How E3 Made Me A (Near) Believer
I heard about Onlive Gaming before E3 2011 and honestly it sounded too good to be true. I read reviews, none very recent, thoroughly read the press releases and website and went to E3 with plans on checking it out. Well by sheer luck my editor assigned me them as my first visit of the day so while in the press room making last minute notes I saw they had a demo booth hooked up in there and so I figured I would double check a few facts and get some hands on before my interview. I had just played some Borderlands GOTY two days before so I decided that would be the game for me and instantly I was blown away. I thought there must be some kind of trick going on, the response time was better than my XBLA game, I had almost zero lag, and I was in a multiplayer environment. I blasted the poor booth techies with my facts to double check them all while tearing through the same game from a couple days before constantly comparing them in my mind. Amazed I went and joined the throngs of people crowding the entrance to the halls who were steamy, hot, and a few already on the ripe side. By the time I got to the main OnLive E3 booth I was dehydrated, wearing other people’s sweat and realized for the rest of the show I was going to need to always bring a towel (I had forgotten my Hitchhiker lore). I was greeted quickly and run upstairs to the VIP area where they promised to get me water and sat me down with Bruce Grove, Director of Strategic Relations. The interview and E3 experience can be found here so I won’t repeat the details except to say I drove our review team nuts with news of them, went back regularly to try it some more and get progress reports and basically when I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere else I could be found there. I had only one problem, I needed to know how it truly performed in a home environment. They surprised me by not only giving me a glimpse of the system at home, but giving me terrific access to both the PC and console versions so I could truly become a believer.
A Very Cloudy Future
“Cloud Gaming” is a fairly new term in the gaming industry but has actually been around in the online community for longer than most would realize. Those of you out there that stream Netflix might remember that when the streaming first started you had some pretty poor picture quality a lot of the time and even had buffering issues. I remember going to watch “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” back in those days and being unable to stomach getting through the opening cartoon without a ton of frustration and giving up. Then, at some point I wasn’t aware of, Netflix joined a few other companies on Amazon’s Cloud Service and Amazon’s stock rose while Netflix streaming went from barely watchable to incredible and soon a staple in many households. If Netflix is ever blamed for the fall of video stores it will be this one move that did it. There are articles on how some cloud computing is done and if you are very techie you might want to search for them. In the end there are different ways of doing it, but video games had the hardest path to overcome. Let’s face it if you go to start a movie on Netflix and then pause it and there is a bit of delay on how long it takes you really won’t care. If you are in a game with 31 other players and 16 of them want to kill you your reflexes and game response time is crucial in keeping you alive. Too much lag and you will eventually give up in frustration. Here’s a chart showing what a cloud video game system has to go through:
Now of course the “broadband internet” is a very simplified way to describe a proprietary multi-step system which had to be developed from scratch to make this possible but the general principal of cloud gaming is here. You make a move on your PC, Mac, console, iPad or soon the Android and that movement has to be sent to an Onlive Hub location, performed in the game playing at that location then the information transmitted back, all in fractions of a second. Ten years ago people were saying video streaming at such a capacity was impossible then Netflix and Amazon proved them wrong and while they were in that process Onlive started 9 years ago to develop this system. As recently as a year ago it was still suffering from some buggy issues and there was a question on whether or not it would make a successful leap to the iPad, tablet systems and smart phones. Then literally during E3 they made a huge breakthrough and the booth was full of palpable excitement and I got to chat with such wonderful folks as Jane Anderson and have a great time with Joe Bentley (VP of Engineering) as he told me some really cool stories leading up to that moment. They were solidly on tablets, and the walls of the booth were soon lined with all forms of them, as well as a dozen other demo stations all showing play from which in and of itself showed the technology off because it wasn’t being all run on site, it was being run in Santa Clara, California. I tried different systems and devices and while they were all amazing, home was where the excitement really took off for me.
OnLive On The PC
First I will start with the system requirements: your computer must be able to play video and have internet access. That’s all. You don’t need to meet a game’s minimum system requirements because you are not playing the game on your system. You are just hitting buttons to tell the server what move to make and then the server is sending back video of the game from the server. In essence you are playing the game by remote control and the only big limitation would be your internet speed. I have a decent internet speed so I have never had a problem in my house. I went somewhere where the internet was weak and tested it and got some tearing and the slightest lag but the games were still playable. Admittedly if you have a system that can display video nicer you are going to have a much more rich picture, but that would be the case with any game.
The game system starts you off with this home page which really is an excellent setup though there is another interface available with turning pages by hitting Escape. But this presentation nicely sets up a point and click path to checking out the system. If you are new it is a good idea to go to the profile and set it up the way you may want it. This is available for others to see unless you set it as private and is a solid way to make new friends and to check for common interests in gameplay. It lets you tell others and know if others are Hardcore or Occasional gamers, your Motto and how long you have been with OnLive. You can also cruise their friends to see if you have mutual ones or they are friends with people you don’t like and most importantly it allows the viewing of Brag Clips they have posted. Brag Clips are a 10 second clip of something they did in game which they thought was awesome or funny. You can also see what games they have in case you want to invite them into one you are playing. This is not stuff which is only available on this system but the fact that it is all nice and neat on one page is a big bonus.
