I was fortunate enough to be invited to OnLive’s Founding Members Beta, helping stress test their system prior to launch. All beta members had to agree to an NDA, which prevents us to discuss details of our experience during the beta. However, I’ve been able to evaluate OnLive post-launch and here’s our full review of this next generation gaming service.
OnLive on the iPad
An exciting possibility is OnLive for the iPad and other portable devices. See the iPad demoing OnLive below and skip to 7:01 to see me “caught” playing Splinter Cell during the demo, while I was comfortably at home.
Next Generation Gaming
With the emergence of consoles we saw a race among the gaming giants to quench gamers’ thirst for mind blowing graphics, immersive environments and multiplayer interaction the likes of nothing we’d ever seen before. They delivered and the gaming community evolved with a thirst for something new; even more immersive game play, with graphics an afterthought. We were given the Wii and now Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect and Sony’s PlayStation Move, giving us unprecedented physical interaction.
A side story among all this is the development of the “cloud”. We cover tons of apps making it possible to move your digital life into the cloud, requiring less and less computing power on users’ end. Over the last several years one company has worked tirelessly to overcome the hurdles involved in bringing one of the most computer intensive applications to the public, delivered from the cloud — gaming.
OnLive, as far as I’m concerned, has been successful in accomplishing their goals thus far. It works, and quite frankly I think it works very, very well. Other major gaming giants might be concerned with physical interaction with games today, but OnLive is bringing tomorrow’s gaming technology to you today. Granted, they aren’t offering new games but they are offering a new gaming platform that will make gaming possible anytime, anywhere on almost any computer or TV in HD. That’s pretty big.
Next generation technology will always have downfalls, bumps in the road and unforeseen hurdles to overcome in order to succeed in the long run. OnLive is no exception and I’ve read through more users’ concerns about the service than I can count, most of which are valid concerns and may be serious obstacles for many people interesting in jumping into the “gaming cloud”.
One of the biggest concerns with OnLive is latency. It’s a real concern because OnLive’s service performs all the game processing in their data centers, then streams the resulting video to your system. Your gaming controls are sent to their data centers, the changes are processed and the results (in video) sent back to you. Think of it as having a console located in a data center hundreds of miles away, connected to your TV and controller via the internet.
OnLive has spent years overcoming this hurdle, and from what I can tell they’ve been successful. I first played Splinter Cell Conviction, a favorite title of mine. The majority of game play went quite smooth, with almost no latency issues. Occasionally the game would get a little choppy, a few times it was so bad I had to stop playing, but the majority of the game played surprisingly smooth and responsive.
Splinter Cell, although fun, is filled with generally slow gameplay, so it’s not the best title for latency testing. So, I gave Unreal Tournament III and trial run. During scenes of intense battle, I occasionally experienced latency so bad it made the game nearly unplayable. For a hardcore gamer, the level of latency I was experiencing would not be acceptable.
This was quite disconcerting to me, but I held out hope for OnLive and moved on to another title. The third title I demoed was F.E.A.R. 2. I had to get through the initial stages of the game to really get into some heavy battle scenarios, but once there the gameplay was beautifully smooth. The only moments the game paused was during save checkpoints, which was very brief.
I was curious as to why certain games would produce latency-like issues while others wouldn’t. I looked into OnLive’s technology a little further to find that some games (such as Crysis) will obviously require more processing power than others, so OnLive’s hardware resources can be assigned to more resource hungry games as necessary. For example, Crysis requires one dedicated GPU per game instance, while a less intensive game may only need a small portion of one GPU.
Though I did experience a small bit of jello-like latency (move the mouse and the video is slow to respond), the bulk of the issues I experienced seemed more like the game needed more processing resources (choppy video). So, this leads me to believe OnLive optimizes each game to the amount of resources they expect each game needs. That’s something that can be corrected much easier than latency issues.
Make no mistake, streaming constant 720p video is bandwidth intensive. I was concerned that OnLive would severely compress the video in order to save bandwidth and make it easier for users with slower connections. Though I’m sure the video is compressed at some level, it looks surprisingly good. I wasn’t particularly impressed with Splinter Cell’s graphics, though there were scenes with great graphics detail and clarity.
Of course I’m judging OnLive’s graphics quality based on a particular game here, so I demoed several others as well.
The screenshots don’t quite do OnLive justice, but overall I’d say the service can certainly deliver great graphics quality. You won’t get the kind of quality from OnLive that you would from your Xbox or PS3, but that’s not outside the realm of possibility. OnLive has stated that once average broadband capabilities rise enough, 1080p will be offered. Streaming quality will, of course, struggle to match the quality you’ll get from your console but most gamers either won’t be able to tell a difference or won’t care.
I found myself focusing on the gameplay rather than the graphics quality, which I think most gamers will do. In my opinion that means the graphics quality streamed from OnLive is quality enough to start with; as it will improve as the service matures.
OnLive’s initial pricing for the average user is set to be $14.95 per month, with a special offer for a select group who get into the Founding Members Program – offered on a first come, first serve basis.
Game Prices & Demos
Games are priced separately and vary by title. If you want to purchase the game for unlimited play time, you’ll have to purchase a Full PlayPass. They will also let you know how long the game will be available at a minimum. Most titles I checked were available until at least June 17th, 2013.
They may not be available at the moment (at least they weren’t for me in some games), but there will be options to purchase 3-day and 5-day PlayPasses at reduced prices and possibly other options as well. You’ll also notice that all games can be demoed, varying from 30 minutes to 1 hour of demo time. Your progress is not saved but you get a good idea as to whether or not you want to buy a PlayPass. I did notice that you can repeatedly play the demo, so it’s not a one-time 30 minute demo. I’m not sure if this will change in the future but I hope not.
I do hope that OnLive’s games will have reduced prices as you’re already paying for the service to play the games and you don’t receive a physical copy of the game as you normally would. It will be hard to justify full priced games, in addition to a monthly access fee, when you don’t get to keep the game or your saved data should you decide to leave the service. With that being said, convenience can sometimes come at a price.
We’ve seen how popular app marketplaces can be, so I expect a game marketplace will also be popular. However, in this instance, you don’t get to download or keep your software.
OnLive offers a bundle of features integrating community aspects such as brag clips, arenas, profiles, etc. You can instantly view games others are playing, including add the gamer as a friend or give them a cheer or jeer.
Your dashboard is easily navigable via keyboard, mouse or controller. I’m not too hot about the current dashboard but the great thing about OnLive is upgrades can be made easily without the need for users to install new software or updates.
At any point in the OnLive service, including mid-game, you can quickly access your OnLive Menu to exit games, quickly launch new games, change settings, view or send messages, etc.
The features OnLive brings to games in particular, is quite exciting in my opinion. OnLive touts games as starting up instantly, which isn’t quite true from my perspective. There is still a brief loading period, however, games don’t require installation, updates or any other form of maintenance from users. Everything is taken care of by OnLive so users never have to worry about loosing, reinstalling or updating their games. So, in a way, games do startup instantly. Sign up and start playing; simple as that.
OnLive is providing gaming in a way nobody else has done and they’re off to a fantastic start. Mac gamers will rejoice in easily joining the gaming community, as will others who don’t own a console or expensive gaming capable computer.
Overall, the OnLive service works really well and is very playable. The menu navigation is very responsive, as are the games (the most important). There’s a few kinks to be worked out but I have no doubt about OnLive’s capabilities to take care of them with ease. It will be interesting to see how OnLive survives the potential onslaught of users and whether the service will be capable of the performance necessary to keep gamers happy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and would be happy to answer any questions you might have so please do leave a comment. Thanks!