? Play the game! Battle: LA now available."

You have gamers on your staff. I've met them. They know that this game is trash. This game is, supposedly, shorter than the movie itself.

Take your marketing guy behind the shed. Replace him with someone who has an ounce of gaming sense, give them carte blanch to rejuvenate your brand. Or give up. Because the battle seems to be lost for you. The clock is ticking. Next stop: Motel 6 smoking rooms.

It could have been different.

I had such high hopes for this machine.

Major_chavez wrote:

I had such high hopes for this machine. :(

:'(