Another way to check out what others are playing is the Arena. This also shows off OnLive’s amazing system time. You can watch dozens of games on little screens, mousing over them to see what games are being played and who the player is and that way you get an idea on what games are hot right now and how full games are. Sometimes you can see multiple players in the same game hunting each other which can be a lot of fun. You can also see if people have been saying they are playing good (cheers) or horrible (jeers) which gives you an idea, though possibly skewed, of how good the player is and how much of an aid they would be to your team. It also tells you if anyone else is watching the game in “Spectator Mode.”
This mode allows you to actually go in the game and follow the player’s action around as if you are actually the player. It is a great way to get an idea if a game is for you, how good the player is and what kind of player they are. This is really nice in case you are planning to buy and individual game instead of going through the PlayPack Bundle (I’ll get into that more later). If you like what you see you can click on the game and if you already own it it will launch you right in, if you still need to buy it it will open a Marketplace screen, that simple.
Playing On The PC
The controls are standard for the game and most are pretty standard for most games with WASD and the three mouse buttons. There are often weapon trade outs for the FPS games at the number locations but otherwise playing the game is just like playing the game on your computer, just without taking up the hard drive space.
Playing On The Console
The console is tiny, a little bigger than a deck of cards and fairly lightweight. It comes with one controller which can be wireless through charger pack or battery pack or hardwired into one of two ports. The console is also compatible with Microsoft Xbox 360 Controller for Windows, Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows, Logitech Chill Stream, Logitech F510, Satie P3200 Rumble Pad, and Mad Cats Gamepad in case you want to go a different route for additional controllers, though this controller is not only set up for play but for recording and playing with brag clips so you probably want at least one of these in play. The console supports four controllers so you aren’t losing out on buddy playtime by using it. What at first is so remarkable is how simple the setup is and how small the box is but when you think about it this doesn’t have to hold a game or handle great graphics, it just needs to transmit your moves and receive video, though when it comes to receiving video it is capable of not just HD but 3D once the price of those TVs becomes affordable to you.
The image above gives you a pretty good idea of how big it is, look at a USB cable or plugin, this system is only about 4 of them across. This also makes it insanely portable. I recently took a trip and decided to travel with the whole thing in it’s original box and in box presentation. The box is smaller than a shoe box and stores easily in a carry-on with tons of room to spare. If you took the system out of it’s presentation case it would easily fit into a small makeup bag. The cables come down to power, internet and video out so there aren’t many and they almost take up as much room as a controller and they system. The cool thing is if you are going to a buddy’s house to play and they have one of the controllers and a hdmi cable you could literally fit this stuff in your pockets. The rechargeable controller charges in the USB port making the system even more self sufficient.
What probably worried me the most after playing the games so much on the PC was if the games would feel like a port when played on the console. It didn’t. Once you got used to the controls, which were very similiar to the XBox 360, you were away and flying forgetting you started playing it on a PC. I played a while on the PC then sat down in front of the television, picked up the same game at the last saved place and went right into the fight. This game is really designed to be playable anywhere with a good internet connection. I don’t own an iPad but it has definitely been put on my Christmas List so I have one more way to play.
Cost and Ownership
Cost gets knocked out of the park pretty quick simply because they have a pack right now called the PlayPack Bundle which allows you to play 70 different games and they are regularly adding more for $9.99 a month. You can pick up additional new titles, some that have additional add-ons, some which come with the $100 console for a competitive price (Saints Row: The Third comes with add-on items and the console at time of this publication for $49.99). It is when it comes to ownership that people get nervous. It has been brought up to me a few times that what if OnLive goes under, they will lose their games. That is a fair worry, since none of the games are on your equipment and they do have competition in the PC market with Steam. The best way I think of it is the company is expanding, they have an amazing business setup with big titles signed into contracts with them so that their future looks really bright, honestly I would love to get a job with them or even buy their stock. I would buy a game that comes with the console and start the $10 a month service. At that point you would be out about $60. You have no contract and can quit anytime you like. You can also do a free trial to make sure it and it’s games are for you. For that initial $60 you will be able to play the game you bought for as long as you want (or for worriers for as long as they are around) and have access to over 70 other games with no play limit. You can also rent new titles when they come up once you are a customer, especially if you are the kind of gamer that only plays through once and does it in a couple days. Spending $5 might be the better way to go and you never have to worry about it being in stock or available, it is ready to play at the time the game launches without any loading discs. I know I sound a bit like a salesman with this review but I am honestly trying to stay neutral in this, it is just that impressive of a system. It is like being one of the first who heard of Netflix streaming being handled by Amazon clouding, it is looking into the future of gaming, maybe to the point that the game stores go the way of the video ones.
Some may say I have looked into the future of gaming, others may say I “drank the punch,” but whatever you think you can give it a free trial, if you like that fork out $10 for a month of service. If you like that, buy one game that comes with a console for the same price you would pay competitively and try out the portability and space saving of the console. I think in the end this review will prove prophetic for the future of gaming. OnLive are the pioneers and they are heading into ever more amazing territory. I plan to go along for that ride, I will give reviews of games through them for a long time and I will be able to play console, PC, laptop, tablet, smart phone and who knows what next and review them all on the same account.